Return 22 pt3

(chapter continued from previous post)

THIS ENDS NOW! NO ONE DIES! THERE HAS BEEN TOO MUCH DEATH, TOO MUCH BLOOD, TOO MUCH GRIEF!

We did not create our children for this!

Lirit wanted her children to have a strong connection with the wilderness and with animal life. Sahen wanted her children to lead and inspire and to build bridges between individuals and cultures alike. Sanur wanted her children to be protectors and defenders and guardians. Meyar wanted her children to explore the wonders great and small of the world and share that with others. Talir wanted simply for her children to help humans where possible.

None of those things were meant to be at the expense of your own lives and independence and joy. None of you were to have power over any other. One small group lost their way. We did not know how badly or to what extremes they would take it until it was too late. Neoma was not the first to try to escape. She was not the last. But she was the most successful. She and her bloodline have been more true to your roots than any other in a long time.

All you have ever had to do is look up and ask us and listen, and we would have done everything in our power. We could do little because each of you, save Neoma’s bloodline, gave your consent to those who hurt you. While you have chosen to remain, we have had to respect that. Consent is a very old and very powerful law even among gods. Only when you made the decision to completely reject the false path were we free to do more. Those who have done so have been few and desperate and we have been unable to provide enough help.

We could, perhaps, have tried to find a loophole, some rationalization. But we have tolerated too much for too long, mothers who indulged the unspeakable behaviour of their beloved children in the hope that they would outgrow it in time. You have not done so, and we see no other choice. It is not good for you or for the rest of the world for this to continue.~

We do not want to ever see another of those abominable initiation rituals. We do not want to ever see another penance inflicted. We do not want to ever see our children bullying each other into monstrous acts. We repeat, we have given none of you power over any other, and you are all free.

We will not list the full accounting of crimes that have been committed. They have been crimes against humans, over and over, destroying communities and lives. They have been crimes against gods, culminating in an appalling attack on an earthborn. They have been crimes against other spirit-creatures, slaughtering and abusing them. They have been crimes against Neoma and her bloodline, including the intent to murder them all. We must add that you inflicted pain on Lirit’s daughter Kaveri in the name of punishment for her transgression of those false laws. While we could not protect those who gave consent, Kaveri has never done so in any way or to any action on your part or to those laws. And they have been crimes against your own kind, lies and violence and betrayal and a thousand other things.

This ends.

This virus will spread no further and infect no more victims. Your blood is sterile. Sharing it with another, by accident or design or ritual, will not result in a change. We will choose no further children save from Neoma’s bloodline.

And because you need time to think about what we have said, you will all, save Neoma’s bloodline, spend the next year in your animal forms and unable to change. We will not abandon you. You will still heal, and you will still have greater endurance in our light. For those of you in Enodia, Aithre has already informed her Oracles, who will explain. At the end of the year you will once again have both forms. We hope that you will learn something from this and behave more responsibly.

No matter what lies you have been told, no matter what you have done, we are your mothers. We love you, we take this action only reluctantly, and if you need us, we will be with you.

The blindingly bright-loud voices faded.

Tyrel shook his head hard, and looked around.

Neoma and Kieran were still in their animal forms.

Crouched sullenly across from Neoma was a wolverine; the injured woman on the ground was a great owl, testing her newly-healed wings cautiously. Tyrel saw a tawny-maned lion, a grey wolf, an enormous furless greyish thing with a long snakelike nose and big flapping ears, a peculiar smallish reddish thing that looked like a long-tailed pinecone with claws, a very thin big cat with a spotted hide, several kinds of thin-legged hooved creatures that were probably akin to deer or goats, and a huge bird with a long bare neck and long legs. The four humans clutched at their spears as they looked around them, bewildered and suspicious.

Juro and Demetrios remained in human form.

“Guard the front gate,” Demetrios told the humans. “Your lord, among others, has been found wanting by the moons. Everything in Ilek has just changed. For the moment, let these,” he gestured, “come or go as they wish, but let no one else in. Expect to do so through the day as well, so work out shifts.”

Not such a surprise that they obeyed: he was familiar and he’d given them directions when they had no idea what to do.

“And you lot,” Lysandra added to the various animals, “go find something to do with yourselves that doesn’t hurt anyone. Start thinking about what you’re going to do for the next year. We’ll help you get settled if we can, but we aren’t staying in Ilek indefinitely, so think quickly.”

“You might want to consider,” Narcissa said, “that there are a lot of hungry people outside those gates. Hunger makes anything look edible.”

Tyrel saw the tall bird shudder and draw in on itself, and one of the deer-like creatures stamped a hoof uneasily.

The owl launched herself into the air; the other reborn, uncertain and confused, began to drift apart into smaller clusters. Kieran kept a wary and mistrustful eye on them.

The wolverine’s growl, an incredibly low and chilling sound, was the only warning before he charged directly at Neoma.

She sidestepped, still facing him.

Tyrel saw Kieran spin around at the first hint of sound, and in the eyeblink in which Gernot moved, so did he.

Powerful amarog jaws closed on the wolverine’s spine and jerked it up off its feet altogether, even though it was a third of his size and low to the ground.

Maybe mindful of what the moons had said about deaths, he neither shook it nor crunched down, though.

Instead, ignoring the savage snarling and hissing and the violent struggling alike, he dragged Gernot into the ruins of the outbuilding.

Tyrel followed, certain that he knew what Kieran intended.

Kieran planted all four feet and, with a convulsive snap of his head, tossed Gernot directly into one of the cages. Tyrel slammed the gate shut and heard the lock click into place.

That cage had held a berserk amarog. Tyrel doubted that a furious wolverine was going to have much luck. Kieran yawned and looked up at Tyrel, tail waving now; Tyrel laughed and laid a hand on his head, keeping pace back outside.

Of course, only two people knew the way to open the cages. One of them was in the cage, the other outside, and neither currently had hands.

Oh well. If he has to spend some time in it until someone comes up with a way to force it, he’ll survive. That Lirit would mourn is the only reason he’s alive anyway.

Juro, Tyrel noted, was facing the bright-maned lion and the spotted cat directly, possibly warning them off from getting involved, though the others all seemed to have given up. Madoc, even as Tyrel watched, joined him. Tyrel strode quickly over to place himself on Juro’s other side, and Mirren stepped into place at Madoc’s side.

Madoc hissed, cat-fashion.

The spotted cat—Tyrel made a mental note to ask someone what it was; it looked fast—slunk away. Left alone against four, the lion followed.

“Kieran?” the russet-haired woman, no longer a wolf, said softly, like she didn’t quite believe it.

One word, Tyrel thought affectionately, and Kieran was an overgrown puppy, bounding over to her with tail thrashing wildly from side to side, ears forward, whining in excitement.

Yellow light rippled, and Kieran wrapped both arms around her in a fierce hug. “Still here. Thanks to Valeyan and Hickory and Talir. I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

Tentative only for a heartbeat, Neoma hugged him back, just as hard. He was much taller than her, the top of her head not reaching his shoulder, but neither seemed to care. “I am so far behind, I may never catch up,” she said ruefully.

“Those others aren’t a threat anymore, so there’s no hurry.”

Kaveri wandered casually over to Tyrel and his companions. “I don’t suppose you know where Iole and Phaidra and Ander were taken?” she asked Juro.

“No.” Juro raised his voice. “Demetrios? The donkeys and mule?”

Demetrios carefully avoided mother and son on his way over to them, and their princesses came with him. “One of the other houses. They should be safe for the moment. They were going to be put to work drawing goods out of Ilek.”

“’Rel, what the hell was that all about, anyway?” Madoc demanded. “You’re supposed to be watching my back, not tossing a knife into it!”

“Obsidian knife,” Kaveri said.

“What? Oh…” He heaved a sigh. “All right, I can forgive you for that, but any other reason and I’d be thumping you black and blue.”

“I know,” Tyrel said. “I wouldn’t have done it if I’d seen a better option at the time.”

“Obsidian being relevant how?” Demetrios asked.

“Valeyan,” Kieran said, not letting go of Neoma, “is an earthborn very far from here. He gave Neoma’s bloodline a gift. If we die of anything born of earth, or for that matter of moonlight, we go to our mothers, but we return intact on the full moon. A good thing, or I would not be here, given an obsession with helping people escape from cages, literal and otherwise.”

“You got us out of one,” Juro said. “Obsidian isn’t earth?”

“No, or not enough so. Die by it and you will stay dead. Ask another time how I know. Talir is near the horizon. Many will be disappointed if the healer is not there when the sun rises.”

“I know,” Narcissa said. “Although it feels like dusk and pausing for the night was days ago, not a single night. It will be a long and tiring day but nothing I can’t do.”

“You may not have until sunrise,” Demetrios said. “We do not know how far the effects of the quake reach.”

“Oh dear. You’re right. There are going to be any number of injuries. Kieran, I think today we’re going to need your healing skills more than your ability to intimidate.”

Kieran nodded. “I doubt anyone will notice or care that you have extra hands and fewer animals.” He looked down at Neoma, finally loosening his embrace, though Tyrel thought it was with reluctance. “This town has suffered flood, famine, poverty, a plague of mice, and a lack of healers. With an earthquake as well…”

“I understand,” she said, and smiled. “And I’ll do what I can.”

“I suspect there will be quite enough to keep us all busy and then some,” Kaveri said. “Juro, Demetrios, are you coming with us?”

Juro hesitated, trading glances with Demetrios. “I think we can do more elsewhere. We’ll be recognized and there should be no reason to question us.”

“Which is likely to be important in reducing the confusion and fear,” Demetrios said. “And we’ll see what we can do about helping those outside the great houses.”

“Don’t worry,” Juro added. “We aren’t going to go far. I still don’t have even close to all those answers I want, and I know where you are. We’ll find the donkeys and Ander and get them back to you safely.” Together, they headed for the gate.

“Thank you,” Narcissa said.

Demetrios glanced back, and turned long enough to bow to her. “Gracious lady, your family has given us the greatest gift possible. Thanks should only be from us to you.” He fell back into step beside Juro.

“Enodians,” Madoc muttered.

“I might be more useful as pest control and distraction,” Mirren said. “But let’s get back and see how bad it is. I wonder whether there’s anything left of the campsite.”

“It’s largely intact,” Lysandra said. “Onyeka and the rest of Ejiro’s past Brides and the present one, along with a horde of spirit creatures, are guarding our wagon and camp and are probably waiting to hear. Unless the spirit-creatures have told them already. They helped me speak to Ejiro so I could ask him for that earthquake.”

“So we missed an earthquake,” Madoc said. “And came back the same night we died. And Neoma’s back? What else did we miss?”

“Probably a lot. I’m still not sure why we seem to have two new family members. But I suppose we can all survive waiting to find out the whole story.”

Return 22 pt2

(chapter continued from previous post)

Kieran and Kaveri edged backwards, so there was less open ground between them and Neoma and Narcissa, more space between them and the ranged arc of opponents. Lysandra and Demetrios followed their lead, cautiously. It was something of a relief to have family and allies all clustered together and easier to protect, but Tyrel wasn’t sure he cared for where this was all going. Gernot wasn’t going to be swayed by any appeal to logic or emotion: he had too much of a vested interest in maintaining the current system, which justified even the worst of his actions. The same would be true of his second in command, and probably of others. Some of the rest might be persuaded, but they’d have to take an immense personal risk to act on it. And the humans? They were out of their depth and if it came to a fight they were doomed, but it would be dishonourable under local values to disobey their lord.

“We were told,” Neoma said, “that the moons wanted us to live under a harsh law and obey others who were more worthy of their grace. The law was created to turn us into domesticated animals, easily controlled for the purposes of others with no say in our own lives. Draw this load, hunt that prey, carry this, guard that. Talir helped me to escape. She asked an earthborn to give me sanctuary. She gave me a new ability that helped me to survive there, the ability to weave moonlight into fabric and other things. When Gernot believed me dead, Talir took me very far from here to protect me. Would she have done any of that, if she were displeased with me? Since then, she has chosen two others who share my blood…”

“More,” Narcissa murmured, before translating the last line. “Several died, only Kieran met ever them. All were Talir’s until recently.”

“Incomplete information,” Neoma muttered. “Explain to them, please.” Continue reading

Return 22 pt1

The first tremor made Tyrel blink and look down. Had he imagined that?

It quickly became obvious that he hadn’t.

The first tile to come loose let a narrow shaft of moonlight into the darkness. It wasn’t close to any of them, but it was still a welcome sight. Another tile, another thin beam of moonlight, and as the shaking escalated, it became harder to count. One allowed a spear of light to fall on Kaveri, who sighed deeply—and, before her captors had time to drag her out of the way, she changed to her raccoon form, melting out of their hands. She ran, not for the door, but for Juro, ducking around behind him. Tyrel figured sharp raccoon teeth and clever hand-like paws would make short work of the ropes around his wrists. When one tried to follow, Juro twisted in place and kicked with both bare feet. His aim was good enough to send the other man reeling back several staggering steps before he fell, though falling was certainly easy at the moment.

Tyrel could see Juro straining against the restraints, and when they finally gave way, he snapped both arms around in front so he could use Tyrel’s knife on the rope around his neck. Free, he shifted his grip on the knife and straightened.

Their other captors, and now even the one who had tried to intervene, were too busy ducking the tiles that fell inside and trying to keep their footing to pay any attention. That changed when Juro tangled his fingers into the dark hair of the bronze-skinned man and jerked his head back, the knife against his throat. The man went rigid, barely breathing. Tyrel would have, too: the insane fluidity of the ground beneath them would make it far too easy for Juro to lose his balance and cut the man’s throat even if he didn’t intend to. And how long would it take for one or more of those beams to come down?

“Cages,” Juro said flatly. “Up. Open them. The longer I’m holding you and this knife, the greater the chance I’ll slip, and I’m not letting go until those cages are open.”

Kaveri climbed up on top of Kieran’s cage, chittering excitedly and standing on her hind legs, though she had to drop to all fours to keep from being flung off. Continue reading

Return 21

From here, Narcissa could see the door of the outbuilding, though not well and from an angle. The space in front of it she could see quite clearly, however.

She saw a small shape, bright with Meyar’s light, plummet from the sky directly over the outbuilding, followed by an owl haloed with green-gold. Heart in her throat, she lost sight of her sister behind the building.

Please let her be safe. Why did she come back here?

She heard Gernot’s threat, echoing off the inside of the walls, and felt cold and sick. Could she let her moon-sister endure that? But what was to stop him from inflicting that or worse on Kaveri anyway, once he had Narcissa?

How were they going to get out of this? A few days ago, she’d been looking forward to the upcoming full moon and the pure joy of playing in the abundant violet moonlight with her moon-sister who had become nearly as dear to her as her blood sister—not alone this time, but with Talir full as well, which meant other sorts of games. Even if they all died, they’d be back in a few days, but had her trick with Juro worked? What about Demetrios, who was probably the one who’d been inside alone briefly? What would happen to Ejiro, to Onyeka and her children, to Iole and Phaidra and Ander? And even with physical damage erased, what damage to the mind and heart would being tortured leave behind?

She heard Kaveri’s command, as well.

Talir’s light brightened in the clear area in front of the door.

Narcissa blinked, wondering whether she had dust in her eyes, but no, that was unmistakably the same thing they saw whenever any of them had been gone and was being returned. But none of the moons were full, Talir certainly wasn’t, and as far as she knew, both Kieran and Tyrel were inside.

The yellow light resolved itself into the shape of a light-skinned woman, not particularly tall, with long russet hair drawn back into a neat tail, in a tunic with a high neck but no sleeves and loose-fitting trousers.

She stretched, looked around her, then focused on the doorway.

“Gernot. No longer anyone’s master. Once again, you trap and threaten my son. I’m here. Come face me.” Continue reading

Return 20

Tyrel paused in his account of their first visit to the Garden of Umako, as the door lock grated open to let someone in. Kieran, who had been lying quietly, roused instantly with a deep rumbling growl.

“That’s Demetrios,” Juro said.

Kieran, interestingly, subsided, though he stayed on alert. Tyrel wondered whether he was rational enough to accept Juro as a friend whose judgement could be trusted, or whether it was something else.

The newcomer, who had a single oil lamp in hand, closed the door firmly and set the lamp on a ledge near it before approaching. That was enough light for moonblood eyes to see him easily. Probably around Lysandra’s height, with that same raven-black hair, and the lines of his face had a cast that was unmistakably Enodian. His skin was the warm deep sepia of the islands near Enodia, rather than olive-toned, but trade between them was so common that it wasn’t at all unusual at any level of society. He was, not surprisingly, in rather understated off-white and light grey and dull blue, though the style was local.

“I had to tell conflicting lies to three different people to get in here at all. Once they put those pieces together…” He shrugged. “I cannot unlock the cages. I do not know the combination settings, only Gernot, who is in charge, and Wira who is his second, know them. And I do not think two of us will make it past that door. What help I can be is limited, but I’m open to ideas.”

“Did Narcissa get away?” Juro asked him. “The lady I was with?”

“So far. I’m looking for a way to get her outside the walls. Lirit is, without question, helping her to hide. There is so little visible light around her when she’s still that they will not see her, and a wolf, a wolverine, a lion, now a cheetah as well, and others are somehow failing all attempts at tracking her by scent.”

Kaveri chuckled. “Good girl. She did learn what you taught her, ‘Rel.” Continue reading