Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty eight

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The camp went up quickly, faster than Lilavati had ever seen. A large canopy was set up in the center of it and everyone gathered beneath in. Manas took her hand and the two of them moved to stand in front of the gathered company.

“Great Lord, what evil struck us as we entered this place?” someone asked.

“They were ghosts of a dark past, condemned to relive their terrible deeds on the cursed land at the entrance to this clearing,” Manas said.

“What monsters were cursed to stand here, and why did they attack us?” Dieter asked.

“They were the spirits of soldiers that served my parents, taking pleasure in slaughtering Vengari at my parents’ order,” Manas said. “We suspect we’d have passed unmolested had I not been with the company.” He shuddered. “To my parents and their dead servants, I am a traitor. I betrayed them, giving their enemies the key to ending their reign of tyranny.”

“Great Lord, your parents sacrificed my wife and sons to their dark sorcerer’s god,” a man older than any Lilavati knew said as he made his way to the front of the company. “I would have joined them in death, but the dark sorcerer bound me and forbade me to commit suicide.” The old man shuddered, and then smiled. “It was your telling Lord Emrys and Lord Reinhard about the evil deeds and cursed magic happening in Phiri Hu that truly set me free and released my family’s souls.”

“Get to the point, old man,” someone yelled.

The old man looked over his shoulder and glared at the speaker. The young man shifted uncomfortably where he stood. The old man turned back to face Manas and Lilavati. “Great Lord, their evil deeds carry repercussions that will span decades if not centuries into the future. You can’t let that hold you back. You must continue on as you have been, and you’ll have the life you seek.”

“How does this resolve our current dilemma?” Dieter asked.

The old man smiled again. “There are stories, Great Lord. Stories of what that dark sorcerer did. He might have pretended to be all powerful – and he had some strong magic, it’s true – but there was one weakness to his magic.”

“What was that?” Manas asked.

“Common folk magic could counter some of his spells,” the old man said.

Ludger moved through the crowd and came up beside the old man. “What kind of folk magic do you mean, Micha?” he asked.

“That demon in human form thought he could trap us in our homes by sending the spirits of the dead to harass us,” Micha said. “We were terrified. No one could get out to get more supplies. We were starving. Our local witch, a bright young woman named Sybille, came up with an idea. She walked around the perimeter sprinkling salt and dried pipevine flowers. She said nothing, made no strange gestures. The next time the ghosts arrived they couldn’t pass the barrier she made with those. A short while later,  she added ground quartz crystal and saltpeter to the mixture on the ground. The ghosts were destroyed as soon as they tried to cross the barrier again.”

“I have everything but the pipevine flowers,” Ludger said. “I could put them all together.”

“I think I have the flowers,” Ariane said. “The Temple uses them as a soporific, when acolytes and preesters can’t sleep.”

“Go check,” Ludger said. He patted the old man on the shoulder. “Thank you, Micha. I think I’ll get with you later this evening and pick your brain for other examples of the folk magic you grew up with.”

“I’m happy to talk about it,” Micha said. “Not many people seem to be interested in the old ways anymore.”

“May I join you for that conversation?” Dieter asked. “I feel the histories and folklore of all our people should be preserved.”

“You’re quite welcome to do so, young scribe,” Ludger said.

“So there’s a way to kill them?” someone else asked.

“That is a possibility,” Manas said.

“Great Lord, do you think they’ll come after us?” Odilie asked, her voice full of fear.

“I wish I knew, Odilie,” Manas said. “I want to take every precaution, in case they do. I’ve been told spirits prefer to fully attack at night. We must be ready for them.”

“Can’t Ludger’s magic protect us?” Ariane asked.

“You are a servant of the Twelve,” Lilavati said. “Should your powers not be used in the defense of this encampment?”

“Had I the ability to banish the dead, I’d do it,” Ariane said, glaring at her. “My gifts lay in healing and the translation of dead languages.”

“You are a scholar then?” Dieter asked.

“Not really,” Ariane said. “When I see a language no longer spoken, it is as if one of the Twelve whispers in my ear and tells me what is written. I’ve learned quite a bit in the archives.”

“Ariane, see if you have the pipevine flowers. Ludger, check your supplies to be certain we have enough to walk the perimeter of the camp,” Manas said. He paused. “Ariane, a prayer to the Twelve would be welcome as well.”

“I’ll make sure to offer one before I start my search,” Ariane said. She wore a solemn look on her young face.

“Everyone else, if you are asked to do something to aid in the protection of the camp by Ludger, do it. Don’t argue, don’t ask why. Just do it. He’ll explain it to you later, when we’re not as bound by the necessity of keeping away the ghosts of ancient enemies,” Manas said. There was a low rumble of thunder. Lilavati shuddered and only a soft whimper escaped. It was enough for Manas to hear. “We have one final announcement to make, and it isn’t as full of gloom as the rest.” Everyone looked at them expectantly. “My beautiful Lilavati and I were married by Ariane this morning.”

There were several gasps. “Great Lord, why didn’t you wait until we got back to Phiri Hu?” someone asked.

“The Halls of the Damned,” Manas said.

to be continued…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty seven

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The first of the spectral weapons struck Ludger. He let out a cry, holding his leg. There was no blood, but it was obvious he was in pain. Lilavati shrieked and curled in on herself as an arrow slammed into her shoulder. Manas let out a shout and hunched over as a sword embedded itself in his stomach.

“Ride faster,” Ludger said, his voice coming through labored breathing.

Lilavati urged her horse into a canter. The spectres tried to stop her, but the horse was unaffected by the insubstantial attackers. She could hear the confused talking behind her. “We will have to explain this to the others once we make camp,” she said, her voice weak and trembling.

“We’re crossing cursed land,” Manas said. His voice was stronger than the other two in spite of the ghostly sword embedded in his stomach.

As the company made its way through the spectral forces, there were some screams. “They are no safer than we are,” Ludger said. He was sitting up taller in his saddle.

“Then the cursed land will be easier to convince them of,” Manas said. Lilavati turned her head. The sword was beginning to fade. She caught sight of the arrow in her shoulder. It too was vanishing.

Ludger sat up straighter. “That was not a pleasant experience.”

“I was not aware that they could see me,” Lilavati said. “I have never experienced such a phenomenon before.”

“None of those others that you’ve seen have paid attention to you?” Ludger asked.

“No,” Lilavati said.

“What if it wasn’t my katali?” Manas asked quietly.

“What do you mean, Great Lord?” Ludger asked.

“They were my parents’ soldiers, and we’re making our way to the Halls of the Damned,” Manas said. “Katali, was there anything different about these spirits?”

Lilavati thought hard. “I saw more color, and the screams were louder. As was the laughter and crude commentary.”

“They could have been cursed for their actions,” Ludger said. “Great Lady, did the Vengari raise weapons against us?”

Lilavati had to think hard for a moment. “No,” she said. “It was only those who wore armor and the colors of my sikha‘s parents.”

“What kind of trouble do you think they’re going to cause for us as we camp?” Manas asked, looking at Ludger.

“I’m not sure, Great Lord. I wasn’t aware the area was cursed. The last time I was through here nothing like that happened,” Ludger said.

Manas looked over at Lilavati. “Katali, I don’t believe you’re the cause of them noticing us. I think they would have attacked us regardless of the fact. I believe they would have come after me, as the traitor in the family.”

Sikha, you cannot blame yourself. You were a frightened child who was treated with extreme disregard and hatred by those who were meant to be your most ardent supporters,” Lilavati said, reaching out one hand and touching his arm.

“I know,” Manas said. “It doesn’t make it any easier knowing that I’m responsible for their deaths.”

“No, Great Lord. You’re not,” Ludger said. “Their murderers are answerable to the Twelve for their own actions, which included enticing a child to betray his own parents.”

“I was willing, even eager, to tell of their atrocities,” Manas said. “I needed to let someone know what they were doing.”

“Yes, and had it not been you, someone else would have escaped their grasp and spoken to whomever would listen of the evil spreading in Phiri Hu,” Lilavati said. “And you would have been slain in the ensuing battle, for the enemies of your parents would have sought to eliminate the entire bloodline, would they not?”

“Your early scholarly pursuits serve you well, katali,” Manas said with a lopsided smile. The cries of those behind them soon died down. He looked over his shoulder. Lilavati stole a glance of her own. There were pale faces and some tears, but no one seemed injured.

“We must push on,” Ludger said. “We can set up before the storm worsens.”

“Will these spirits come hunting for me, I wonder?” Manas asked, a hint of fear in his voice. “I can’t protect my people at night if they do. And it’s said a ghost’s true power is in darkness.”

“My people have similar tales,” Lilavati said.

“As do mine,” Ludger said. “Let me think on this, Great Lord. I might be able to come up with something to protect us.”

“I only hope you can,” Manas said. “They’re losing faith in me as it is. We’ve seen so much death since we left the Southlands.”

“Pasir Naik,” Lilavati said, as a tear slid down her cheek.

“What’s that, Great Lady?” Ludger asked.

“It is the true name no one seems to wish to give my home,” Lilavati said. “Pasir Naik.”

“Is that your city’s name?” Ludger asked.

“There are no individual cities, as you see here in the north,” Lilavati said. “We are what the northern scholars call city-states.”

“Essentially each city is its own country,” Manas said, grasping at the distraction.

“There is a ruler of all city-states,” Lilavati said. “His is a position granted by the gods, and not even the priests and priestesses will counter his orders. Our history is littered with the corpses of men and women who sat in that position, and those who paid for their depravities.” She paused. “It is said that those who bear the gift of the inkosi tiikeri come from the bloodline of the first God-King, the man who united the Southlands so long ago his name has been lost. He is now only known as the God-King.”

“You’ll have to tell us that story later, katali,” Manas said. “It’s not a tale I remember reading in my search for information on your home.”

“It is not one that is commonly told,” Lilavati said. “I am not even certain where I heard it, only that I know the tale.”

“The camp is just there, Great Lord,” Ludger said, pointing.

They rounded a corner and found themselves face to face with a vast, rolling, open area. Off to one side was a small nook where Manas’ tent could be pitched. The rest of the camp could be set a short distance from it. “I don’t like how close it is,” Manas muttered.

“I knew you wouldn’t,” Ludger said. “But look up.”

Manas did so. Lilavati followed his example. She gasped. Never had she seen so many shades of green in the trees of the north. Branches wove together and the different varieties of leaves tangled with each other in a kind of natural tent, protecting the clearing. Very few raindrops got through.

“We will be well protected from the weather here, sikha,” Lilavati said.

“Make camp,” Manas called. He turned to Ludger. “Then gather everyone together. We need to talk.”

“Yes Great Lord,” Ludger said.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty

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Theda helped Lilavati to the low seat next to Manas’ as everyone gathered for the morning prayer. Lilavati slumped forward, her strength failing her. A strong arm wrapped around her. “Lean on me, my dark scholar,” Manas said, kissing the top of her head. “I’ll hold you up.”

Lilavati gratefully relaxed against him. Theda led the morning prayer, admonishing everyone to be on the lookout for traitors and to care for Lilavati as they were asked to because she was their lord’s savior. There were several grateful looks cast in her direction at the end. Manas kissed the top of her head again but released her when Ludger came to claim her.

“Great Lady, how’re you feeling today?” Ludger asked.

“Well rested,” Lilavati said, smiling up at him. “I do not have the strength I want however.”

Ludger shook his head. “You won’t for a long time. Most likely not until we reach Phiri Hu.”

“How long will that be?” Lilavati asked.

“Well, barring the stop we need to make to get you some proper clothing, we shouldn’t need to make any more unscheduled breaks in our traveling pattern,” Ludger said, frowning in thought. “So I’d say a month and a half if we’re lucky, but more likely two months.”

Lilavati nodded, suppressing a shiver. She had two months to find a way to break the curse of her haunted sight. Ludger pulled her to her feet and steadied her as they walked to the carts. He sat her on the ground on a cushion while the one he wanted her to ride in was loaded.

Manas came to check on her. “Are you all right, my dark scholar?”

“No,” she said. “But I cannot speak of why at this moment.”

“Will you tell me later?” Manas asked. Lilavati nodded. “Then I will be satisfied with that.” He knelt down beside her and leaned closer. “I wish you could ride. We would be able to talk more easily then.” His voice was soft in her ear.

“As do I, for I have much I wish to know and you are the only one who can tell me these things,” Lilavati said. She looked at him longingly. “How I wish I were not so weak.”

“You’ll get your strength back, my dark scholar,” Manas said. He kissed her before rising to his feet. “Ludger, make sure she’s comfortable.”

“I will, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “The preester will also be riding with her, so she’ll have some company to keep her from getting bored.”

“That’s good to know,” Manas said. He looked at Lilavati once more before striding off.

Lilavati wiped the tears forming in her eyes. It was foolish, but she was afraid every time Manas walked away from her it would be the last time she saw him. Ludger jumped down and lifted her up. He set her on the back of the cart before pulling himself up next to her. He got her settled against the pile of cushions and tucked a light blanket around her.

“The weather is clear, for now,” he said, squinting at the sky. “I don’t know if the storm I sense will break before or after the sun goes down. But if it does start before we reach our next campsite, I do have a cloak for you. The preester will help you put it on.”

“Thank you Ludger,” Lilavati said.

“You are quite welcome, Great Lady,” Ludger said. He patted her shoulder before leaping from the wagon.

“Ludger is unique, even among his people,” Theda said as she climbed in. “I’ve been to the area of the Northlands where his tribes live. They’re a hardy people. All of the men are tall like Ludger, and as well muscled, but Ludger towers over even them. He would have been an outcast among them, which is why I think he was willing to take the Great Lord’s offer of employment.”

“He is different from other sorcerers I have heard of,” Lilavati said. “The ones in our city were cold, aloof. They never mixed with the populace and if you wished their aid they would demand a high price. Those who received such assistance never talked about what they paid, but from what I knew of the few my father did business with, it was not coin that the sorcerers wished.”

Theda nodded. “There are some sorcerers out there like that, Great Lady. Such as the dark sorcerer that ensnared the minds and hears of the Great Lord’s parents. You will find Ludger is nothing like them. He craves knowledge and the Great Lord can provide him with that.”

The women were silent for several minutes as the caravan finally got under way. Using the noise of the cart and pounding feet as a cover, Lilavati lowered her voice and said, “Theda, how do I rid myself of this curse? I cannot enter Phiri Hu in two months and retain my sanity. I will not let Manas see me go mad because of the depravity of his parents.”

“I don’t know, Great Lady,” Theda said. “I’ve been praying to the Twelve for help, but so far they’ve given me none.”

“We have to tell Manas,” Lilavati said as the strange feline that now dwelt in her soul spoke to her for the first time. “He may have some ideas.”

“Great Lady, he’ll feel guilty that he cursed you in the first place,” Theda said.

“Perhaps,” Lilavati said. “Then he’ll want to do everything in his power to release me from it before we reach his home.”

“Great Lady, if Ludger is right, there will be a storm this evening. It won’t be safe for you to be out with him,” Theda said.

“I will decide that,” Lilavati said coolly. “As will Manas. I will consult him before I make my decision.”

“Great Lady, in your weakened state you could fall deathly ill,” Theda said.

The feline spoke again. “When I am with him, when he is changed, as long as I am covered and protected from the weather, I will be fine,” Lilavati said.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty nine

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Manas’ screams turned to roars. The cracks, pops, and tears completed and the giant tiikeri laid on the ground in front of the two women. Lilavati waited patiently until Manas regained his senses. “I will go to his side now,” Lilavati said.

“I’ll help you, Great Lady,” Theda said.

“No,” Lilavati said. “It will not be safe for you.”

“Great Lady, you don’t have the strength to walk to him,” Theda said.

“I trust in him,” Lilavati said, her voice quivering a little. She took a deep breath and stood.

Manas watched her as she took a few shaking steps. As her legs buckled, Manas lunged across the clearing and spun around so she could fall against his side. Theda was on her feet, but as Manas helped Lilavati slide down to the ground, she sat back down.

“Great Lady, are you all right?” Theda asked.

Lilavati didn’t answer at first. She soaked in the intense feeling of the bond between her and the immense cat now at her back. “I am well,” she said before Theda could get too worried. “I did not think I would be able to experience this again. I truly thought I would die.”

Manas growled softly and shifted until he was wrapped around her. She laughed and curled against him. His side rose and fell as he breathed and she listened with delight to the sound. Her eyes grew heavy and she relaxed.

“Great Lady, do you want me to wake you in the morning?” Theda asked. Lilavati wasn’t sure what she said, but Theda’s laughter told her that the preester understood. She slipped into the troubled sleep of a dreamer caught in the midst of nightmares.

It took Theda actually calling her name to wake her the next morning. Lilavati uncoiled from the ball she was in and looked over at her. “Good morning, Preester. Was I so deeply asleep you could not come close to wake me?”

“No, Great Lady. But the Great Lord would not let me approach,” Theda said.

That was when Lilavati realized Manas was growling low in his throat. She leaned against him and dragged herself to her feet. “My amber eyed love,” she whispered. Manas’ head snapped around. “I must go now, else there will be difficulties.”

Giant teeth seized her arm. There was no pain, only pressure. “He doesn’t want you to go,” Theda said. “Don’t anger him, Great Lady. Stay for now. We have time.”

“All right,” Lilavati said. She slipped back down to the ground. Manas looked at her and she could see the anxiety in his eyes. She reached up and rubbed his nose. “I am fine, my amber eyed love. I am with you still.” Manas laid his head down and closed his eyes. Lilavati could tell that he wasn’t asleep though. His tail lashed back and forth. “My love, relax. I will not leave you until the change comes again.” The tail stopped moving.

When Manas pulled away on his own, Theda came over and helped Lilavati to her feet. Manas’ body shifted back to human. The agony plain in his screams tore at Lilavati’s heart. When he was back in his human form and had dragged himself to his knees, she pulled away from Theda and went to him.

“My dark scholar, thank you,” Manas said hoarsely. “I wasn’t sure how much longer I could pass another night alone and maintain my sanity.”

“My amber eyed love,” Lilavati said, pressing one shaking hand to his cheek. “I will be here every night, as long as I am able.”

Manas pulled her close. He kissed her with all the passion he could. “You should go now, my love. You don’t want to be caught with me in this condition.”

Theda was finally able to pull Lilavati away from Manas. She got her back to their shared tent and helped her bathe. Lilavati was able to dress herself, but found herself with something of an issue.

“What’s wrong, Great Lady?” Theda asked.

“I have no clean travel hoods,” Lilavati said, rummaging through her baggage. “At least none that I can find.” She fell back. “And I have no more strength to look.”

“Let me see if I can find one,” Theda said. She dug through Lilavati’s packs. “Hm. I can’t find one either, Great Lady.”

“I cannot bring another curse down on Manas. I have to cover my hair,” Lilavati said.

“Great Lady, I heard your prayers last night,” Theda said. “The Twelve shared them with me. They have taken you as their child, though you were born to the sands. Do you think they will let an evil from a foreign land harm any of us when it’s obvious they approve of you and your bond with the Great Lord?”

Lilavati played with one of the ebony plaits that fell to her waist. “I do not know your gods,” she said slowly. “But they granted me what I asked for, so I am more inclined to believe in them than my people’s false deities.”

“Don’t expect them to do that every time,” Theda said. “Our gods are more likely to make you solve your own problems. This was definitely a situation where they needed to intervene though.”

Lilavati took a few deep breaths. “Then I will leave them uncovered.”

Theda reached out and took her hand. “You’ll be fine, Great Lady.”

Lilavati looked out of the tent and shuddered. She saw more dead dancing in nonexistent breezes as they hung from the trees. “Theda, Phiri Hu is Manas’ home,  yes?”

“It is, Great Lady,” Theda said.

“Is it the site of his parents’ atrocities as well?” Lilavati asked.

“It is.” Theda blanched. “Great Lady, your visions. Phiri Hu will drive you mad.”

“Then I must find a way to end my curse,” Lilavati said. “Else Phiri Hu will become my tomb.”

to be continued…

The breath of the dead

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Ameka stalked out of the manor, face flushed and hands clenched into fists. She’d had another fight with her stepmother. She was tired of Lady Raylene and her constant belittling. Ameka’s father did nothing to stop it. It seemed he encouraged it at times. It frustrated her to no end and she wondered what she’d done to earn both of their scorn.

She followed the garden paths without looking. Her body knew the way to her favorite spot even though her mind was far from her surroundings. The strong scent of spice and citrus drew her out of her thoughts for a moment and a smile flitted across her face. Her mother’s rose garden was her favorite place on the estate. It reminded her of Lady Kiran, a gentle and compassionate woman who’d died when Amika was a child.

Ameka sat down on the ornate padded wooden bench and returned to her ruminations. Her brothers didn’t come in for the same harassment she did from their stepmother, and her two half sisters were favored above her. She supposed it was because they were Raylene’s daughters, which didn’t surprise her. True born daughters of stepparents were often treated better than the stepchildren. Or so her best friend Oisin had told her before her father sent him away.

Tears slipped down her cheeks. Her mother, Oisin, her older sister Hella. Everyone who’d ever cared about her was gone. She stared down at her hands, noticing the clear drops as they fell.

She reached out and picked one of the red roses hanging near her hand. She brought it to her nose and breathed in the scent. It reminded her of her mother’s perfume. She curled in on herself as she remembered the smell of it burning, when her father destroyed everything that had belonged to her mother on the eve of his marriage to Lady Raylene.

Dosia, one of Ameka’s half sisters, found her in the rose garden a few hours later. “Our father wishes to speak to you,” she said, smirking. “Perhaps it is due to your disrespect for my mother.”

“I showed her no disrespect, though she deserves all she gets,” Ameka said. She brushed past the younger girl, who gaped at her, and returned to the manor.

Her father was in his study. “Ameka, when I summon you I expect you to come immediately,” Lord Ulises said, glaring at her.

“Considering I just received word of the summons, Father, I can hardly be tardy,” Ameka said.

“I required your presence two hours ago,” Lord Ulises said.

“Then blame Dosia, or whoever else you sent to look for me. You should know by now that after speaking to that woman I retreat to mother’s garden,” Ameka said.

“That’s one thing you and I need to discuss,” Lord Ulises said. “Or rather, you will listen and I will tell you what I’ve decided.” A cold lump settled in the pit of Ameka’s stomach. “Your mother’s rose garden will be uprooted so Raylene can put in an orchard. She enjoys peaches and plums, and you know how expensive they are. The mages will see to it that they produce immediately, and will keep them producing so we always have them.”

“You bastard,” Ameka snarled. Lord Ulises looked at her in shock. “You’d steal from me the last thing I have of her? You destroyed her belongings, even though as her daughters Hella and I should have gotten them. You took down her pictures and refused to let us keep the lockets she’d given us so we could remember her. It’s as if you wish to erase her very existence, though you swore to her on her deathbed that you wouldn’t do that. You’d let her memory live on with us.”

“Yes, well, I only said that to give your mother the peace she needed to pass into the next world and not come back to haunt us as a vengeful spirit,” Lord Ulises said. “Now, you will curb your attitude and hold your tongue. I should have done this long ago, but I’ve been holding off to give you some time to change your position with Raylene. Since you haven’t, I’m sending you away.”

“Where?” Ameka asked.

“To the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Lord Ulises said. “Since you and Oisin were so close, I’m sure the Sisters there will understand.”

“You’re saying I’m not a virgin? Call in one of your mages. They’ll confirm Oisin and I never did what you’re accusing us of,” Ameka said.

“Oh, it’s not what you and Oisin did,” Lord Ulises said. “It’s the fact that the two of you are closer than you imagine.” Ameka stared at him. “You and Oisin are brother and sister. Well, half brother and half sister.”

“What do you mean?” Ameka asked.

“Kiran was not a faithful wife at all,” Lord Ulises said. “Both you and Hella were sired by the Horsemaster.”

“Squire Gerulf is our father?” Ameka asked.

“So your mother claimed, once she learned she was dying,” Lord Ulises said.

“So why not send me to him?” Ameka asked.

“Because I don’t want him to know,” Lord Ulises said. “Kiran said she didn’t tell him, and I have no intention of doing that either. So, you will go to the Temple. I’ve already found a husband for Hella, so she’ll be well out of my hair.”

“If you send me away, I’ll use the powers of the Goddess and call mother’s spirit back. I’ll tell her what you’ve done. Her vengeful spirit will kill Lady Raylene and her daughters by the year’s end,” Ameka said.

“You can try,” Lord Ulises said. “I doubt you have the willpower to do that.”

Ameka turned and ran from the room, sobbing as she went. She dashed into the small chapel and slammed the door behind her. The entrance to the crypt was locked, but she slid the bolt out of its housing and descended into the darkness.

She knew where her mother’s stone coffin was. She’d spent a lot of time sitting at its feet when she was a child. She threw herself against it now, weeping and begging her mother for help. “Mother, he’s betrayed us all,” she sobbed. “Please, bring your curse on this house. Destroy his happiness as he has taken mine and Hella’s away from us.”

There was a cold breeze against her face and the smell of decaying roses filled the air. “It shall be as you wish, my lovely daughter.” The voice was nothing more than a whisper, but it was her mother’s voice. “His new wife and their children will be dead within the week. Your brothers will die before the harvest. He will die before Midwinter.”

“Why my brothers?” Ameka asked. “They have done nothing to harm me.”

“I was not the only one to seek solace in the arms of another,” Lady Kiran said. A faint glow surrounded her coffin. “Your brothers are the sons of the Horsemaster’s first wife. Ulises killed her so she wouldn’t reveal the secret to me, but I already knew. I claimed them as mine and raised them, but chose to have daughters with the Horsemaster because I knew he was a better father than Ulises.”

“What am I to do now? He would send me to the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Ameka said.

A ghostly caress brushed across her cheek. “Run to the stables. Speak to your true father. He knows who you are. He will help you.” The light faded and the smell was gone. Ameka didn’t stop to think. She ran for the stables, and her real father. She hoped he could help her. The thought of spending even one day in a place where torture was the routine of the day frightened her even more than death.

All time runs out

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Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Kevin glared at Stephen. “Your watch is loud,” he snapped.

“I’m aware of that,” Stephen said, completely unfazed by the other man’s irritation. “It’s not as if I can’t hear it too.”

“So why do you wear it?” Kevin asked.

“I like it,” Stephen said. “It’s a classic.”

Kevin rolled his eyes. Everything with his former business partner had to be a “classic.” From his suits to his cars to his girlfriends. It was all he wanted in life. He studied philosophers, literature, and science. He had several doctorates in things Kevin had no interest in. He was considered well educated and an expert in many fields. Kevin thought he was a bore.

The younger man preferred the fast life. He drove sports cars, attended parties, and dated super models and movie actresses. He had two children he was paying child support on, but it was a drop in the bucket of what he held in offshore accounts. Of course, he kept enough in the States that the government didn’t get too suspicious of his lifestyle being beyond his means. The offshore accounts were if things went south so he could leave and still be comfortable.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Do you have any idea why we’re in Zack’s lawyer’s office?” Kevin asked.

“I haven’t heard from Zachary Richardson in ten years, so getting the summons from his attorney was as much of a shock to me as I’m sure it was to you,” Stephen said. “We must be patient and wait to see what we’re needed for.”

Before Kevin could reply, the door opened and a tall, thin man appeared. “Mr. Williamson, Mr. Nichols, thank you for coming. Please follow me.” Kevin and Stephen stood and were led into a large conference room. A petite blond all in black with red rimmed eyes was sitting there with a young boy. She glowered at the two men.  They took the seats they were pointed to and waited.

“I can’t see why they have to be here,” the woman said. “They have nothing to do with Zack.”

“Actually Mrs. Richardson, your husband specifically named them in his will,” the attorney said. “So I am required by law to have them present for the reading.” The woman scowled but fell silent.

“Will?” Kevin asked. “You mean Zack’s dead?”

“Yes Mr. Nichols,” the attorney said. “He passed away a week ago.” Kevin couldn’t say anything else and waited. The attorney cleared his throat. “I won’t read all of the legalese. It would be boring and waste everyone’s time. All of his wealth, worldly possessions, and all but two of his properties are yours, Mrs. Richardson. The two remaining properties now belong to Mr. Williamson and Mr. Nichols.”

“Which properties belong to them?” Mrs. Richardson asked.

“Mr. Williamson, your estate is in Greece,” the attorney said. “It is in the classic Greek style, something Mr. Richardson knew you liked.” Stephen smiled, though tears trickled down his cheeks.

“And mine?” Kevin asked.

“Yours, Mr. Nichols, is – a graveyard.”

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Kevin stared at him in shock. “What kind of bad joke is this?” he demanded. “Stephen gets a Greek villa and I get a graveyard? What’s so special about that?”

“It’s where you’re buried, Mr. Nichols,” the attorney said with a peculiar smile.

“It’s what?” Kevin burst into laughter. “Don’t you mean it’s where Zack’s buried? He’s the dead one.”

The attorney shook his head. “Look around the room again, Mr. Nichols.”

Kevin did as he was told. There, sitting across the table, wasn’t the petite blond woman with the young boy. Instead it was a fiery red head with a pair of equally as red haired twin girls. The woman was pale, as if she was in shock. The girls were sobbing into the sleeves on a pair of jackets he recognized as the ones he’d given to his two daughters the year before.

He turned to look at Stephen. His old business partner seemed weighed down by grief. His normally stoic expression was twisted in a kind of agony Kevin remembered from the day when his own best friend had died in a seventeen car pile up on the freeway.

“What’s going on?” Kevin demanded.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“You lived too fast a life, Mr. Nichols. It caught up with you. The mafia decided you were a threat and sent several of their people to try to force you to leave town. You argued with them and they opened fire. Your lady friend and your daughters were fine. You were hit multiple times. The doctors at JC Memorial worked heroically to save you, but three bullets to the chest and two to the head just isn’t something you wake up from,” the attorney said. He stood. “You have a choice, Mr. Nichols. You can remain in this room, watch the tormented faces of your loved ones for eternity. Or you can leave through that door and face whatever fate awaits you in the afterlife. It’s your decision.”

“What is my fate going to be?” Kevin asked.

The attorney shrugged. “I don’t know. No one does until they get there. Consider this a waypoint before your final journey.” He turned and left the room. Kevin looked at his sobbing daughters and his distraught girlfriend. Tearing his gaze away from then, he looked over at the nondescript gray door the attorney had pointed out. His feet shuffled as he crossed the faded carpet. His hand touched the knob.

Tick. Tick. Ti-

The dead do not lie

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Photo via VisualHunt.com

Yun stood next to the river, her lantern in her hands. Her cousin Min stood next to her. “Yun, you do yourself more harm than good in this,” Min said.

“You are wrong, Min,” Yun said. “The lanterns carry messages to the dead. He will hear me and come.”

Min shook her head. She didn’t know if the lantern festival came from Old Earth or not, but her cousin clung to the hope that her deceased husband would return to speak to her. He’d died without telling her where their son was and Yun was desperate to find him.

There was a deep tone. Yun knelt beside the detha nadi and set the rose tinted lantern on the surface of the water. It was a moonless night and the many lanterns floating along were the brightest lights against the black. Min stood with her cousin until the last of the shimmering silk and paper creations drifted past.

“It is time to return to the house, Yun,” Min said, putting her hand on Yun’s shoulder.

“Yes, that is where Heng will come,” Yun said, rising to her feet. “We must hurry. He can only remain in the world of the living until dawn.”

The two women hurried along the glowing path back to Yun’s silver and turquoise home. As they walked in, they were greeted by the smell of rotting flesh. Min gagged but Yun clasped her hands in front of her chest.

“By the gods, what is that stench?” Min asked, covering her nose and mouth with her sleeve.

“It is Heng,” Yun said, pointing to her husband’s favorite chair.

Min looked and nearly fainted. There, sitting in his usual spot, was Yun’s dead husband. He looked exactly as he had in life, though he glowed a sickly green and you could see the pattern of the fabric on the chair through his body.

“You called me, Yun. What do you want?” Heng asked, his voice hollow and irritated.

“Heng, where is our son? Where is Jingyi?” Yun asked.

“You called me here for that? Jingyi is dead, foolish woman,” Heng said. “I drowned him in the river. Why else do you think I was executed? Someone saw me do it. Were you absent at my trial?”

Yun wailed and ran from the room. Min faced the man. “Why did you do it?” she asked.

“I was tired of having to support a useless mouth,” Heng said. “Jingyi would never be a productive member of society. He was unable to work in the fields, his hands were too weak to use tools, and his inability to speak made him worthless as an Elder. So I ended his life.”

Min nodded. “A pity the Elders and Yun see it as murder. I see it differently.”

Heng looked surprised. “You agree with what I did?”

Min glanced around, making sure Yun was well out of hearing range and that no one was listening outside the doors and windows. “I do. Yun refused to listen when I told her that the gods cursed Jingyi. He was helpless, with no capability to care for himself or others. There was no need for her to drain herself to the point of death caring for both you and him. There was a reason I stopped coming over for several months, Heng. She forbade me from visiting until I took back what I said. I refused.”

Heng nodded. “It is good to know that there is one person in this world who understands what I did.” He glanced outside. “I am grateful the ceremony took place so late tonight. The sun is rising and I am free to go.”

“Farewell, Heng,” Min said. “May the gods not prolong your punishment.”

“Thank you, Min. Care for Yun, and may she forgive me one day,” Heng said. He faded away as the first light of dawn entered the room. With his disappearance the smell vanished. Min sighed and went in search of her cousin.

The woman in the window

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Photo via VisualHunt

Nick and Elsie looked around the interior of the condo with interest. They’d been house hunting for the past month and were beginning to believe that they’d never find something in town. Nick wanted to be close to work and with Elsie starting at the university in the fall, urban life was a necessity.

The realtor smiled at the young couple’s wide eyes. “This is the last place on today’s list, and I was saving the best for last. This is a two story unit, everything is new even though the building itself was built back in 2002. The first floor is great for entertaining, and the bedroom is on the second floor. The stairs are there, if you’d like to take a look?”

Nick and Elsie went up. Elsie gasped. “Nick, this is as big as our apartment out in the burbs,” she said.

“Elsie, don’t use that word. It makes you sound so uneducated,” Nick said, pulling on her braid. She giggled and swatted his hand away. The couple walked back downstairs. “How much do they want for it?”

“They’re asking one thirty for it,” the realtor said.

“What’s wrong with it?” Elsie asked.

“Elsie,” Nick began.

“Nick, we looked at the unit across the street two days ago. They’re asking two ten for the low end ones, which are worse than this one. I want to know what’s wrong with this unit that they’re selling it so cheap,” Elsie said.

The realtor hesitated, glancing down at her phone. She sighed. “I’m not supposed to tell you this. It could cost me my job if they find out I said anything. Two years ago, the last tenant of this condo was murdered by her boyfriend. They were arguing and he snapped. He beat her and then threw her through the window there.” She gestured at the huge plate glass window.

“That’s awful,” Elsie said.

“The company who manages the condos didn’t open the unit again until the beginning of this month. They’re desperate to fill it, but most people know what happened and won’t buy it,” the realtor said.

Nick and Elsie looked at each other. “Will they go down to one hundred even?” Nick asked.

The realtor looked surprised. “You’re still willing to offer? Even with what I told you?”

“It’s in the past. He’s not here. She’s gone. We need a place to live. If they’re willing to drop the price to keep us here, we’ll take it,” Nick said.

“Let me call down to the office.” The realtor dialed a number on her cell phone. She walked away from the couple, speaking quietly into the mouthpiece.

Elsie took Nick’s hand. “Are you okay with this, Elsie?” Nick whispered.

Elsie nodded. “It’s sad, but this place is perfect for us and we’re running out of time. It sucks it happened but it has nothing to do with us.”

The realtor returned. “The managers agree to your terms. They’re down in the office now, if you want to finalize today.”

“We’ll do it,” Nick said. “But we want to read all the rules first.”

“Right this way,” the realtor said, leading them out the door. Elsie glanced back over her shoulder and for a moment thought she saw a woman in the window. Shaking it off as just the reflection of her or the realtor, she turned her attention to the process she was now a part of.

Three weeks later, all of their furniture was in, the walls were decorated, and Elsie was in the process of cooking their first meal in their new home. Nick was reading the employee’s handbook for his new job as she brought him his plate.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling at her and putting the book away. Elsie grinned and stood up. She gasped, her own food falling to the floor.

“Elsie, what’s wrong?” Nick asked, turning to look. He gave a strangled cry of horror.

A woman with long, dark hair stared back at them from the window. Her image wavered as if she were an old movie being projected on the screen. Rain falling down made it look like she was crying.

She watched them for several long moments before vanishing. “Nick,” Elsie whispered.

“Do you think?” Nick asked. Elsie nodded. “I’ll start house hunting again.” Elsie nodded again. She didn’t mind the thought of roommates, but a ghost was not something she wanted in her home.

Magic enhances science

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Photo via Visual Hunt

Sophie glanced at the clock. She sighed and closed her book. It was almost time for her lesson. Just as she put the book on the shelf, she heard her mother’s voice. “Sophie, the Master is here.”

“Coming.” Sophie dragged herself off her bed and headed downstairs. She walked into the study. The Master – he’d never given either of them his true name – was a tall, gaunt man who appeared both young and old at the same time. His eyes shifted colors depending on his mood. They were the calm pale blue of a summer sky at the moment. That could – and probably would – change during the lesson.

“You seem reluctant,” the Master said, his voice sounding as if it were coming from the bottom of a well.

“I don’t understand why I need to know this. There’s no need for magic in this world. Science handles everything that magic can.”

“Can science put the  unquiet dead to rest? Can scientists read minds and know the thoughts and emotions of others? There is much that the logical side of nature can do, but there are still things that can only be done by those of us with the gift.”

“So what do you want me to do today?” Sophie asked.

“I want you to practice what we started during your last session,” the Master said.

Sophie scowled. “The last time I tried I ended up covered in rainbow colored slime that took me two days to wash off. I had to skip school so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself.”

“That is why I selected a Friday this time,” the Master said. “I anticipated you would need the time again.”

Sophie sighed and took the proper stance. Her mother hastily left the room. The Master moved back to lean up against the wall. Sophie began moving her hands in the proper pattern, summoning a multi-colored mist. It swirled around her. The mist was supposed to help identify invisible creatures and passive spells, something that Sophie had yet to encounter.

As she expected, she only managed to hold the spell for a few seconds before it exploded. She could feel the impact of the slime on her skin. “Yuck,” she muttered.

“Try again,” the Master said, his face impassive. Sophie did as he told. Again the spell failed to last more than a few seconds. “You aren’t concentrating, Sophie. You must focus your will, channel your mind into your spell. That is the only way you’re going to succeed.”

Sophie shook her head. “I don’t want to do this. I think it’s ridiculous. I’m going to be an astrophysicist. I don’t need magic.”

The Master gestured and Sophie screamed as pain wracked her body. She dropped to the floor, writhing in agony. He held her there for several minutes. When he released her, he moved to stand over her. “You will do as you are told. Regardless if you wish to follow a path into science, your magic will be trained. There will come a day when you must use it and you’ll be glad you have the knowledge.” He turned away. “I will return in one month. I expect you to practice every weekend until you have this spell right.” He swept out of the room.

Sophie stayed on the floor, drawing in ragged breaths. Her mother reentered the room a short while later. “Sophie, what happened?”

“I made him angry again,” Sophie said, her voice weak.

“You need to stop doing that. He killed me for my disobedience. Do you want to die as well? He’ll bind you to this plane of existence. You won’t be able to pass on until one of his students releases you, if he even allows it.”

Sophie slowly hauled herself to her feet. “I know. But I don’t want to do this.”

“You have to. You’re my only hope.”

Sophie looked at her mother’s pale form. There were terrible burns all over her body, where the Master had set her on fire with an eldritch flame that nothing Sophie had done could put out. “I know, mother. I’ll do better. I promise.”

Her mother smiled. “Thank you, Sophie. Now, you’d better go clean yourself up.” Sophie nodded and made her way painfully out of the study and up the stairs towards her bathroom.

Portrait of pride

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Photo credit: lisby1 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Bryan watched as his fiancee’s family laid out everything. “You guys take decorating seriously,” he said, half teasing.

“Of course we do. Most of what we put up has been passed down through many generations, so it’s very special to us,” Kenna’s mother said, giving a disapproving sniff. “Only the best families truly know how to celebrate Christmas.”

“Mom, knock it off,” Kenna said. “Just because Bryan’s family doesn’t do the same things we do, it doesn’t mean they’re not one of the best.” She gave Bryan an apologetic smile and mouthed “I’m sorry.” He winked at her.

“Phoebe, are you trying to prove you’re better than everyone again?” Kenna’s father asked, coming into the room with a tray full of steaming mugs. “It’s Christmas. Knock it off.” He didn’t seem to notice he was echoing his daughter.

“Nicolas, he didn’t even know that we have this tradition,” Phoebe said.

“Why would he? This is his first Christmas with us. Kenna usually goes home with him,” Nicolas said. “And you know I hate it when you use my full name.”

“It’s Christmas and you will use it, to show respect to our ancestors,” Phoebe said.

“I doubt they’ll mind me being called Nick, Phoebe.”

“Can we get the decorating over with?” Kenna asked. “I have to go to work soon, and Bryan promised to take his sister and her kids to see Santa this afternoon.”

Phoebe sniffed again. Nicolas glared at her. She subsided. The tree was already up and the lights strung. It lacked the baubles that were now sitting in carefully placed boxes. Phoebe handed one small box to Kenna. “Put these on in their proper places.”

“Yes Mom,” Kenna said. Bryan watched as the most exquisite crystal snowflakes were pulled out and hung with care on the uppermost branches.

For the next two hours, Kenna was forced to do all the work while her mother dictated where the ornaments were to go. Any time Nicolas tried to help, to speed up the work, Phoebe shrieked at him and he backed off. Finally the tree was decorated to Phoebe’s satisfaction. “There, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.”

“Mom, I’ve got an hour left before I have to change and go,” Kenna said. “You’ll have to set up the Nativity yourself. What else do you want me to do?”

“I can’t believe you didn’t take today off,” Phoebe said. “You know this is the day we always set up the tree.”

“I’m the most junior employee on the list, Mom. I don’t get to choose my days off this close to Christmas. The only reason I get Christmas Day off is because our GM decided to shut everything down this year,” Kenna said. “If he changes his mind, I’ll have to work then too.”

“Perhaps Bryan can help set up the Nativity,” Nicolas said.

“I’m taking Kenna to work, and then picking up my sister,” Bryan said. “I can’t stay either.”

“As I thought, completely unworthy,” Phoebe said.

“Mom, you are damned lucky I didn’t go home with Bryan this year. The only reason I’m here is because Dad called and said you were really depressed. If this is how you’re going to treat us, then I’m not coming back and we’ll celebrate with Bryan’s family again,” Kenna snapped.

“Your great-great-great-grandmother would be ashamed of you, Kenna,” Phoebe began.

“You’ve told me that every year since I was old enough to remember,” Kenna said. “I don’t care anymore.”

Phoebe got up. She pulled something that reminded Bryan of a good sized golden locket missing its front piece out of her pocket. She set it on the mantle. “Let’s just ask her then,” Phoebe said. She took a pin and poked her finger. She pressed it to the top of the frame.

Blood ran through a thin channel surrounding the portrait. It began to glow. Phoebe pulled back. The woman in the painting swiveled her head on her long neck, her dark curls bobbing in a light breeze. “I have not been woken up for some time,” she said, her voice strangely loud in the room. “What do you want?”

“Noble ancestor, my daughter Kenna has defied me. Tell her what a disappointment she is to you and the family,” Phoebe said.

The woman blinked. “Kenna? You mean the lovely young woman who put herself through college by working two jobs, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and keeping up a healthy social life? The one who’s now engaged to a young man very close to getting his Masters in some computer thing which we don’t understand that she’s been engaged to for the past four years? The one who has a steady job now and is working towards a down payment on her dream house with her soon-to-be husband? Why would we be disappointed in her?” The head swiveled again. “You are the one we’re disappointed in, Phoebe. You prattle on about the purity of our blood, yet you squander what intelligence our line has given you. You are a vain, shallow woman and deserve nothing of our praise or our blessings.” The blood faded and the image became still again.

No one spoke for several moments. “I’m going to celebrate with Bryan’s family,” Kenna said finally. “Now and for the rest of my life. If my accomplishments mean so little to you, then I don’t think it’s worth coming back.” She looked at Bryan. “Let me get my stuff and we can get out of here.”

Phoebe was still in shock. “Let me help you,” Nicolas said. Bryan, still a little shocked himself, could only nod and join the two of them in their hurried packing.