Fiction: A Lady's Prerogative Book II: Wounded Aerth - Part I by Brian Joseph Johns
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
It was a beautiful day in the orchard with the sun high in the sky and the trees in full blossom. The fields themselves were lightly sprinkled with the pinks and the reds of fallen leaf, amongst the dark lavender grass of Mila's plot of land. A large table was set under the shade of one of the trees behind her home with a number of guests seated around it enjoying a late afternoon cocktail. The meal they'd just eaten sat quietly in their bellies as it was washed down with drink.
"I'd appreciate it if you could all stand and join me in a toast. A toast for our host and hostess as it were." Jasmer spoke commanding interest among the group of friends.
Nelony stood first, delicately grabbing the stem of her wine glass, faltering a little as she did.
"I was just getting comfortable. Is this going to be another one of your long winded speeches?" Shaela stood, glaring at Jasmer who responded.
"You don't like it when I say what a lucky man I am to be a guest amongst such a beautiful assortment of people?" he responded.
"Thank you Jasmer. I am honoured that you find me beautiful." Sato replied, an ever so slight smile present.
"I'll second that Jasmer. That's the second one that I've gotten from you today." Barris followed.
Mila stood beside Barris, who checked her glass.
"How's your wine honey? Let me get that for you." he grabbed the bottle and topped the glass gingerly.
"Merlaina? Yirfir? Shaela, Nelony? May I?" he looked to each of the ladies.
"No. Its ok. I'm fine. Thanks." Nelony replied immediately, like she had been waiting for him to address her.
"Its OK, Barris. Rory is keeping me topped up." Merlaina, Mila's mother stood beside her husband.
"We're good son." Rory nodded to Barris.
"I'm just fine you wonderful man. Jasmer's obviously learned a lot from you Barris." Yirfir replied to his question.
"Yes I have, though I think I parked the Tardis in a tow away zone..." Jasmer joked.
"Heh. That's funny." Barris chuckled uneasily.
"I'll pour my own, thank you very much. I'm particular about how it gets poured." Shaela shot Barris a sharp glance.
"Fair enough. Right then." Barris seated the bottle in its spot on the table.
After a moment of quiet while everyone got settled, Jasmer continued.
"First of all, I'd like to thank our hosts for this lovely meal and for having us here today." Jasmer paused peering around the table as a round of thank yous were shared amongst the hosts in the guise of friendly nods and smiles.
"Secondly I would like to say how glad I am to be amongst friends, and in any sense of the word our family to make this announcement. Without further delay I give you Yirfir." Jasmer stepped beside Yirfir, slightly behind her who turned and kissed him on his cheek.
"I'd like to announce to you that Jasmer and myself are to be married, in late December to be precise." the table broke out in cheers as glasses clanked.
"Is that all? I suppose that you'll want us to show up too." Shaela scalded Jasmer a coy smile perched on her lips.
"That's wonderful news." Nelony sniffled, tears pouring down her cheeks as she threw another glance to Barris.
Mila caught the glance as did Barris. Mila grabbed Barris' hand and they walked around the perimeter of the table to Jasmer and Yirfir extending their arms.
"Yirfir, I'm so happy for you. Its nice to see this finally happen. Yirfir and Jasmer had been a couple in the past. This has been a long time in the making." Mila gave Yirfir a tender hug, then explained to Barris the story of their relationship.
"Congratulations. We'll be there. You can count on that." Barris shook Jasmer's hand firmly.
"Yes we'll be there. Together." Mila added, looking at Barris longingly clasping his hand.
Sato seemingly appeared from nowhere as he often did and extended his hand.
"Jasmer. I am happy for your upcoming marriage. May you know no bounds to your happiness together and may your sorrows find themselves lost in the shadows." Sato spoke catching Jasmer off guard.
"I heard that!" Shaela shot back to Sato.
"Why thank you Sato. You'll be coming to the ceremony I take it?" Jasmer responded, instinctively readying his glass for a toast Sato meeting it with his sifter of Saké.
"Most certainly I will be there and looking forward to it. Now if you will excuse me, I must borrow Barris for a moment. Mila, if you please?" he nodded smiling, wrapping his arm around Barris' shoulders just barely tall enough to reach as he pulled him aside.
"Bring him back in one piece though." Mila nodded in approval turning back to Yirfir and Jasmer.
When there was a bit of distance between them and the rest of the gathering , Sato spoke.
"I thought you were going to..." Sato asked Barris.
"I thought I was too. But I did not see that coming and I most certainly would not want to spoil their moment." Barris replied to his old friend nervously.
"This is both yours and Mila's moment. Your lives. Don't miss it. Don't let it go." he spoke with enthusiasm for his friend.
"I can't just go out there and do it now. I was all worked up for it, ready to go and then... Well. I don't want to take away from their announcement." Barris responded.
"You're using their announcement as an excuse to chicken out. Chicken! You're a chicken! Bock bock bock..." Sato put his hands under his arms and walked in a circle clucking.
"A chicken? Well you certainly had enough chicken on your plate and obviously you've become what you've eaten walking around clucking like that! Besides, I don't think that I can recapture the moment again." Barris said, looking down.
"Before I bought the store, I traveled. I have told you many times of my adventures. To each one is bound a treasure, but I have not once told you about the treasure that I had lost. The one treasure that I wish that I had this day and for all the days that have passed to arrive at this day and for the days beyond. I was sent to look for a valuable stone." Sato paused to make sure that Barris was coherent.
"Wait. You're telling me that you were sent to look for a stone? Not a vase or a painting or something like that. It was just a stone? Do you mean a ruby or diamond or do you mean like a rock that you'd find on the ground?" Barris asked in amazement that Sato would interrupt one of the most important moments of his life to tell him about stone.
"It was a special stone. A gem of great value. The Eye Of Epicurus. It is rumoured to be unequalled as a healing crystal. Legend says it was used by the first Dynasties... Look, just work with me on this would you already?" Sato defended his story feeling Barris' tension about the situation and getting a little impatient himself.
"You're right. I do apologize. I'm listening my feathered friend." Barris said, a little embarrassed.
Sato smirked at him before continuing.
"I was there to find this valuable stone, the Eye Of Epicurus that had long been forgotten by the world, but in order to find it, I had to blend in with the local people. I met her during my travels in a village in South East Asia. I went there to live for as long as it would take to find this stone. I stayed for a long time and during that time, I got to know the girl I'd just mentioned from the town. We became friends and every day we'd meet and spend the day together though I never told her why I was really there." Sato shook his head and continued.
"Then one evening we spent our first night together - alone, I mean - and I thought to myself that I did not want to leave her. Ever. We lived together for a time until one day, a man came to see me with a package. He said: 'this is what you came here seeking' and handed me the package. I took it of course, opened it and examined it. It was the stone that I had been looking for. The next day having found it, I told her that I must leave, though in my heart I did not want to but I did anyway, thinking that I had accomplished what I had set out to do. When I left, she wept and though I felt a thousand thorns in my heart, I left anyway." Sato looked down a grimace of pain still visible on his face.
"When I arrived back home I took the stone to the appraiser there who'd told me that I would find the stone. I brought it to him, telling him I'd found the treasure. He examined it and then told me quite blatantly: 'It's worthless'. It was then that I realized that I had found the real treasure, but I left her for what I was told was a valuable stone." Sato's face held a thin veil concealing an age old heart break.
"We will go back to the table and I will help you bring it up. From there let your own feelings guide you. Believe me friend, you do not want to lose her. She's your treasure." Sato asked him, putting his hands on Barris' shoulders.
Barris stood silent for a moment and then nodded.
"Ok, we'll make it a double announcement day. A day to be remembered." Barris pumped himself up again.
"That's the spirit!" Sato smiled patting Barris on the back.
"You're right. She's delicate and bold and creative and fierce and everything I've every dreamed of in a Woman and then some! I want to be with her for the rest of my..." Barris said with resolve and determination.
"As she does you. You know that already though." Sato stated truthfully.
They both ventured back to the table, which had settled down and everyone was seated once again though the music had been turned on.
"Lover's quarrel." Barris said when he got back.
"What have you and Sato been keeping from me honey?" Mila asked Barris, poking her finger into his chest and between the buttons of his shirt.
"Nothing sweetie. Honest. It was just a short fling with my best friend." he said uneasily fearing she'd figure out what was up.
They sat down together and Barris visibly flushed.
"What's the matter Barris? Is something on your mind?" Shaela asked him candidly, slurring her speech ever so slightly under the influence of the wine.
"Yes, what's up darling? You look a little ripe." Yirfir asked him.
Nelony kept looking at Barris in passing glances that were a little too obvious, making the situation that much more difficult.
Mila noticed Nelony's admiration of Barris as she had on many prior occasions though Mila held her thoughts and her tongue. Inside she toiled with doubt of her friend's intentions instead relying on her trust of Barris.
Sato kicked Barris from under the table.
Barris looked to Sato and caught his eyes, seeing the remnants of his lost treasure, an emotional scar upon his soul.
Barris stood quickly taking hold of his life and his love by way of Mila's hand.
"Please everyone can I have your attention." he said standing.
"I have another announcement to make for this day." He said with confidence, looking around the table.
He looked to Yirfir and Jasmer first and then to Shaela and Nelony where he sensed an edginess. He continued to Merlaina and Rory, who both smiled at him for they sincerely liked him. He looked to Sato who really was his family at this point. Then he looked to Mila, whose eyes were wide with expectation.
Before Barris could begin his speech she jumped up and wrapped her arms around him.
"Yes! I will!" She said before he could barely take a breath.
Everyone at the table burst into laughter and tears as Mila kissed Barris passionately. Their lips held close for an eternity as everyone cheered for their newly found unity.
Nelony had harboured a secret attraction to Barris since their adventure at L'Arbour De La Noir, the prior year. Her feelings had grown steadily from that point. Being a little bit sensitive of her weight more so than some ladies, she did not have the confidence to express her feelings to Barris. It was her own self consciousness that prevented her from even trying and instead her resentment grew as Mila's love for Barris did the same.
She did not understand that the concept of beauty pushed by society and that as perceived by the individual were often two very different things. One only had to look at art throughout the ages and across the globe to understand that. Nelony's kind of beauty was popular during the renaissance and celebrated by many artists of the time from Monet to Van Gogh, though she still felt very conscious of herself.
While growing up she had found it very difficult to approach boys though there was no good reason for her self restraint (other than her studies) because the truth was that many had thought of her extremely beautiful. Her mirror unfortunately did not share the same point of view. It was life's cruel way of keeping her unaware of how others really saw her and she suffered greatly for it.
Watching them kiss seemed like an eternity to Nelony, whose heartstrings slowly broke one at a time, until the last one could no longer bear the weight of that vessel. Her last heartstring snapped under the enormous pressure and her heart plunged into the depths of her new found darkness.
She lay naked in a bed of leaves, her lover beside her. A variety of petals, all shapes and sizes acted as their blanket from the elements. She moved herself a little closer to him and though sleeping, his hand found its way down to meet hers on his hip. She inched her way in closer until her breasts lightly brushed his back and she kissed his neck softly working her way to his ear.
"Now this is the way to wake up every day." He said softly to her.
She didn't say anything but instead only became more intensely passionate, pulling herself in close to him pressing herself against him.
"Now this is the Mila I've been looking forward to all day..." he said again trying to sound playfully seductive.
Her grace immediately disappeared and a loud clash of thunder echoed through the forest valley where they were located as bolts of lightening flew down from the sky. Terrified he turned to see Nelony, though she had changed. She'd become vile, her round curves had become more sharp and accented as were the stress and age lines on her face.
"Don't you dare say her name again!" She hissed, more thunder and lightening crashed around them.
She flew to her feet the leaves and petals clinging to her though withering and darkening in form. An army of predatory forest dwellers had gathered around them and had lost their form just as vile and dark as she. They advanced, some silent others growling and drooling as they approached. Barris still on his back, retreated in the bed of leaves looking around for a way out. Spying an opening he flew to his feet and into the forest naked.
"Hshhshhaaa!" her hand thrust forward in the direction of Barris' flight.
The predators immediately flew in pursuit following in a coordinated stream of fur and claws. Barris had a good head start but the predators were quick, tireless and in their habitat as they quickly closed that distance. Feeling their presence behind him he quickly ducked into the forest to the left, slipping on something and falling down a muddy stream. He tumbled, sliding down the mud soaked path which wound down through the brush. After tumbling in the darkness he plunged into a water basin where the stream emptied gasping and groaning. A moment later he emerged from the basin on his feet and continued his sprint into another patch of forest before breaking through into an opening composed of dry dirt and rock. He stopped in the center completely winded thinking he'd lost his pursuers. A moment later he heard their growls and snarls echoing from the forest walls. He turned in flight once again.
He made it to the forest wall on the other side of the clearing and into the forest part way when he realized that he was not going to be able to maintain pace against his pursuers. Taking advantage of a tree he spied, he flew up its side grabbing the first branch he could reach. Unable to gain hold he fell to the forest floor scraping his arm. His pursuers just moments away Barris got to his feet, backed up and tried again. This time he managed to get purchase of the branch and pulled himself up and onto the next, continuing until there were no more to climb. He looked down breathing heavily from his perch in the tree still dripping mud.
The shadowy predators arrived pacing the base of the tree, some merely lying down and others sitting watching him with spectre eyes. Nelony approached from beyond their ranks and stopped at the base of the tree looking up at the very naked and frightened Barris.
"You were supposed to be mine!" Her voice scorched the air, much different from the Nelony that he'd known.
"Nelony! Stop this at once! This use of the craft! It's wrong and you know it! Mila is my love!" He remained silent.
"Very well. Lover. Have it your way." She screamed spreading her hands about her sending the shadowy predators back into the forest.
She slowly walked back in the direction from which she'd come disappearing into the muffled silence of the forest. Barris sat in the tree for a moment unsure of what to do.
"Great. I just hope getting down is a bit easier than going up." Barris said wiping the mud and sweat from his face.
He looked around from his perch seeing the forest canopy around him. Each of the trees' canopies in the distance disappeared, stripped one at at time as if by some ghastly machine. Slowly at first and then completely as if they were being picked clean. He watched this phenomenon as it spread and slowly made its way towards him and the safety of his tree. He watched in horror as a dark carpet of insects crept its way across the forest floor consuming everything in its path. He tried to climb further up the trunk only to find himself struggling to hang on. He screamed in horror as the insects shredded leaf and bough from the neighboring trees. Barris watched in horror as the insects made their way up the tree slowly covering him as he screamed. Just as they'd stripped the trees so did they his flesh leaving nothing but trunk and bone.
Barris awoke screaming throwing himself up from bed, sitting forward sweat dripping from his brow.
"Oh honey! I'll get the cloth." Mila jumped from the bed and to the floor beside him squeezing him gently as his heart wound down.
She got up, stepping into the bathroom to retrieve a wet facecloth and a glass of water. She returned where she found him once again in bed. She handed him the water and proceeded to wipe him down with the cloth.
"How bad?" She asked.
"Way bad." he replied.
"Same place?" Mila asked him, carefully wiping him.
"Well, yes and no." he replied.
"We were in the forest and she..." he continued before she cut him off.
"I already know that part." She responded a hint of jealousy.
"Sorry honey. We were in the forest. There were the fierce animals again. But this time there was a clearing and a tree. I climbed the tree and then a massive colony of insects... and then they." he stopped unable to finish.
"There, all clean." She put the cloth in a bowl on the night table and kissed him tenderly.
He wrapped his arms around her and returned the kiss.
"Well everything is much better now. And how are you my soon to be wife..." he paused mid kiss.
"I'm fine my soon to be hubby." She kissed him back with a quick peck to his lips.
"Hubby? Does that mean I can call you wifey?" he pecked her lips then slowly working his way down to her neck with his tongue.
"If you want. Just as long as you call me that with love." She replied enjoyed the neck cleaning as he administered it.
"Alright, that with love." He snickered.
"That's Mrs. that with love to you." she pounced on him, mounting him and holding him down.
"Careful, do you want to wake your parents?" He said playfully.
"My parents? I'm worried about waking Sato." She replied, bending forward and biting his lip.
Their intensity and passion peaked and they could no longer keep each other at bay with playful banter or wit. They fell asleep in each other's arms after making love, each sleeping peacefully and well into the morning.
Nelony sat in her bath tub running a green cloth over her body still enamored of her fantasy with Barris. Her recall of the night's dream was a romantic setting in the reaches of a warm and dark forest. They'd found each other naked and upon meeting they'd wrapped themselves around one another and fell to the leafy forest floor where they made love. After their lustful encounter they lay together in the leaves and the peace as the morning sun peered through the boughs around them. She recalled each and every moment of her dream as her fingers found their way to her sensitive parts and she tensed with passion and ecstasy. She sat in the tub half asleep enjoying her morning glow before starting the rest of her day.
Still in her house coat, Nelony had just finished her morning toast and juice when the doorbell rang. She lived in the city in a cozy little split level town home as comfortable as it was convenient. She put her dishes in the sink and scuttled down the front stairs to the entryway checking her peep hole before opening the door.
"Morning Ma'am. I've got a delivery for a Miss N. Ardbloem?" A gentleman in company coveralls asked her.
"That would be me. A package? For me?" Nelony responded cheerily.
"Could you sign here, please?" the delivery man asked her thrusting a gadget into her hands for her signature.
"Oh this technology. Whatever happened to a good old pen? I guess it saves trees though." she replied as she etched her digital signature onto the device.
"Thanks ma'am. You have a wonderful day." the delivery man handed her the package.
It was roughly the size of a small bread box and weighed about four pounds. She shook it gently to get a feel for what may lay inside.
"Thank you! Have a lovely day!" she said as he ran back to his delivery van speeding off down the street.
She closed the front door and brought the package up to the kitchen table where she was reading the morning paper and funnies. Barely able to contain her curiosity she cut the packaging open and pulled the cardboard sleeve away to reveal a small wooden chest. The chest itself was finely crafted with elaborate chisel and relief carved into it's lid and base.
"It's an antique? Looks to have a bit of history..." she said aloud looking over to Thomas, her pet canary.
Thomas cackled back to her happily from his perch, burying his face under his wings as if to shield himself in case she opened it.
"Oh knock it off, Thomas! Who'd want to hurt your mommy anyway?" Nelony replied to his pessimistic inference.
She turned it on the table examining it carefully and in search of a latch. The latch had been crafted into the relief work itself and its hinges were recessed into the casing with skill and precision. She pulled the latch and the chest audibly popped under the pressure of its contents. Nelony opened the lid revealing a stack of mixed papers, some modern and some appearing to be very old, perhaps as old as the chest itself. Possibly even older.
She retrieved the first one and upon opening it revealed a certificate of some kind that indicated the letters as being the contents of a cemetery plot which had recently been exhumed and relocated to another site. The certificate explained the authenticity of the contents as belonging to the estate of Father Elias Wilsen and that the contents had been exhumed with the permission of the presiding authorities over the plot location.
She picked up the next document, which was much older than the first and carefully opened it. It was hand written, by fountain pen or even quill she presumed. Barely able to read it but able to pick out bits and pieces of it she presumed it to be the death certificate of Father Elias Wilsen. He had died at the age of fifty nine of natural causes and was buried in the plot three days later. The funeral itself was presided over by a man of the military named Evan Edwards, Kathryn Elana Moren and various citizens of the town of Sharlesbury and the town of West View. None of those in attendance were Father Wilsen's relatives.
"Sharlesbury? West View? Have you ever heard of them Thomas?" Nelony asked the bird.
It cackled back to her, opening its wings slightly and lurching its head back and forth, left to right. After Thomas had finished his display he again buried his head under wing.
"I didn't think so." Nelony replied rummaging through the little chest.
Still in utter awe of the contents she pulled them out in a large handful and laid them out before her careful to keep their order before proceeding to the next document. Amongst the documents she found what appeared to be a journal, bound by hand and sewn with string and in similar condition to the death certificate. She opened it and attempted to read its first page but found the process difficult both by the wear and tear of the journal itself and by the form of cursive writing and literary dialect. She put it aside and thumbed through a more recently produced set of documents in the pile. Upon examination and much to her delight it appeared to be a transcript which someone had painstakingly transcribed from the contents of the journal.
She read the contents of the transcription:
This be the journal of Father Elias Wilsen*, shepherd and guide for the township of Sharlesbury in this the year of 1649. For thirty five years have I acted as counsel to this fine township and have revelled in its best and toiled in its worst in the service of our lord.
I have upon my time explored many interests in celebration of the creation and in my humble service thereupon. I have seen the heavens closer than an arms length by way of looking glass lens and have kept records of my pursuits thereof. I have shared in my interests with as such by the fine lady whose efforts bring much hope and learning upon the minds and hearts of the children of Sharlesbury.
I have cast many a happy marriage under the watchful eyes of the lord as I have introduced the lord into the lives of its children. I have counseled those who have become world weary and those whose hope hath waned. I have given of my service to this fine township in every way that a mortal in the service of the lord can be so done. That is why this my torn heart falls broken and the price paid upon my service for which have I lost hope.
For it was upon a fateful night that the Widow Tanara Milaise whose path brought her to bear me for my guidance and protection and protection under the lord that I have failed. She was pursued that very night by two men of the township, who hunted her in answer for her practice of the craft of wytchery. She'd nought been brought to fair trial nor any trial other than by that of heresay, which oft doth speak in the absence of truth.
It was by these men that she fell by way of blade afore reason and virtue could be seen to in her justice. Of the two, her murderer had plunged blade to its hilt into her bosom, in theft of her lord given life. Into my hand same blade found as I her savior had lost on this day in keeping her from the untimely and unjust. The men did call and the town did come and I was not scorned as a murderer but exalted as hero for her death. The very township whose wounds I'd sewn and homes I'd healed had found her guilty that night without reason.
Hers and mine, our horrors had only just started as her name was cast with stone and her truth was rewritten to rebuke the sins of the murderers and jurors that night. She bore too for them none of which she'd acted in, but instead was saddled with as if her planning was the root cause of their failings before the lord. Her dead grave had bore the weight of wrongs, they who had seen her life taken and those who'd stolen it from her in the night.
I as a shepherd of the lord am guide to those for the tenets of our faith. As such I must confess that in requiring the service of our town healer and apothecare Melinda Heyes whose life did pass on two years afore at the age of sixty three, had told me that she a practitioner of the craft and had used to heal many including yours truly. I in all honesty cannot see the seeds of evil sewn within her and her service before the town as she was sworn as am I to harm none by virtue of duty.
It is with this truth and the sorrow that I bear for her life that I write this, for its weight is greater than any I have bore in the name of the lord. It is my last and dying wish and request upon this service that this truth be known by Kathryn Elana Moren, the administrator of the educational institution of Sharlesbury that I was the defender of her the fallen Widow Tanara Milaise and that her death was unjust before a shepherd of the lord and before the lord. My love for Kathryn will forever more remain within the dark until her eyes upon these words do fall.
Father Elias Wilsen
Nelony's eyes watered and tears streamed from their corners. She sat quietly for a moment and tried to comprehend the weight of this implication but found it was far beyond her ability to do so. Instead she bore pain and scorn and her stinging tears only fueled her to further explore her already tumultuous emotions.
Her curiosity had turned to a lust for truth and she dug into the stack of papers searching for the next document. She opened it finding that it was another death certificate, that of a Miss Mary Wallows of Sharlesbury who had been executed for the practice of the craft of wytchery. Her tears stung and she felt an anger growing in her. She grabbed the next document finding another death certificate for that of Marcus Dundain, executed for the practice of the craft of wytchery. She flipped through each of the documents, finding another and another until she'd retrieved thirty four death certificates for execution of the same charge. She then found an inventory and ledger indicating that hundreds had died by execution for the same charges of the practicing of wytch craft.
She paused again considering the last moments of each of those victims and the sense of fear they must have experienced in the hands of the ignorance and hatred of those who'd taken those lives. All in the name of what is just? she thought to herself. Her scorn found her once again and her early morning calm had become an early afternoon storm. When she'd taken in enough of the senseless cruelty, she put the chest and its contents high up in a cupboard. She'd read the rest when she was ready though that day would come soon, her calm would not be in her company.
The garden path was an incredible sight, tucked away in the brush outside of the city and kept from prying eyes. At night it was an even more dazzling display despite the magical spell that concealed it from outside detection. A maze erected two centuries earlier by the lords of the day for their personal enjoyment at their own leisure. The walls of the maze were a hedgerow of thornbrush whose flowers bore a sweet nectar that attracted glow beetles at night. Naturally bioluminescent they would crawl the boughs of the hedge in search of the flowery nectar and trying to attract a mate, creating an erie glow which could be seen for hundreds of feet in the dark. It was the glow beetles who illuminated an eerie path through the maze through which Shaela carefully tread.
Ahead, her giant shadowy cat beast navigated the hedge without need of their guidance, for it could see in many more ways than with just its eyes alone. At its current age it was a little bit bigger than a horse, six and a half feet tall at it's shoulders as a young adult of it's species. The cats typically grew to three times its current size with an adult elder growing to twice the size of an elephant. Despite their enormous size, at night they were largely invisible to the eyes and ears until the final moment they would pounce upon their prey. Shaela's shadow cat protector had been with her for ten human years which was a drop in the bucket, for their human life span was between seven hundred to eight hundred years. Her cat was approaching its two hundredth year still having most of its enormous life span ahead of it. It's shadowy form flowed and ebbed in the night air just barely visible while its two enormous eyes glowed a piercing red penetrating the darkest of the night. In fact, of creatures who'd fallen prey to such a beast, those who'd caught a glimpse of it first had often died of terror. Despite its horrifying appearance and reputation, shadow cats did not kill for pleasure and in fact rarely killed at all. They were part of a breed of creature who only hunted based upon its perception of intent and motive, which it could decipher in living creatures through a specialized organ in its throat and sinus. It could literally smell the ill intent of other living creatures and only hunted prey using that organ as its guide.
It stopped momentarily almost completely disappearing from mortal sight, drinking in a volume of air through its snout before deciding upon a fork in its path. It looked both ways sniffing again before turning left, sleekly following the wall of the hedge and lowering itself closer to the ground. It had caught wind of something ahead on the path and was approaching it with deadly stealth. It crept a distance of twenty yards before an audible sound, the murmur of muffled speech could be heard. The cat beast's ears adjusted several times trying to get a fix on the source of the sound. It crept to the right before an opening in the hedge which contained a mist laden terrace, its wisps floating delicately obscuring the air beneath it. Ahead something moved and the mist stirred in symphony to its movement. The cat beast once again showing its propensity for patience and guile, lowered itself even further, just above the height of the mist and moving barely enough to stir it.
It looked upon its target, now able to see fully the horror lurking before it. It appeared like a large fleshy crab, though it bore three legs in front and three in back which made it appear as if it were moving sideways. Where its pincers might have been were spiked limbs which it held in front of its path of movement. The middle legs each had four fingers fixated in a circular form around its limb, great for snatching and grabbing things. The cat beast's anticipation building for its attack, its paws softening the ground to support its thrust once it had committed to leaping.
"Shhhh. Wait." her whispering voice eased the cat beast's anxious stance.
Shaela began casting from just behind the cat beast, waving her hands slow and wide and building the energy she'd need. As the energy dilated to her palms she stood, spraying the energy at the cat beast, whose form became as stone. At once it leapt with incredible silence and precision claws forth as it flew through the air at the foul creature. The creature turned to see the onslaught through its three main eyes and leveled its pincers towards the cat beast as it impacted. The cat's claws dug deep into one of the limbs of the horror while one of its pincers had been broken under the magically hardened stone body of the cat. The two clashed and the cat shrieked repositioning itself for its next pounce. The crawling carnage then turned and did something they'd both not expected. It screamed a wail they could not have imagined so shrill and piercing. Shaela looked around startled noticing movement from other parts of the maze. Its denizens had now been awakened.
The cat beast leapt once more arching its neck and landing on the horrors back. The cat dug its stone fangs into the crawling horror, biting down and swiftly silencing it once and for all. It immediately fell limp though the silence did not remain long.
"Now we've done it!" Shaela exclaimed in warning more than frustration.
Another crawling horror rounded the corner of the maze behind Shaela and the cat leapt, catching it before one of its pincers pierced her from behind. Another leapt the wall of the maze clearing it easily, its arc directly at that of the cat beast. Shaela quickly let a shower of searing hot molten metal from her left hand and a barrage of icy crystaline glaives from her right. They impacted the leaping horror piercing its body knocking clear away from the cat.
"One good turn deserves..." something wrapped around Shaela's waist and pulled her backwards into the darkness.
"I hate getting this dress messy. Do you know how long it takes to clean?" she spoke with vicious reproach at whatever had dirtied her dress.
She stopped in terror when she saw the beast before her. It was like the other crawling creatures but at least the size of a small house. It had three mouths, just above the three front limbs and each with a sinewy tendon that sprang forth from it like a lasso. Even Shaela's cat beast took pause of this monstrosity, though her cat maintained its leverage ready for attack.
Shaela was on her feet again resizing her approach to the maze and evaluating her means of escape. The house size horror was blocking their point of entry and a good portion of other escape routes leaving her only escape route as being forward and into the unknown.
"Shhhkt! We must go! Now!" She commanded her shadowy feline protector.
A quick pirouette and she was running back towards their first encounter. A tendon shot out from the giant crawling horror, wrapping around both her ankles and immediately pulling her to the ground. The cat beast sidestepped from its course in flight, leaping onto the tendon in attempt to break it. As it wrapped its jaws around the tendon another shot out from the giant crawler wrapping around one of the paws of the shadow cat. It immediately turned its attention to the one binding its paw, biting and tearing at it viciously.
Shaela was quickly pulled towards the crawler screaming while attempting to dig her fingers into the ground. She attempted to summon enough energy for a spell but found she could not get the kind of focus that she needed to do so.
The shadow cat ripped through the tendon binding it and was immediately in flight after the one holding Shaela. Her cat caught hold of the sleeve of her dress and stopped the giant crawler from reeling her closer. She used the time to conjure enough energy for a spell and cast it at her cat just before it lost hold of her dress. The shadow cat grew to four times its size, making it a fierce opponent for the giant crawler which had recently become the prey.
The cat immediately leapt onto the back of the giant crawler once again and used its perch to take advantage of the weakness it had found in the other crawlers it had vanquished. Shaela was reeled in and just as she was about to be drawn into the mouth of the beast the cat dug its claws into its back and bit down on what would be its neck which was arched and protruding from its back. Shaela screamed just as the giant cat bit down immediately silencing the giant crawling horror.
The giant crawler immediately fell limp and Shaela dropped to the ground the tendon no longer tense around her ankles. The giant cat leapt down as a group of remaining crawlers approached. It roared with vicious ferocity and the crawlers emitted a short burst of their piercing scream and turned in flight.
Shaela stood up and brushed her dress off catching her breath, then approached her cat which had returned to its former size.
"Awww. You are such a good kitty." She said stroking behind its ear.
Its ferocity disappeared and it purred happily under Shaela's touch.
"We've got an appointment to keep." She said once they'd both regained their energy.
The walked together through the maze and eventually finding their way through it to their goal. They were met at the exit by a robed figure who greeted them with disappointment as they approached.
"That could have gone a lot better for you Shaela. You completely disregard some of our most cherished teachings and yet, you survived or at least did not require me or one of the other elders to rescue you." The robed man spoke assertively.
"I take it that means I passed?" Shaela asked completely unphased by the robed elders dismay.
"That is not for me to say. You will find out soon enough from Thara." He answered.
They proceeded down a long flight of steps which lead underground and through a series of corridors and into an open chamber where a group of similarly robed figures were seated.
A lady seated in the center spoke:
"Please Shaela, do come forth." Thara commanded Shaela.
Shaela approached quietly and respectfully her cat at her side.
"You do know why you stand here before us today?" Thara asked Shaela.
"Yes Matron Thara, I do." Shaela replied.
"Good. You completely disregarded one of most highly held precepts, yet you stand here before us. There was only one other individual in our order who has done such a thing during these trials and were free of injury enough to stand before us." Thara continued.
"I am sorry Matron..." Shaela responded in apology.
"Sorry? You are sorry? You destroyed a good portion of the maze. You engaged unnecessarily with its fauna, and though carnivorous they may be you could have avoided them altogether thus preserving our most valued precept: remain unseen for the unseen are unknown." Thara lectured Shaela.
"Matron I did what I had to." Shaela responded in her defense.
"You nearly died out there. Your noble cat had to save you. You failed to keep a reserve of energy before you entered. The reason that you were nearly eaten by that monstrosity is because you had no energy reserve to cast a sufficient defensive spell. You were casting spontaneous magic which limits your possibilities dramatically. If you had remained unseen, you'd not have run into this problem. If you had a reserve of energy from which to channel, you'd have plenty for emergencies like the one you encountered." Thara laid it all down for her.
"So what does that mean? Did I make it? Did I pass?" Shaela asked the Matron.
"Shaela, apprentice of the school of the Order Of the Night Wytch. We are placing your progression on hold until a time three months in the future when you will retest. That is how long it will take to repair the damage you caused in our maze. If you want to run around using magic like a maniac to cause destruction and harm I suggest you look to join the elementalist guild. You need to rethink your reasons for being with our order and follow our ways, which for the most part entail the use of stealth. You have much to learn from your shadow cat friend. I find it incredible that such a beast chose you, the first in our order to have the honor of binding with the shadow cats of the shadow plane. They are the epitome of what it is to hunt in the dark and to use stealth to overwhelm superior force and numbers. That is our final decision." Thara gave Shaela her assessment.
"What? I finished the test. That is the requirement!" Shaela exclaimed.
"No. The requirements are that you get through the test while preserving the precepts of our order, utilizing creativity if need be. That is the requirement. That will be all." Matron Thara spoke before turning to leave the chamber.
Shaela's frustration could not be contained and she stomped her foot on the ground and a tear beaded in her eye.
"Is there no other way? May I take the test again sooner? I have made so much effort for this." Shaela spoke truthfully.
Matron Thara stopped and turned to face Shaela once again.
"Can you do this and follow the precepts that we have set out in your protection and in ours without trudging through with complete disregard of the ideas to which we adhere?" Matron Thara asked Shaela.
"Yes Matron. I can do it." Shaela responded enthusiastically though still visibly upset.
"Very well. You will test again tomorrow. Be prepared for this test for you will not be familiar with it. That is all." Matron Thara stated firmly and with authority before leaving.
"Do not take this as a failure, Shaela. Take it as a lesson. I am confident that you will pass the test and stand before us a fully recognized member of our order." One of the robed elders spoke consolingly to her.
"I almost died out there." Shaela spoke frustrated and upset.
"You didn't have to. That's the point. If you had staid the precepts you would have completed the test." The elder responded placing a hand on her shoulder before continuing.
"If it means anything to you, the only other student to try what you did that didn't need rescuing and a week with a healer was Matron Thara. You're in good company. Have patience and persevere." The elder consoled her before leaving her alone with her cat.
"I couldn't have survived without you." She stroked her cat's ear and it rubbed its face against her hand in return.
Shaela consciously committed herself to returning. More importantly, to succeeding. They would succeed together.
"It's been a long time since we had this kind of peace." Yirfir threw her arms atop Jasmers shoulders stretching her reach pulling him towards her.
"I guess we'd better not lose the moment then, shall we?" Jasmer returned the embrace pulling her into his lips.
They remained clasped together, lips pressed together and tongues exploring mutually before they broke out of learned restraint.
"Just making up for lost years my love." Yirfir pleaded.
"Found years I'd say." Jasmer responded pecking her lips tenderly again containing his affection for her.
"Are we going to make these plans or not?" Yirfir played like he was the culprit though she knew better.
Jasmer once again kept his thoughts on their current goal which were the plans for their wedding.
Ultimately they'd both known that unless it was with one another they'd never have committed to this experience with anyone else. Despite their mutually unique paths they'd always known that they were connected and that they were meant for one another.
Jasmer's departing during the fall of the Sanctum had only strengthened her resolve to unite with the man she'd known and to rebuild the order into what it was meant to stand for: a future for the world and a place of yearning and learning.
Her love of Jasmer was true as was his for Yirfir and mutually symbolic of their perseverance for that goal. The Sanctum had been that symbol until its fall and their parting of ways during the conflict with the Power Lords and the Norbids. They had seen the fall of the most prominent Power Lord with the battle at Alivale and the resounding peace that had finally been achieved. Now all that had remained was to clean up the pieces of history that still held scars for many and heal those who'd bore that weight.
Since the the battle of Alivale they'd felt a sense of closure as if their part in this had come to a close and they'd reached a retirement that the universe had arranged for them. Jasmer's understanding of order and the way of things was different from Yirfir's and that was as much the strength of their union as much as it was their weakness.
Jasmer had perceived the universe as structured and regimented for beings such as them and that when they'd arrived at the right age, the universe ensured their happy existence. It was his own optimism as he'd learned from his elders during the years of managed peace before the fall of the Sanctum. The structure that supported that peace and the comfort of those elders had been destroyed but he still believed that the universe would put it all into place as a means to balance against what had been lost.
Yirfir's experience had taught her otherwise and that the universe had ensured no such surety as happiness. That sort of fate required the intervention of those who wanted it. Yirfir wanted it and she'd fought for the man she'd wanted it with. In her own way she'd found it enticing carving out Jasmer's preconceived retirement for the two of them as she'd found it as enticing though she'd make it a reality before she'd wait for it to happen.
Somewhere in between their two points of view was the truth and even that was always in motion and just as unpredictable as life itself and unpredictably unpredictable.
"So we have where and we have when and who. What's next?" Jasmer inquired as if he was satisfied that the plan had been completed.
Yirfir found herself excited by the fact that it hadn't and decided to confront him on that fact.
"What are the courses of the meal? What colour are the table settings? What are the servers wearing? Where do we make love between servings?" she asked him enticingly.
"Is that fanciful or practical?" he asked her in all honesty hoping secretly that it was both.
"Pink!" she responded carefully, winking afterwards.
Jasmer found himself pleasantly cornered by his bride to be and found it most enticing.
"Which one?" he asked her, pecking her nose.
"What do you mean?" she asked in response.
"You know exactly what I mean. Which one is pink?" he replied playfully coy.
"All three." she giggled sucking his chin before working her way up to find his lips.
Though they'd both come to terms with their age and their future they'd not understood that there were still experiences in between. Their pride of older age and experience had limited their acceptance of the fact that there was still so much left for them them to learn and find new. At least as much as there was for all the youth of the world.
Yirfir was ready for that more so than Jasmer and she recognized this as a potential to experience her lover of this fact. He'd seen it as a step on a path where as she'd seen it as unseeable and unknowable. There was no preview of it and her hand was a hand to hold while they staid or fell.
Ultimately during their settling of plans he fell, but only as he'd done so before and only for her. They made love that night and more than the once for which she'd thought they'd have enough time. They had all the time in the world for each other.
She awoke, a translucent pearl of moisture streaking its way down her brow. Her hands were bound behind her hips and her body held fast to a vertical pitch which she presumed was afore her burning. It was not her time in which she found herself.
"Who are you and what right do you flay upon a lady's body the element of fyre?" She inquired of her host, the words leaving her mouth beyond her control as it was not her that spoke them.
"The right as has been me given by Thyne Lord!" his voice crescendoed as he responded much to her expecting.
She paused to peer at the crowd and there were many who'd come to see her before their Lord, flayed or flamed though she'd yet to figure afore or the latter. Or both.
"She's harboured the evils of thy night and the other she wytches by forth she'd arrived." Her prosecutor spoke free of conscience and without concept of morality. They spoke about the women as if they were referring to their own crimes and misgivings. His was not to learn but to burn and not to turn any of their so called ways back to the path of the so called right. Nelony had known this before his words had left his mouth.
"So ye'd rather torch your life giver than give life to your torch giver." Nelony's words left her mouth expectantly of one resigned for death.
Her executioner gave ponderance and pause to her words, though few too many of either to save her from their mirth.
She turned her head across the crowd who'd undoubtedly come to see her burn only to find there to be others like herself by her side. They too were bound to vertical spire awaiting immolation by their executioners. By their side she'd found solace though little as to quell her thirst for wrath. Their persecutors tormented them as their effort became manifest and reality took them all by fire.
Nelony screamed as she channelled the elemental energy of water from her depths to protect her from the fire she'd expected from her assailants. The density of the air around her filled with moisture as the stress fuelled her power.
The pyre climbed the spires of each of the accused and engulfed their bodies. Nelony's energy amassed and channeled forth mist upon them all preventing their immolation and further fuelling the wrath of the onlookers.
"Burn! Demon Wytches! Burn ye be forever gone!" they screamed, spittle flowing from their mouths.
Nelony's body stung as a cinder fell from a cedar grove around them that had caught flame. The sparks set down upon her skin, leaving a pock not unlike a mole and the blackness thereof.
A voice spoke into her confidently and to her depths that none except Barris could reach.
"Fear nought as thyne are nought wretch as are thee seethen." The voice spoke to her innards as the others burnt.
"Ye shall find solace and power among thy fauna though nought amongst your prosecutors!" the voice's confidence broke the still.
Nelony fell from her perch on the spire as vines snapped binding her no more. Her hands free to weave her art upon her assailants freely as Mila might have etched her presence onto her canvas or her hands onto Barris' body, whom of course was Nelony's rightful lover. Mila had absconded with him unbeknownst their fertile and immaculate love. Her the righteous heir to his seed and their line together to be sewn.
Mila had emerged from among the crowd to confront her and Barris whom had thrown himself at her feet.
"Stay away from her! She's vile and tell pray of her fertility none like you but for me!" Mila screamed to her former lover spoken in the tongue of the others around them.
"She's consumed my love for you and now it is only for her and her bosom!" Barris responded resting his cheek upon Nelony's abdomen her belly button brushing his lips.
Nelony felt a riled excitement at the prospect of having him at her beck and call and pursued him given this new allure.
"Come to me my love and pleasure me as you've lusted after me. I know this of you!" Nelony commanded of Barris and he complied as in her fantasy of him.
As he approached her, his lips engulfing hers and creeping down her neck and further to her breast and nipple, she waned grasping his hair holding him fast in position before she woke to find nobody but herself and her hand in fondle of her own breast.
"He was mine and meant to be. That is real and true and Mila knew it for all that he was mine." Nelony thought of Barris in her dream speak.
"He still will be mine" she thought of him as she drifted back asleep in the arid air and the muffled silence of the forest floor. The forest where he'd lay naked beside her. The forest where Nelony's nightmare ended and Barris' nightmare began.
Shaela In The Shadows
On the other side of the city from where Nelony caressed Barris' naked body in her dream state, lay Shaela alone in her bed and unable to sleep. She had left the hidden temple with the words of the Matron and the observers still fresh on her mind. She'd accomplished her task in the maze but had missed the point of the test. She had become a formidable practitioner of the arts and her ability had cost her in one of the most prized aspects of the order she'd sought to join. Stealth was tantamount to any member of their order and though she'd persevered through the years honing her abilities at the manipulation of shadow elements, she'd failed to learn when not to be seen or heard.
Shaela had learned young that she had the right to be bold in her approach. She approached everything in life without fear and often without respect. She'd always felt there was never a good reason for her to diminish herself to appease others. To show constraint had always seemed like bondage to her especially if you possessed the talent to succeed. It amazed her that she had not come to this understanding before she had decided to join the order. Were they just another constraint to her abilities in order to maintain their power structure over her?
As a little girl she'd often spend a lot of time alone and that was how she had learned of her abilities. At that age she could summon formless shadow friends as she'd call them. They would speak of things going on in the next room from her. They spoke of what was going on down the street. They told her of things happening on the other side of the world. They sometimes even talked of places that people didn't even have a name for. They never presented themselves if others were around, making them useless to intervene on her behalf. If they could have she would have used them at that time to help her only friend. He was nothing more than a distant memory to her now though she often wondered about him.
Shaela was startled from her half dream state back into reality by the sound of metal impacting upon metal. A car had collided with a parked car on her suburban street arousing a ruckus in the neighbourhood. A siren followed shortly thereafter as she looked out the window, shivering in the night air. There out front a car was pressed under a van which had been parked across the street. It was owned by a noisy couple who'd frequently argue on their front lawn for the neighbourhood to hear. The car had wedged itself under their van with the driver of the car pinned under his steering column. Shaela kept vigil upon the scene outside, both her arms folded across her breasts.
"Its coming for us all! Wake up! There's no time! Run for your lives!" the driver screamed at the top of his lungs as lights around the neighbourhood came on one at a time.
Shaela instinctively jumped across the room to the light switch with her hand extended before she paused unable activate the switch. The voice of the screaming driver stopped instantly unsettling her.
At once she crossed the room again back to the window and saw a stranger dressed in a black one piece smock, a hood pulled over his head.
"What in the name of..." she mouthed quietly panicking as another large vehicle pulled up behind the crashed car with an insignia etched across its armoured side. She'd seen the insignia before though she could not recall from where.
A series of similar hooded figures jumped out of the back of the newly arrived vehicle and filed out onto the street, each one going to a different house. One by one they pounded on the door and pressed the door bells of the houses on the street. Another pair retrieved the dead body of the driver and put it into the back of the large vehicle.
One of the house doors opened across the street and she saw Mr. Finley in his house coat, the same one he'd worn every day to collect the morning paper.
"Gents." He nodded.
"What can I..." Before Mr. Finley had a chance to finish, a blackness leapt forth from the hand of the hooded figure and devoured Mr. Finley whole, any trace of him gone. The hooded figure proceeded into Mr. Finley's house in search of Mrs. Finley she assumed.
A loud knock at her front door startled her. She froze in panic, her heart beating heavy in her ears.
"What is going on?" she whispered to herself, panicking silently looking for something to wear. She retrieved a tight fitting cotton gown and a pair of underwear from her dresser drawer and quickly threw them on not bothering to check whether she had them on the right way.
She began the incantation to summon her cat beast protector but paused when she heard a second knock upon her front door. The heavy handed set of knuckles and the crashing open of the front door broke the safety of her panic and she found herself lost in a mess of possibilities.
She threw herself into the closet pulling her clothing down on her form obscuring it. She began an incantation quietly drawing her form into the shadow realm making herself nearly invisible. The voices began once again as they had when she was a child and spoke to her from every direction of the shadow realm. They told her that he was coming for her and for all of them and that their time had ended. They told her that Nelony was no longer their ally and that she would be a potent foe. She struggled against them in disbelief and the pressures against her sanity as she waited for the hooded figure to find her and consume her. For all of the power her abilities afforded her she had none to deal with this situation.
The door to her room opened and the hooded figure held his hand before him like a deadly weapon. He paused a moment looking around for evidence of anyone's presence and she winced, the shadow voices coming to her from all directions. She held her silence and stillness as the hooded man approached the closet. A precariously perched coat hanger fell and landed onto the pile of clothing that she was hidden under. The hooded figure looked at the hanger and then the pile of clothing.
His hand passed directly before her face and upon that moment she knew that death had found her. She faced it with courage waiting for the blackness to devour her.
Much further west in the small town pocked landscape away from the city where both Shaela and Nelony resided, Mila found herself consumed by a chill that had set in despite the early evening sun. She wiped the brush she'd been using to paint her current piece, cleaning its handle carefully. As she did her mind flashed to another instance of time: at night in the grove.
She wandered in a night gown that moved gently in the delicate wind as she strode through the back field and into the grove behind her two story home. The night air moved through the grove pushing a blanket of fog through its lanes and around her feet raising goose pimples on her arms.
Voices brushed Mila's ears much like the ones in Shaela's mind as her life depended upon her stillness as she sat under a pile of her clothes in a closet on the other side of the world. Their echoed whispers travelled the lanes of the grove stirring her senses and fuelling Mila's fears. She still brandished the brush carrying it like a wand. She stopped in the midst of a lane in the grove, a dense wall of trees to either side of her and acrid smell of rotting fruit reminiscent of the autumn.
From the corners of her eyes she saw them. At first they appeared like wisps of steam and droplets of light and before long they took their full form. The grove had become like the streets of a crowded city with a ghostly visage of denizens wandering amongst the trees.
They passed before her and each spoke in turn:
"Time hath passed and left our toiling wounds open and our broken flesh in rot."
The next one continued on the last word of prior.
"Wrought by those who'd been lured to the eyes of a way to bury their shame and sin."
Another stepped out from behind her and continued as did the others.
"Single of purpose and almost of mind their vision acute but their judgement left blind."
"Blinds drawn closed as we perished by theirs a pyre set a light every night did we fall."
A little girl stepped forth her form as ghostly as the others and she continued their grim verse.
"Fall did the earth upon each our graves with a smattering of their mirth their deeds to us bound."
She stepped aside and a shaky elder voice spoke.
"Bound in the bondage of their deceit and their lies none came 'cept her when all heard our cries."
Another fell in and the verse carried on.
"Cries through the night each fuelling her wrath as many they fell their numbers as ours."
A taller one stepped forward peering at a time piece it held.
"Hours will pass then she'll come again to uncover our graves and fight for our loss."
Another voice continued, speaking into her ear.
"Loss they will know for as they've sewn so shall they reap. Her power is greater as every hour does pass as will their time."
An elderly lady wisps of glowing aether streaming from her form continued solemnly.
"Time like an endless thread weaves us each to another one and our pain becomes yours."
A feminine visage approached its index finger pointing to her.
"Yours is the time she returns to see that they filled our graves with their dirt and their graves will bare the like."
All the voices finished the verse.
"Like the wilds themselves she'll find them and they will perish for all the world to see and only then will we be free."
A moment of silence passed as the ghostly forms disappeared each one at a time.
Mila ran trying to find her way back to the house but it was hopeless. The grove had become a labyrinthine maze of trees and fog concealing her from the world around her.
"You must choose what you will lose when she comes for you." The voices echoed into the night.
She spun herself around wiping the brush across her view as she screamed an incantation.
Mila once again found herself on the back porch of her house, her canvas in front of her the painting finished. It contained a scene of the trees of the grove at night with ghostly denizens stepping their way through the fog. She stared at it intensely waiting for the ghosts to rise from the canvas as she clutched the brush as a weapon.
She jumped as she felt a pair of hands on her shoulders.
"Honey, did you choose?" Barris asked her.
"Huh? What did you say?" Mila turned facing Barris the look of panic on her face.
"Would you like coffee, tea or me? I'd say you're a little jumpy for the first two so how about the third?" his vain attempt at levity lost as Mila struggled against panic.
"How long have you been behind me?" Mila asked him sceptically.
"I just got here. I had the kettle going in the house and I thought that I'd ask you..." he attempted to finish before she interrupted.
"What was I doing when you got here?" she asked interrogatively.
"You were painting. Why? You're acting like you just had a..." he paused as a look of intense compassion crossed his face.
"Honey, I'm sorry. Is it happening to you too?" he rubbed her arms lightly trying to warm her chill.
"I just had a vision. Like your nightmare but it was different." she looked into his eyes finally seeing him.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he stepped in closer to her.
"They killed them. All of them." she shook as she grasped what had happened.
"Killed who?" he asked her.
"Them." she pointed to the ghostly faces amidst the trees of the grove on a dark night all rendered by the brush strokes upon her canvas.
The Night Takes What It Does
They lay wrapped around one another after a quiet evening together finalizing their plans. Despite their reliving of their relationship of youth they'd managed to get the plans for the wedding done and for Yirfir this was a tremendous weight from her shoulders. She shared her good feelings with Jasmer who enjoyed their evening immensely before they fell asleep an intertwined pair. Where she ended he began and vice versa.
Their home was about half the distance between those of Mila and Nelony in a quiet rural community just outside the city. The city was a bit farther west from the city that Nelony and Shaela lived and had about an extra hour of sunlight each day as a result, but hours less than Mila. The sun had been down for four hours already and almost as long as they'd already been in bed. They never heard their front door open nor the footsteps of their adversaries.
The hooded figures quickly climbed the staircase and stepped up to the bedroom hall silently. They both stopped immediately when they heard a coo from Yirfir. The point man looked back to the other who signalled him to proceed. They continued into the bedroom where Jasmer lay most of his body protecting hers as if by intuition. The first approached and raised his hand to Jasmer's back. A black mass oozed forth from the hooded figure's hand and quickly enveloped Jasmer before he had a chance to make a peep. In another instance any hint that he had ever been here was gone.
Yirfir's eyes shot open to see the hooded figure looming over her just having finished devouring Jasmer.
"Eeackshztpa!" She screamed and a tremendous burst of energy shot out from her chest at the hooded figure striking him in the face and sending him cartwheeling into the wall on the other side of the room. The other hooded figure acted quickly and grabbed her from the other side of the bed constraining her arms behind her. Her legs flailed and kicked catching the hooded figure in the groin. He winced from behind the hood his grip on her momentarily lost.
She broke free and trounced across the bed in full sprint towards the door. The first hooded figure who'd picked himself up tackled her from the side and they both collapsed to the floor. Yirfir blared another incantation and her fist instantly turned to stone. She hit the hooded figure in the center of his face and he fell back to the floor motionless. The other who'd recovered from her well placed kick was already upon her and before she could recoil, the black mass shot from his hand and enveloped her. A moment later she was gone.
The conscious hooded figure quickly grabbed and shouldered his downed team mate and proceeded down the stairs and back out the front door closing it behind him. There were no signs that anyone had heard the struggle so he continued cautiously back to their vehicle. He put his injured team mate down in the small utility van before jumping into the driver's seat and driving off into the night. The operation was a success and they'd taken care of their targets in the record time of three minutes and forty seven seconds. At this rate they should have the whole mess cleaned up by the end of the night and history would never know any better.
Sato lay quietly in bed still feeling a little bit out of place in Mila's home. He had enjoyed her hospitality and the company of her family. He was thoroughly overjoyed to see his friend who was more like his surrogate son ready himself for his life with Mila as a married couple. Everything was complete and his role in Barris' life was done. Then it occurred to him that maybe the role of Barris in his life was not complete. Their journey still had waves that crossed one another in the body of water that we call life, for he was still here in their home. Even Mila's parents had returned home which was only an hour's drive from here but nobody had talked about what was to become of him.
He still had the shop back on the other side of the ocean from them and his customers were likely getting impatient with his absence. Sato considered this when he thought about his own lack of alarm at being away from the shop for this long. There was something keeping him back here and close to Mila and Barris.
A few nights ago he had been cursing them for their cantankerous laughter all night which kept him sleepless and grouchy. The next day he awoke to find himself in laughter over his loss of sleep during their amorous night. While in their presence that day he behaved like the cliche silent and wise old man they expected of him but only to save them embarrassment.
The truth was that he like Mila's parents and like Yirfir and Jasmer had lived many such adventures over the course of their own lives. They too had tried not to rouse the elderly while they enjoyed the pleasure of their respective lovers. Just because they were older did not mean they'd experienced any less though maybe they experienced it a little bit differently.
That was the great secret that age concealed. Once you had reached that cliche time in your life, everyone else assumed that you had never been active in that regard or that it somehow finished for you. That age somehow diminished sensuality. Maybe the elderly were better at keeping secrets than the youth because they had the veil of cliche to conceal them. Still, Sato supposed that it was better that Barris had never found out about what was really going on during his private calligraphy lessons with his favourite customer in the late afternoons back at the shop. Sato and his student were both close to the same age as one another. Of course Barris in his former naivety still wondered how there could be so much laughter and giggling involved in calligraphy lessons. In the end Sato was thankful for the veil and cliche of age.
Sato's mind returned to the current situation and his earlier suspicions. Something seemed off recently. It felt like the quiet before the storm. Mila and Barris had been notoriously quiet that evening and had even turned in early without a peep from them the whole night. She had been pale and appeared to be ill. Perhaps his sense of concern was uncalled for though his intuition told him better. If he'd had his eyes open he'd have noticed that the tattoos on the soft skin of the inside of his forearms were glowing in the darkness and increasing in brightness. He might have had time dispatch the three of them before they were upon him but it was already too late and Sato too was consumed by the blackness.