“We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.”
Josette paused as she cleared the familiar turn in the road. Beyond should have been the Willow Way Community Garden. It had been her destination upon hearing of the veil of darkness sweeping over much of the land, upon learning that the realm of Dread had begun an invasion. She headed straight for the garden upon hearing of the news, the little Starseed intent on gathering from the gardens to aid in whatever way she could.
Was she too late?
“No…no no no…” Josie pleaded against the darkness and summoned her light into a little orb defensively held within a fist. She turned behind her to inspect the path back towards her home but saw nothing but the darkness enveloping where she had come. What had happened? How had she gotten here?
Where the community entrance should have been now stood a decrepit, overgrown space full of rot and decay. It was a poor facsimile of Josette’s beloved garden, and her heart sank when her eyes fell upon it as it emerged from the shadows where moonlight struggled to pierce the thick canopy of gnarled trees. Gone were the friendly stands of the farmer’s market. In their place overgrown icy clung to ancient, twisted wrought iron gates. Josie could hear the haunting melody of their creaking hinges which echoed eerily into the unseen parts of the night in equal parts warning and sirens’ beckon.
“Stay close, Vie.” Josie cautioned her pixie dust sneezing, feywild familiar who had been trotting alongside her. The snow-white little ermine twitched her little pink nose up at Josie. Vie seemed to understand…and even listened for a moment…before she craned her little head towards the garden and the softly glowing lights buried within the underbrush within the garden. With a hop she was racing forward, drawn to them like will-o-the-wisps and heedless of Josette’s warning.
Josette cursed under her breath. “Vie!” The hissed whisper chased after the familiar in a puff of visible breath as the air chilled about her. The garden was laden with heavy, cold mists that resisted the chilled breeze creaking through barren tree branches above. Vie quickly disappeared within like a silken arrow shot into the heart of the garden. The winds brought scents of damp earth, decaying detritus and cloying notes of death and dread lingered like ozone after a storm.
Josie suddenly felt a malevolence watching her as she stood in the open lane. The unsettling realization triggered a primal sensation of dread though on a deeper level she knew that running would only unleash the sinister presence. Her skin prickled with unease as an involuntary shiver chased down her spine. She forced herself to keep her head held high, her chin stubbornly jutting forward. She would not give whatever was behind this energy the satisfaction of her fear. She would defend her garden no matter what might be waiting, cowardly, in the darkness.
Tangled, thorn-covered bushes stretched their skeletal fingers towards her as she moved after her familiar and entered the garden. Beyond the broken gates Josie saw the once vibrant garden now wilting in haunting shades of ashen gray and shadowy blacks. Leaves and petals crumbled and fell like ghostly confetti and Josie saw, when she looked to her left, a cobweb laden path leading her towards a crumbling fountain that still wept stagnant water from various holes so that it looked as if the once angelic figure was bleeding from half a dozen wounds. A raven cawed in the darkness from its perch atop the fountain. It turned when it heard Josie, fixed her with a beetle black stare and shuffled with hunched wings about the top of the weeping woman statue.
“Vie.” Josie whispered again and looked away from the fountain when she heard a rustle in the underbrush and saw the glowing spheres nestled within a bramble of dead leaves and twisted, prickly thorns. “Vie please tell me that’s you.” Josie kept her tone quiet as she veered from the uneven path and into the undergrowth.
Another rustle, this one closer, another squeak of a sound before Vie suddenly popped upright from within the constellation of glowing orbs. The sudden eruption nearly caused Josie to scream out loud and her eyes chastised the little ermine in ways her mouth kept silent. The familiar gave a chitter of excitement and Josie saw Vie’s white coat cast in a beautiful celestial glow of swirling blue plasma. The glowing orbs that had beckoned the feywild familiar were, in actuality, Cinderella pumpkins. These had translucent skin, the soft glow coming from within where constellations danced with galaxies and swirled round primordial luminescence.
“What are these?” Josie asked, momentarily mesmerized by the inviting glow and dismissed her light so she could make use of both her hands. Vie gave a little sneeze of pixie dust to one such pumpkin so that it began to float up into the air where Josie could easily reach for it and pull it free from its vine. The light momentarily dimmed as the pumpkin was freed from the vine but then the glow returned as if it appreciated such a liberation. As her fingers made contact with the pumpkin, Josie felt a warm, comforting energy begin in her fingertips and flow upwards through her hands and arms. The surface was smooth, yet it radiated a soothing warmth like a cozy embrace on a chilly evening. Her fingertips drew ripples through the light and she felt a wave of tranquility washing over her, felt her stress and anxiety begin to gently melt away. “How many are you?” Josie asked and looked to see two more glowing pumpkins nestled within the growth. Vie hopped and scurried away towards the second and lifted it with another sneeze. “Okay…okay…” Josie whispered and tucked the first pumpkin safely away in her pack. “We’ll take them…” Why she didn’t entirely know…only that she felt the distinct need to claim them and remove them from such a place.
Two of the pumpkins fit within Josie’s pack and she was forced to carry the third. The Starseed crept closer to the fountain, intent on searching the entirety of the garden to make sure nothing else was missed, that nothing would be left behind to be consumed by such a place. She still felt an ominous presence grimly stalking the edges of her vision, but Josie was determined to save whatever good she could from this wicked place.
As she neared the fountain, Josette chanced a glance over the moss covered and lichen roughened stone and caught a glimmer of her reflection in the foul water. Despite the flow of the fountain, the water seeped with an added weight which limited ripples and gave reflections in the slivers of moonlight. What she saw gave her pause for it was not the ballerina’s reflection which stared back at her. Instead, it was a fair complexion with smooth skin bearing the sun-kissed marks of outdoor labor. A few freckles crossed the nose, a reminder of time spent under open skies. The expression was one of unwavering resolve as it stared back at Josie from beneath an armored helm. On the woman’s armor blazed a single longsword capped by a golden crown and flanked by two flowers, the Fleur-de-lis. A symbol of Joan of Arc, patron Saint of France and martyr burned at the stake for, among other things, witchcraft.
”You must fight.”
The raven suddenly took flight and Josie heard the extolling words in her mind and the sudden sound startled her, causing her to drop the pumpkin she’d been holding. When it hit the ground, it cracked open and that celestial light seeped out, began to swirl and shimmer and take shape around the little ballerina. No princess carriage would be formed from fairy god motherly magic, no glass slippers or beautiful gown either. Instead, the light swirled about the Starseed to form luminescent armor. Greaves, cuisses, gauntlets, vambrace, cuirass, plackart and pauldron…an entire set of ghostly armor took shape around and over her lithe frame, a longsword of pure celestial light formed in a lean against the fountain.
“You really shouldn’t have done that…witch.” A smooth tenor sounded from the darkness, its owner slowly prowling forward with preternatural grace. A pale hand extended to accept the descending flight of the raven which promptly lighted upon the outstretched wrist and forearm. “You should know better than to steal from such a place. Those belong in the darkness…where you will now remain as well.”
(To be continued…)
Josette felt the chill in the air a moment before the figure’s voice undulated its way through the darkness and her hand dropped to reach for the sword hilt behind her. Vie jumped from Josie’s fingertips to slithered away into the brambles and underbrush that had come to crowd the fountain on one side, close…but hidden. That Josie didn’t try to flee immediately spoke to her senses, was testament to her training with her brother…and a deep knowledge that if she were to run, she would be stalked, hunted and taken down like prey. The light could banish the darkness…yet it forever attracted it as well.
”You must fight.” She heard words again, this time soft and feminine, but possessed of an unbreakable iron at their core.
“Is this your garden to give such commands?” Josie’s defiant voice answered the threat with a stubborn jut of her chin though she still didn’t know exactly where she was. A problem to be solved when she wasn’t being stared down by an unknown threat. Eyes moved from the raven to the figure and tightened her grip around the sword’s hilt though made no move to raise it. Yet.
“Mine?” The figure inquired after a moment of offering a bite of something to the raven and giving an affectionate stroke to its beak. “I harvest…other…things than simple vegetables.” Despite such an ominous implication, he stood a figure of dark allure. Complexion pale and fair as alabaster with aristocratic features that whispered of aristocratic heritage, he set the woman firmly within the nocturne of shadowy, smoked amethyst colored gaze. “And so have little need for such a place.”
Despite her armor, Josie could feel the penetrating weight of his stare. The desire to look him in the eye warred with her better nature and self-preservation. Thus far the latter has been winning. For now. She tried to merely listen, to ignore the brooding intensity which threatened to drag her a step closer. He was tall and dressed in a style which blended classic elegance with a contemporary edge which made him appear equally timeless and sophisticated. Even his voice seemed to entice with a hint of old-world charm that somehow softened the sinister meaning behind his words. “Then why are you here?” Josette’s tone was defensive and protective of the pumpkins still within her bag. There was an intrinsic sensation that they should not be allowed to be taken by this one. Or kept in the darkness.
“You tell me. You created this space…you invited me here. You came to collect what called to you.” The words oozed with a dark charisma as the raven took flight towards a gnarled, bare branch above that spread like a dried bone of some ancient behemoth’s skeleton. When he moved it was slow, determined. The grace was that of a predator, his every step, a dance of seduction meant to entice. “One might say I am as confused to see you as you are me.” The quiet sigh which sounded then spoke of a slow burning patience though the smile which formed was purely invitational, warm, and inviting.
“I don’t even know you. What do you mean I created…? I don’t even know you. How could I invite you? Where did you come from?” Josette’s confusion flashed for a moment as the questions tumbled from her soft mouth. For a moment she was unsure, the figure’s words having the same effect as an unexpected stumble mid pirouette. It threatened to throw her and make her vulnerable. Make her look him in the eye and question him. But Josie had learned how to watch and read people at the carnival, spent time around people like her brother and Patch (the name still a wound to her heart) and Boz and Andre, Mouse and Sweeps and all the others. Spent time with them and learned how to read even the smallest of tells. “I don’t think you’re telling the truth.” Josie called out the tell when she saw it, the way that smile bore no warmth and rose no further than the generous curves of his mouth. The eyes remained cold and calculating as if he’d mastered the art of showing one emotion while feeling another and leaving others to question his sincerity. A tactic? Josie couldn’t be sure…only that she didn’t trust him despite the other magnetic sensations trying to pull her towards him.
“You may call me Kaldric.” He answered in the form of a modest introduction. “And I am a traveler…of sorts.” He paused for a moment as she studied him and studied her in return. “You think I would lie?” He asked and glanced upwards when the raven gave a single, resonant croak of mockery. “True…” This was spoken to the raven. “But that was an accident and it happened only twice…”
A genuine smile of amusement fluttered from the raven to land upon Josette and the dancer felt another tug…this one actually forcing a step forward towards him now. Should she say his name she might lose all control. “I sense you would do almost anything. Accidental or otherwise…to get what you want.” Josie sensed he wanted the pumpkins. He’d mentioned them directly more than once now. She might have been inclined to share had she not felt an intense malevolence emanating from him. Whether it was innately his or attached to him in some way she could not yet be sure.
“Then I will leave you to your travels.” Josie gave a polite nod of her head and looked for Vie in order to gather up her feywild familiar and find a way back home. There was intrigue there. Josie was a traveler in her own right and had always been keen to meet those who wandered from place to place, those who had wanderlust and those who couldn’t be tied down.
The raven gave another single call and launched itself from its perch to dive into growth of brambles, dead grass and vines to Kaldric’s right…and where Vie had secretly been sneaking closer to the figure ready to send him aloft with a perfectly timed sneeze of pixie dust. Kaldric looked dispassionately towards the spot the raven had disappeared, heard the flaps and scratches and sounds of the ongoing battle beneath the brambles and then looked towards Josette. “Insolent little thing isn’t she?” He canted his head to the side as he studied Josette. “Though I can see where she gets it from.”
“Vie…” Josie had called out with concern for her familiar as the raven dove. No doubt that’s why he’d been sent up to his branch to begin with. To be a little spy far above. Josie whipped the sword she’d held, nearly forgotten, up in front of her. Her brother’s training came to the forefront as she held the weapon. It meshed, as she took her first steps, with her own formal training as the ballerina kept an easy balance and remained light of foot as she circled closer towards the spot that the raven had dive bombed her beloved Vie. Judging by the sounds, however, Vie was very much in and even winning her little battle. “And do you teach your bird duplicity?” Josie asked though she heard no answer for Kaldric suddenly rushed her.
How he moved so fast Josie couldn’t fathom. One syllable he was standing by the ruined gate and the next he was shouldering her back against the fountain. Josie tried to whip her sword to her left and cut but he was too close, his size and proximity rendering the weapon all but pointless. And yet Kaldric hissed in pain when he collided with her, the point of fangs revealed in the painful grimace. It had been her armor, not her sword, that had done damage.
The vampire, for that is what Josie realized he was, hissed a curse in an unfamiliar tongue and curled the fingers of his wounded hand. The fingers had been singed, burned and nails blackened when he’d tried to claw the armor from her chest…when he’d tried to tear the helm from her head and expose her delicate, tender throat. “It seems they won’t make this easy…” The observation was spoken aloud as he watched smoke waft from his fingertips and waited for a regenerative healing that did not come. “Remarkable. Almost as remarkable as the smell of your blood and the flavor of our light…” A scorched nail punctured the tissue of his thumb so corrupt blood could flow. “I will devour you…”
Vie gave a painful squeal from the underbrush which tore at Josie’s heart and ripped her attention from Kaldric. And it was then that the vampire flicked his hand in her direction, sent a spattering of adumbral blood towards her. Where it landed it hissed and sizzled, bore through the armor of light and corroded the blade of the sword to leave both pockmarked and damaged as it ate through the light like acid.
Josie tried to turn away, tried to run to Vie but found herself caught by Kaldric. The armor of light warped and vibrated, shimmered and rippled where fingers grabbed and crushed it at her throat. His fingers burned but she was worth the pain it seemed, and Josie could smell the burning flesh as darkness warred with light. He needed the armor off her and even accepted a stinging slash from the sword which opened up his side just above the hip before a hammering blow knocked it from her grasp. “Light and all…” The words a charismatic promise of wicked pleasure and destruction as fingers felt the warm caress of the ballerina’s throat beneath her armor, as nails threatened to tear into her skin and rip her open.
Josie blinked and the grimace of perceived pain slowly evaporated. Her eyes flew open to find the community garden intact, the autumn sun shining low in the afternoon sky and Vie…Josie looked rapidly around for her familiar and found her happily jumping into a pillowy pile of bright green clover. The sudden change…it left her speechless for a moment as a hand flew to her throat and felt no wounds. Everything was as it should be. Everything was as it was before she’d found herself in that dark, desecrated garden. Vie popped up from the clover when she sensed unease settling around Josie and twitched her whiskered nose up at the ballerina. “C’mon…the veil is thin, and the 13th is tomorrow.” Josie was trying to convince herself as much as Vie. “We’ll honor them tonight when the moon rises…the witches that have come before…and protected us.” She felt she needed their protection now. Though she’d left the garden somehow (had she even been there to begin with?) the sense of foreboding wouldn’t leave her.
”Light and all…” Josie heard the whisper on the wind which blew with a sudden coldness and caused her to spin round and find its source. In doing so she felt the weight in her pack and opened it to find two glowing pumpkins…the two she had taken from the dark garden. “How did I…how…” She started to ask as she dug through the bag and found a glowing blade like the one she’d wielded against the vampire save that it was smaller, but just as sharp and deadly. Joan’s blade. Josie’s blade. A witch’s blade.
”You must fight…”
(To be continued…)
The sudden intrusion of Canaan Devillier’s warm, solicitous tenor was like the rising sun; it thawed the lingering chill and brought with it all the reassurance of a new dawn. He wore the same winsome smile as could be found on his bearded face more often than not these days, though a hint of concern was expressed in the faint quirk of his brows upon the man’s sedate approach. Though still separated by some distance, he’d been near enough to catch Josette’s panicked whirl and wondered silently at the cause.
The elegant, shining dagger tugged gently on some long-buried thread, sparking a strange sense of familiarity within him, a kind of déjà vu he’d learned not to dismiss out of hand. These moments tremored along long lifelines, and like a spider he had but to follow the vibrations in the web to locate the source. But the here and the now, however, were a little more pressing, so he shifted his attention from the blade to Josette’s face and then their immediate surroundings in a quick but shrewd sweep of hazel-eyed curiosity. Given the dreadful energies that were cropping up all over Twilight Isle, one couldn’t be too sure.
“Tout va bien, mon bijou?” The Cajun’s spiced accent lending the flowery language a more robust, smokey flavor. He offered the woman a hand up from where she knelt as he came alongside her.
The warmth of the Cajun’s tone and the blaze of that reassuring smile was exactly the support she needed to ground her in the here and now in that moment of confusion and disorientation.
The veil was paper thin, like the waning crescent of twin moons and Josie felt the echoes of frequencies and vibrations past. Their music never left her and *hummed* in her very cells. What she *was* blurred the lines between worlds. She walked the tightrope of the in-between with no net beneath her, careful to avoid *certain* webs as it was a weave that was not in her nature. She’d leave those vibrations to the ones that enjoyed them.
She’d chosen to fight many times. At a cost that had potentially left pieces of her fragmented from the trauma. But now—on the Eve of the 13th, she was calling them all back to her now—every bit of her power she’d unwittingly given away out of fear of history repeating, or that she would not be able to control it.
The blade held an otherworldly glow that could be felt across ley lines and dimensions. It harnessed the power of similarly aligned energy that pulsed in a knowing way at the Cajun’s arrival.
“Oui.” As Josie stood, the ballerina’s posture had changed somehow. “He’s still here. Can you feel him? I-” The ballerina tipped her head as if tuning into a radio wave. “Not human, cunning—ravenous.”
The crickets had gone quiet and even the swaying dahlias stilled in the garden.
“I can’t hear his heart.” A look of confusion in that gaze of blue-green patina as she looked back to the Cajun but remained alert with her blade and her bag which she would not surrender.
Not without one hell of a fight.
“Him?” he queried, then quieted as the ballerina cocked her head. Though he had decades on her in the way of practical magic, Josette was infinitely more sensitive to the vibrational wavelengths all around them, in tune with the universe in a way he could only hope to accomplish. If she could feel something, if she said something was there, then he believed her.
But Cane could feel it now, too. Since his time as Keeper nearly a year earlier, he’d continued to nurture a most profound connection to the Isle, to the very earth itself, linked inexorably through the enduring strength of its rocks, minerals, crystals, and gems, and the luminous energy of its flora and fauna.
Far beneath their feet, he sensed the ley line falter and sputter. Everything stilled as the bruised canvas of the gloaming dimmed and a pall of darkness fell like a curtain across the sky. All around them the garden began to wilt. Stems sagged and crumpled, fragile stalks snapping in two with all the ease of an owl's beak crushing a mouse; leaves shriveled and curled, falling to litter the ground like the shed skins of snakes only to disintegrate into so much dust; and what late fall crops did not implode from the sudden onset of decay eating them from the inside out sprouted humanoid faces, twitching and blinking like distorted nightmares, oozing dark blood and ephemeral shadowstuff.
The eerie susurration of the wind twisting through the bare, bleached bones of skeletal trees made the Cajun's skin crawl and a hiss forced its way past clenched teeth as the veil between planes parted and they found themselves in a dark, twisted echo of the material plane that was known by a handful of names... Dread, Fugue, the Black Rift, Shadowfell. Cane had never physically traveled to the Plane of Shadow until now, but he’d been there once before in his mind—recklessly chasing his lover across the infinite Æther as an unmoored soul, and all for the simple chance to remind him of the light.
Cane’s posture shifted in tandem with Josette's, his broad-shouldered frame moving to overlap hers defensively like the living shield wall he was. The defiant curl of a mirthless smile spread across his visage; the subtle challenge illumined by the celestial glow of the petite ballerina's brandished weapon.
“Well, that narrows the field a bit.” His lackadaisical drawl belied both mental and physical acuity, as did the seemingly slack grip of the silently conjured weapon in his left hand—an iron railroad tie that had dispatched its fair share of malevolent souls. "I ever tell you how much I hate vampires?" With the notable exception of one Kindred in particular whom he'd grown to love, he'd not had many positive encounters with the undead.
With a blink of dark lashes, Josie realized she hadn’t exactly been clear with the Cajun and there was seemingly no one standing there. She must have seemed utterly insane. “The one who calls himself Kaldric.” Josie uttered the name with a grim familiarity. It tasted like ashes on her tongue, and she was more than grateful for Cane’s presence in that moment than he would know.
“And he seems fond of mind games.”
Vie was also overjoyed to see the Cajun and the little white ermine did a happy roll at his feet before Vie froze on high alert when the veil flickered again, and she chittered a warning to both.
Josie heeded Vie’s warning as she shifted her attention to the veil. The slightest ghostly breeze, or breath of air, jerked it haphazardly forward as if the ballerina was forced to watch the shift through a macabre lens of a stop motion camera. The sensation was disorienting, but Josie held her ground even as once again the vision of her beautiful garden decayed all around her.
Grateful for the shield of warmth from Cane, she drank in that drawl like warm honey. It was a balm to the soul despite the unnerving appearance of the iron railroad tie.
“I haven’t had the pleasure until now. Is that what he is?” She was always eager to hear Cane’s stories. Although she usually preferred them at the lake house around a bonfire.
“He seemed drawn to these.” Catching him up while she opened her pack and showed the Cajun the glowing Cinderella pumpkins and quickly filled him in on what had transpired on her way to the garden.
As Josie opened the pack, the light burst forth from the pumpkins to form a glowing celestial blue halo around the bag and illuminated her fine features.
A chiding call of a raven from a gnarled tree branch pulled her attention deeper into the darkness of the decaying garden. Josie hastily closed the bag and slung it over her shoulder with a soft murmur to Cane.
Cane realized even before she told him that this was not her first crossing beyond the veil today, and there was someone in their lives who was not going to be too happy about that fact. For just a moment, a touch of amusement softened the edges of his grim smile as he imagined what that brotherly overreaction might entail.
He’d been busy scanning the uncanny tree line when Josette presented her pack of glowing gourds. Their queer halation drew the eye, as did the energies contained within them, but they didn’t have the same mesmeric quality as the empyrean blade Josette possessed. He passed a curious glance between the two, though it lingered a little longer on the dagger as she hurriedly recounted the run-in with Kaldric and his raven, finding the pumpkins, the shining armor and longsword. He just couldn’t seem to shake the niggling suspicion that he’d seen it before. And that wasn’t even the only thing to smack of tedious familiarity. It wasn’t that many years ago he’d had the pleasure of irritating Sinjin’s sire, Keythe, by taking his spy of a bird off the board.
“We’ll call it an educated guess.” Cane finally responded to her question as his attention darted back to their surroundings. “No heartbeat, repelled by holy armor... Likely fairly old, too, if he’s got the ability to turn his blood to acid.” One of his shoulders rose and fell in an uncertain shrug. There were many creatures in Rhydin and beyond he’d yet to encounter. “But I’ve been known to be wrong a time or two.”
The raven’s deep, musical croak seemed to mock him. Cane narrowed his eyes at the bird. “You know,” he told Josie, “it’s too bad Strix isn’t here. Remind me later to tell you ‘bout the time I set him on some asshat’s jackdaw familiar.” He said it to stir the pot, to draw Kaldric out into the open. Then a tilt of his head, followed by an irreverent crack of a grin. “Bet Vie could take that thing.”
(To be continued! Many thanks to Cane’s writer for joining the spooky fun!)
The light wielder had been right. He was here. And he watched from beneath a tenebrous shroud as Josette huddled with the one who had taken a defensive posture about the little Starseed. The smoked amethyst of Kaldric’s gaze shone like buried jewels within the darkness as the Raven above alerted to the pair’s arrival. He listened and heard the music, the hummed notes woven through the centuries to form a symphonic mosaic of past lives, each more delicious than the last. He nearly became entranced, nearly found himself caught in a particular web entirely of his own making. And from his secretive perch he felt the collection, the calling of fragments and shards back together to make hole, felt it keenly as a loss…something he could not allow to happen after so much time spent collecting from the ashes. And when he stepped from the oppressive emptiness, he cloaked himself with a profound unease, wrapped himself with its absolute and disconcerting dread. He moved, separated himself from the inky background, with regal poise and unnerving calm.
In the shift of stop motion, Josette would recognize Kaldric yet realize he appeared different if only momentarily. In those first moments of movement, he appeared even more spectral and ethereal than his previous presentation, more his natural state than the facsimile he had presented Josette with upon first meeting. His form was fluid, a shadowy silhouette which seemed to waver and warp as he came forward and struggled to maintain its corporeal shape. He inspired dread to most that might place eyes upon the blackness that absorbed all light. A shift came with a single step and Kaldric came through the wrecked garden gate as Josette had seen him upon her first journey to this realm, the monster masquerading as a gentleman. The eyes had not changed, however. The soot-stained amethysts were devoid of any emotion yet still shone with a now naked malevolence.
“You’ve returned. And so soon.” Kaldric’s words flowed effortlessly like a gentle, meandering river with careful enunciation and rhythm which commanded, yet never had to demand, attention. “Come to apologize and make an offering?” The polished resonance lingered in the air even after his words had ceased, a melodious note in a timeless dirge. “Perhaps what is in your satchel.” A nod towards the pack that Josette had cinched tight against her back. Fingertips remained blackened and scorched though his other wounds, whatever they might have been, had seemingly healed. “And I will forget about our prior disagreement.” An unspoken threat hung in the spaces between what he did not say.
The raven produced another throaty sound and gave an onyx flap of wings. It took flight with a second flap that clawed into the air and pushed it upward into the night sky where its calls were answered by distant, similar ones. “Ah yes…” A paradoxical display of charm and menace surfaced when Kaldric smiled for the raven’s reminder and momentarily revealed sharp, elongated fangs which resembled obsidian shards. Flawlessly captivating, every expression and movement, every sound and action had evolved to attract and seduce, to make the predatory nature all the easier for fangs and talons to act upon. “I almost forgot…” He looked to her companion then, for the first time, and the calm with his eyes concealed most treacherous waters which simmered just beneath the surface. “You’ve brought a friend, have you?” His posture remained genteel, relaxed even, though he did not lack understanding as to what that bit of iron was meant for any more than he confused Josette’s dagger for a knitting needle. There was power there, within both of them, and Kaldric would be wise not to underestimate either of them. Consequently, he would not be caught easily unawares. Eyes shifted from the Cajun to the ferret and then back to Josette. “Why spoil our rendezvous with such unnecessary complications and unwanted additions, hm?” A press of will came behind the words, a slithering suggestion for Josie to dismiss her friend as unspoken promises inundated her thoughts. “Come shine in this dark place alone, little star, and illuminate those of us ravenous for such lovely lambency.”
“I’ll take all the help we can get.” Josette murmured and gave the Cajun a small, but brave little smile. “That’s a deal…I’ll even buy the first round.” She reset her grip around the hilt of her dagger and looked for Vie when Cane mentioned the feywild familiar. Like Josie, Vie had a determined look in her eye as she periscoped up to get a better look at the monster which threatened them. Whatever Vie saw wasn’t, it seemed, worth her lengthy attention as Cane’s praise produced a righteous look of proud distinction and accomplishment and she practically preened.
“I don’t like to leave business such as ours to linger. I prefer to be done with it, immediately, and have the cycle be done. You’ve taken what was not yours and it’s time I took it back.” Josie countered Kaldric’s taunt and tipped her chin up in the face of his brazen audacity in asking for an apology. “Only sorry I didn’t dispatch you upon our first meeting.” She spoke in her voice, but Josie could feel the words were shared between the ballerina and Joan, shared between all the fragments and sacrificial splinters of past trauma she’d collected within her and made whole. “My brother stands with me, and I with him.”Josie had long considered Cane a brother since the day she first saw him with Isaac and even further back than that. Lifetimes past—or parallel. She did not need the Akashic records to understand their connection. The energy that hummed in her very cells remembered his music.
“Together.” A small globe of light grew in the palm of her free hand, her left. She knew Cane could more than handle himself, so she readied the sacred dagger in her dominant right.
Josie felt the power of Kaldric’s suggestion, aided as it were by more than mere charm and charisma. She felt it first like an invisible breeze sent to soothe and relax though as she resisted, she felt the intensity increase, a windswept ocean whose tidal forces sought to pull her away in a ravenous rip tide. “I shine brighter…we…shine brighter in a constellation of souls…something this darkness resists.” Said as she resisted Kalric’s pull. Thoughts of her brother surfaced, of dancing, of friendship with Cane and those at the Shanachie, thoughts of her father taking her to see the Nutcracker where brave dancers resisted the plots of evil rats. Such thoughts and memories buoyed her, redoubled her effort and ability to resist the vampire’s malignant charms. Josie shared a look with Cane and knew that, side by side with her friend, they could overcome the worst of their attacker.
“A pity. I had thought to avoid bloodshed this time.” Kaldric’s answer came with a sudden drop of charm and suggestion. The ballerina had resisted and so he turned his attention to her companion. “And what say you, hm?” He paused, head canted to the side as if just noticing the man’s remarkable eyes for the first time. “Nearly missed the forest for the trees…” He glanced skyward and the raven came circling down in a dive. “My raven likes them too…I think I’ll have them. And we’ll see how well you play the savior when blind.” His words went towards the Cajun though his hand was thrown towards Josie in order to command raw shadow to leap like a wave of tar about her feet and attempt to root her into place.
The raven dove for Cane’s face as the wave washed at the ballerina, the bird keen on distracting the man by scratching and plucking out his eyes. The black missile was a shadow within a shadow as wings folded and large talons extended like a true bird of prey. If the Raven were a missile, then Vie was a white lightning bolt bent on interception as she jumped straight up to alter the raven’s path and assist the one who had praised her. The height was too high for the ermine’s powerful legs, the raven too fast for a perfect interception, but proved a perfect height for a vertical sneeze of pixie dust. It glittered like silver shards, the pixie dust, and would no doubt ruin the raven’s path, strip its feathers and wings of contoured and controlled flight to leave it squawking and flapping about as it slowly floated upwards, harmless, and ready for the Cajun to swing away!
The plucky flare of Josie's smile stirred to livid life the bed of coals inside Cane's chest in much the same way Joan had, in another life, another time, sparked hope and stoked the flames of faith in her countrymen's hearts. He responded in kind with a smile that spread like wildfire across his bearded face, even as the extravasating warp and weft of Kaldric's presence coalesced before them.
The Shade's initial feigned disinterest in him did not go unnoticed, nor was it taken for granted, though he remained planted resolutely at Josette's side as an aegis of the dawn. In all things Cane usually had too much to say and then some, but in this moment he appeared content to let his solar sibling shine; she did not need him to be her mouthpiece or champion. But as he felt the pervasive weight of Kaldric's regard shift to him, the Cajun's attention slid away from her to drink in the long lines of the tantalizing fabrication of shadow before him.
Kaldric wore the bespoke drape of darkness about him with all the subtly sensual sophistication of lofty aristocracy, but there was an incongruous edge to his grace... Like the disconcerting glint of too sharp fangs nestled within the otherwise appealing wreath of his silken smile, he bore a galling arrogance that utterly ruined his entire appeal. For all that Cane was drawn to the calamitous dark hidden deep within the fault lines of his lover's heart, there was nothing of Kaldric's tenebrous devilry that would entice him.
Savior[/i]. He actually laughed, the rifle crack of mad sound escaping him like a bolt of charged lightning to color the lusterless atmosphere with a fiery shade of unhinged anticipation. Hadn't the vampiric shade been listening? They worked best as a *team*.
In the seconds that followed, the loose lines of Cane's insouciant slouch contracted, taut muscles reshaping his silhouette in a blur of motion that had him lifting one arm to shield his face from the bird, still gripping the iron spike in a now tight fist, and extending the other to thrust a bit of fast and dirty magic in Kaldric's direction for a bit of distraction of his own. The subfusc lance of esurient flame that spilled from his outstretched hand was no less hot for its lack in light, ravenous for the dark and intent on annihilation. And while Josette followed up with an attack of her own, he finished the sweeping arc of the railroad tie to slam the comically suspended raven from the air to the ground, landing with a sickening thud where Vie could reach it for the finishing blow.
(To be continued! Thank you once again to Cane’s writer for the wonderful words and to Isaac’s writer who relishes writing his villains as much as we love reading them!)
The ballerina pirouetted around the much bigger Cajun just a few moments after he’d flung his flame Kaldric’s way. The spin brought her upon his left shoulder just as Vie pounced at the dazed and severely injured raven hobbling and scraping across the ground. “On your left…” The audible reveal meant to keep Canaan aware of her place in the fight. A pause as her eyes settled on her familiar. “Vie!” Josie called out at the apex of the familiar’s pounce and saw, in real time, why she had cursed herself just a moment ago. It had all happened so fast, the sudden violence and attacks both ways. Vie’s pounce terminated on the raven with sharp teeth at the ready, yet the crafty ermine found not one but two ravens in the original’s place. Smaller, yes, but no less angry, the one closest to Vie struck out with splenetic strikes of its sharp beak while its companion called to the growing, living cloud of flapping beasts in the distance.
It took flight and once more sought the Cajun’s face, Kaldric’s desire still forefront on its mind as it found itself physically free of pixie dust. The throaty call was echoed by its twin rolling and flapping along with Vie as the pair disappeared once more into the inky darkness of the alien plants that called such a garden home. “Don’t kill it…” She called for Vie and warned Cane with the same words. Whenever it *died* it reduced its size yet doubled its number. One became two, two would become four and they would be beset on all sides long before the nearing cloud of flapping beasts descended upon them.
“Foolish little girl.” Kaldric taunted as realization set upon her gentle face. Yet the fast and dirty magic, the nigh invisible flame, nearly caught Kaldric by surprise as the vampire leered in expectation at seeing a trapped Josette. Her dance across the wave of shadow melted that arrogant smile into a flat line of grim determination. His right hand came across his middle, palm catching Canaan’s lightless heat chest high where he blunted its progress. Flesh sizzled and popped, the burnt skin broke like fresh, springtime earth yet the only outward sign of his displeasure surfaced as a single hiss. Scorched fingers closed, claw like round the flame, a wash of frigid shadow dousing its heat though charred bits of bone could be seen, gleaming wetly in the darkness between knuckles and in places of his palm.
“I’ll use you to burn her…again.” The words a hiss that joined other maddening whispers all about the benighted pair of would-be enlightened knights. The hiss of whispers grew as he closed, his motion swift and enhanced by the gift of vampiric speed so that it played like some terrible horror film, the jerk of stop motion played at twice the speed which doubled the terror of his cold approach. “And you…” The words sounded within Josette’s mind and filled her skull with such pressure that she was certain her head would break like one of the pumpkins she still carried in her pack. “You will not go so stoically to the pyre this time.” Concentration split between the two, he had more than enough capability for Canaan as well.
The Cajun would feel the buffet of a cold wind, a shadowy cyclone of sable ribbons sheared from the earth and sky above to twist and swirl about his large frame and tighten with every rotation. Meant to bind and freeze, the tendrils raced one another in pursuit of either goal. One would chill and clot the blood, superheated as it was, while the other would ensnare and strangle. Both would make it easy for his raven to claim that which he still desired. Which would it be Warlock? A stopped heart or crushed lungs? Kaldric cared little for the outcome…only that it came swiftly and with painful violence.
Josie gasped as the raven flew for Cane’s face and she fought against the pounding words not with equal volume and violence, but with calm serenity and a centering exhale of breath. The vibration so corrupted it rattled her delicate jaw till she finally transmuted the energy. The light expanded in her free hand, grew in pulses linked to the living beats of her heart to form a healing globe of protection about them and Vie. Though she could not see the familiar she could sense the little ermine was close and still very much in the fight, a sense confirmed when she saw not one but two puffs of pixie dust chasing a very angry raven through tall grass to their right. “The past only holds sway if we allow it.” Josie answered the words within her head with her voice aloud. “And we will be prisoners no more.”
Josie thrust the dagger out, the fine point and wicked edge meant to tear and shear shadowy ribbons like so many twisted vines as they swirled and grabbed for her, hoping to try and help free herself. “The pumpkins!” Josie suddenly remembered as she motioned over her shoulder to the pack on her back. “Take them, set it aflame and light him up!” Was that ominous cloud coming closer?
Preoccupied in his exchange with Kaldric, in maintaining the thread of Will that connected them in the moment, Cane was too slow in twisting his face away from the second raven's attack. It glanced off the side of his head with a chaotic, thrashing beat of wings and talons and croaking screams that irritated him more than it caused any lasting damage. It took off at once, flapping quickly out of reach and wheeling around high in the air to regroup, leaving Cane with an angry looking weal across his cheek and the sudden clarity that none of this was as it seemed.
Kaldric's sibilated taunt thrummed through him, a jarring sound that could be felt as much as heard, and Cane's expression twitched as if run through with an icy splinter of pain. His concentration on the gout of shadow-sapped flame guttered and dimmed until it died out altogether and he let out a growl of frustration. He lunged forward, raising the cold iron to meet the Shade's approach but found himself tangled in a writhing tempest of shadowy tendrils that slowed his locomotive charge to a crawl.
Cane struggled against the restrictive bonds, shadow-flat firelight igniting the forest of his gaze. It darted furiously between Kaldric and Josette and the inky prison coiling tighter and tighter around him. Heat rolled off him to ripple the air, all points of contact hissing and squealing where his superheated power met icy resistance. Vexed, he loosed another snarl as one of the tendrils snaked around his throat, squeezing so hard he saw stars dance behind his eyes. Muted bursts of flame occasionally escaped the maelstrom to burn away strand after strand as Cane fought back, but the chill invading his bones was beginning to slow his thoughts.
"Jos—" he gasped, dull sparks and steam rising from where his fingers clawed at the shadow around his throat. The Cajun made to reach for her, or maybe for the glowing pumpkins she mentioned, but the shadows only tightened the noose and dragged the big man to his knees. Forced to drop his weapon, he resumed the determined clawing at the dark coil with both hands, even as it forced his head back to the sky. He stared up at the bird with a mordant, hateful gaze, surrounded by the dying gasps of colorless firelight, swirling shadow, and the billow of scalding steam. His eyes smoldered, full of embers, but even those were beginning to dim with every second that passed.
The bird screamed as it dove. Unable to turn his head, Cane simply averted his gaze, straining to catch one last glimpse of the shining beacon that was his sister. "C'est... f—fait.” Etched into the tight pull of skin around his eyes was a wealth of surprise, mingled with a touch of disbelief. It's done. And it was. That this was his apparent end seemed to shock even him.
(To be continued…)
The words fell upon Josette like the blade of a guillotine. She watched, helplessly, as the cyclone of dark ribbons seemed to avoid every thrust and cut of her blade to continue their deadly assault upon the Cajun warlock. “Don’t say that…I need you…Isaacneeds you…” Josie countered, her words equal part desperate plea and rough encouragement. She slashed wildly at the spell fragments, reaching for anything she could get her fingers around to try and rip away in order to free her friend. “I won’t let you…” She bit back that last word. She wouldn’t speak it aloud and give it power.
“How poetic…” Kaldric’s hiss slithered amongst the ribbons of shadow now tightening their way about throat and wrist, shadowy shackles dragging the man down towards bended knee and servant’s position. “It is indeed…finished.” Kaldric’s magic intensified in that moment, the vampire’s focus entirely on ending the Cajun. “For one…and for the other it is just beginning. Dokeep that blood warm for me…I’ve always wanted to taste the stars in flesh’s form…”
Except...the only thing that was actually finished was the runic circle of containment etched into the ground around Kaldric's feet, effectively trapping him in place, its fiery glow all but unseen thanks to the washed-out color palette of their surroundings. Seeking to capitalize on Kaldric's greed to further fracture his attention, Cane had delved into decades of stage performance skills to put on the show of a lifetime to distract the Shade from where his true focus was being directed.
The knowledge and skill that had been imparted to Cane by the Tower of Earth was not bound by plane. It was a ken he possessed even here, where darkness was king, and he used that lack of light to his advantage. You see, he'd realized something... something Kaldric let slip—he'd made the mistake of mentioning Josie's past and that, together with another puzzle piece or two, had given him a pretty good idea of who Kaldric really was.
While the Cajun feigned a losing struggle, he'd directed the bulk of his will into reaching down through the earth to the ley line he could feel pulsing beneath him. It ran a course through the decrepit garden, parallel to the nearby river, same as its twin in the material plane. At the same time he flooded the line with his fire and will to sear the hellish circle of runes around Kaldric, Cane also drew from its potent energies to sync the vibrational rhythm of his heart and mind through the earth with Josette's.
Finish this fucker
The ballerina blinked when she felt the vibration rattle the earth beneath her feet and vibrate itself up along the pathways of nerves till she heard Cajun’s accented words inside her head. She blinked and shifted her look from her friend to Kaldric. She saw the vampire’s cruel visage stutter and trip as the dark spell lost its power and the shadowy fragments fell like ash about them.
“What is this…” Kaldric’s polished style of speech had left him. In its place remained a fang baring snarl of confusion followed by rage. “You think to imprison me? Here?” He lashed out with taloned fingers and found the strike akin to hitting a stone wall. His hand cracked against the magical barrier, sent bolts of crackling power in various directions from the point of impact and felt the bones in his wrist crack. Confusion darkened his eyes as he stared as his hand hung loosely from the broken joint. “This is no strong prison…” He hissed and stared at the circle of runes and powerful magics twisting around him. He touched the barrier again, watched as the runes flared and marked their perimeter. “Clever…though there is too much filth in your blood for this to be pure genius…” Kaldric hissed as he stalked round the edges of his cage, a terrible mind searching for options for retaliation during this unexpected lull.
Josette shifted away from Canaan, trusted in her friend and in his unique set of skills and knew she had to take advantage of the time he was giving them. She sank to one knee and plunged her sacred dagger into the dirt as the maelstrom continued to build behind her. She gave a hopeful look for Vie and saw the scattering of ravens from the high brush by the garden gate and took odd comfort in seeing more, yet smaller, ravens appear. Vie was winning. For now.
After she plunged her dagger into the dirt, she swiveled her pack round from her back and reached for one of the two remaining pumpkins. The glow brightened when she lifted the gourd from her pack and watched, momentarily transfixed, as wispy tendrils swirled from the shifting plasma that was the pumpkin. The tendrils flew like pixies, lit up like lightning bugs before puffing into clouds of ethereal smoke and coalesced into various ghostly depictions of past and future events. Joan led an army into battle, a trio of witches cackled while being led to the pyre while others still took on representations of powers and abilities…every one of them, like Josette, considered an outsider…an observer…a multifaceted woman with powers that scared men and made them invoke words like devil, blasphemer, alien, whore, witch—threat. What they feared and decided did not belong must be shunned, silenced and destroyed.
These were the shards of her past and future selves that she had gathered, experiences and abilities innately hers and happening in real time, past, present and future, for all time. There was no past…no separate future…the potential for that…all of that…existed within Josie and everyone else. She was living proof and the time for hiding what she was had come to an end.
That cycle was over. Empowered by their reveal, encouraged by the love of her brother, her friends, and all the other souls that had felt the same throughout the cosmos, Josette cocked back her arm and hurled the pumpkin towards the vampire….
(stay tuned for the conclusion!)
For several long moments Kaldric was still. The vampire unflinching as he stared at the end of his familiar.
The movement, when it came, came in tremors and violent twitches of rage and anger. Muscles vibrated with a kinetic need to kill and avenge. There were no words. Had the vampire tried to speak the words would have melted into a wailing screech of pain and revenge. In their place, the vampire gave a shake to his shattered wrist and listened as the bones snapped into place. He knelt and searched with sharp fingertips for the rivulets of magic that the Cajun had used to forge his circle. When he found them he ripped at them, clawed them free of the earth as if cleaving a wild thing’s nerves and arteries from its flesh. He pulled and wrapped his hands round the ley line leveraged by the Cajun and poured his malignant corruption into it, reversed its flow and forced it back at the warlock with enough force to stagger his enemy, incapacitate him and cause the runes to flicker.
The earth rumbled faintly in response, rocks groaning and shifting in protest as the vampire’s potent will began to poison the well. The affectation of Cane’s laborious struggle became something a little less of a farce. He cast aside all pretense to throw himself into the redoubling of his efforts as their one chance at surprise came and went.
“Josette!” He used her name as a means of encouragement, meaning for her to try again as he fought to maintain the bulk of Kaldric’s attention. The maelstrom of shadowy tendrils that had tried to consume him burned away under the intensity of the Cajun’s now unadulterated focus, unable to touch the warped corona of radiant heat now rising from his skin like the corrupt reflection of a desert mirage, but the evidence of the vampire’s devastating rally was written into each and every line of Cane’s hard expression, the grim set of his jaw, his entire body rigidly straining beneath some unseen force.
Josie’s heart sank when she saw the raven make its sacrifice for the vampire. She never wished to harm the bird, only to free the vampire from its true prison of hate and hunger. Yet when she saw the vampire clawing into earth to reverse the magical containment, when she saw the runes flicker she knew what she must do. What Joan had done. Josie knew she must fight.
When she pulled her sacred dagger free the blade was the length of the long sword that she had first wielded in the garden when Kaldric had come for her. Her ghostly armor was back as well and she possessed the quiet calm of a warrior aware of a fate they could not shy away from. She kissed the cross guard of her sword as Joan might have done and prepared herself for Kaldric’s lunge. How did she know he would? Because she had been here before. And would be again. Past, present and future swirled within her to give her knowledge, wisdom, peace and serenity. Buoyed by Joan and the ghostly image of the Maid of Orléans, strengthened by the witches in her bloodline and star charts, Josie planted her feet the way her brother had taught her, set them equally in this world and the other to fight across dimensions.
Kaldric’s contamination of the ley line (and therefore Cane himself) eventually caused the containment runes to flicker and, ultimately, fail. He lunged forward to free himself between the static flickers of their intermittent presence. The vampire went for the ballerina and found his attack deftly parried to his right. Speed was his advantage and he used it, tapped into the otherworldly acceleration gifted to his kind; polished talk and civilized posture, enhanced charisma and suave style had all been cast aside in favor of raw, naked violence. He slashed with talons that Josie met with her blade, their speed and ferocity matched by her timing and precision. Sparks flew as he clawed at her and found only her blade, the impact of his talons coming so quickly that they sounded not like individual notes but one, single mournful ring.
Cane watched as Josette handled the whirlwind of strikes and feints with a practiced ease no different than she did in the ballet. What was a sword fight if not a deadly dance? She parried, blocked, and dodged; her movements almost as swift as Kaldric’s yet possessed of foreknowledge. Her blade, Joan’s blade, was an extension of herself, a glittering force of defiance that bolstered the Cajun’s spirit as he struggled to find his feet through the crippling side-effects that were a consequence of continuing to siphon all of the ley line’s pollution into himself in an effort to keep those energies from tainting the purity of his sister’s sensitive soul.
Kaldric changed strategies then. Stopped trying to attack Josette head on, forced to concentrate his attention on the most pressing threat, her sword, to dominate its light with his shadow and bleed himself into the blade to strip her from it before Cane could recover.
“Your mortal strength is nothing against me. You will yield…” He hissed and reached for Josie’s sword. Skin sizzled as he wrapped his fingers around it and twisted it to the side, forcing the ballerina into a painful posture yet she gave him no such satisfaction by whimpering or yelping in pain.
Rather…she presented the opposite. A quiet calm, surrendering acceptance. She did not relinquish the blade but rather tempted the vampire with something far more delicious than victory: the delicate bend of her long neck. “This…what you have become…it is just an old echo, it is not who you truly are…who you truly were…not who you are meant to be…”
The words were muddled to Kalric’s refined ear, as was the distressed sound of Cane’s protest, everything washed under and away by the slow beat of Josie’s heart and the enticing elixir of her blood which pumped just beneath the surface of the skin.
Fangs bared reflexively, the polluted nature of his hunger suddenly consumed every fiber of his being. “It won’t hurt…if that is what you are afraid of…not for long…” He promised before he was so overcome with need that he failed to note how easily Josie seemed to be accepting her fate. Pointed canines plunged through tender flesh, dug deep into arteries so that hot blood might splash across his tongue and give up its delicate taste. He gripped her tight like a doll, a toy a rabid dog would not surrender, and fed deeply to fulfill a limitless hunger.
Music exploded within his mind as starlight washed over his tongue and he distantly recognized the notes. The ballerina’s blood was unsettling in its power, instantly addictive, and paralyzed all his other senses. He drank heavily, fed deeply and listened to the symphony within him as he took…everything.
“You recognize the music?” Josie asked, her whispered words cutting far sharper than her sword ever could have as it cleaved through his focus. “It is yours. You were a creator before the darkness claimed you. But you do not have to take from others as you now take from me to sustain you. I can teach you…” Josie reached up as if she might caress Kaldric’s angled chin but reached higher and pressed her thumb to his brow between his eyes and used her light to power the vampire’s third eye and opened it so that it shone like a star. “Teach you to see and sustain yourself…to generate your own energy free of this darkness. If you want it. If you choose it.”
Kaldric hissed and closed his eyes, the darkness winking out Josie’s attempt to enlighten him as the darkness within resisted. The shadows were scared of losing their power, of relinquishing their hold on him. He drank heavily again, chased that first high with even more blood and gave her a rag doll shake when he could not equal it so easily. Yet through it all he still heard the music…his…music and was forced to remember how he had composed the notes and, in remembering their arrangement, the life he had had before the darkness had claimed him.
Josie winced yet pressed her thumb to Kaldric’s brow again. “You can let it go,” she urged gently.
A streak of white fur darted across the garden to scamper over Cane’s crumpled form. He felt the cold press of a nose glance across the shell of his ear, the tickle of whiskers against his cheek. The iron scent of blood filled his nostrils. Cane reached up to capture Vie in a clumsy grip and brought her to his mouth for what looked like a kiss. The little ermine wriggled free a moment later to go bounding in Josie’s direction, and while Kaldric remained distracted, scaled the ballerina’s petite form and disappeared into her pack.
Shortly after, the final pumpkin went tumbling to crack against the ground. It did not shatter as the others had; this one merely split along its bottom which allowed its essence to weep and run from the fissure. It shifted and swirled like a river, pouring a celestial blue ribbon that cut through the blackness of earth and shadow. It sank into the ground and disappeared for a moment as it soaked into the dirt and found the roots of the closest tree. There it watered the husk, rejuvenated the roots and grew up through the trunk to illuminate the darkness. The light pulsed like a heartbeat, grew larger as it opened into a circle from a knot within the trunk and unfurled a brilliant portal of light. It started as a shimmering ripple, like a drop in a still pond, and then expanded with a dazzling intensity. The core was a mesmerizing blend of colors, an ever shifting kaleidoscope of cosmic hues.
The air quivered with the portal’s expansion. Vie leapt from Josie’s back to get a closer look at the luminous waves swirling and dancing. There was peace there, a beckoning invitation of halcyon days full of light that would not burn or destroy, but instead restore. Cane’s sigh of relief was twofold as he finally stilled. Already he could feel its effects.
Kaldric could, too. “What is that?” he asked. “What magic is this?”
“Like your music, it is your own. It is an invitation.”
“You would trick me.” But Kaldric hesitated as his third eye glowed more brightly with recognition. He felt the pangs of—something…home and of better times within.
“You have tricked yourself,” Josie replied. “Into believing in the darkness. Into embracing a false power while ignoring your own.” She felt the pull too. Beyond, in the portal, was home. It was *home*. Her home that she had pleaded and begged and cried to return to so many times when caught in the lowest parts of her sickness. When the machines breathed for her and her brother kept watch. And it was right *there.*
“W-where does it lead?” Kaldric asked as he released her and turned to fully face the portal.
“Onward,” Kaldric repeated, weighing the simple answer’s profound meaning on his tongue.
“You have the choice I was never given.” Josie nodded and placed a hand over her throat to stem the flow of blood to a trickle. “But it must be your choice…”
Kaldric took his first step towards the portal without hesitation. He heard the music, his notes from when he’d lived as a struggling composer, beckoning him onward. As he stepped towards the portal, the part of him that was the darkness, that was the vampire, began to fall away like burnt paper. Light criss-crossed his body, bringing its healing energy to revitalize that which had died and been made undead. Within the portal was a tree. Not unlike the one the portal had opened from, yet this one stood tall in good soil, anchored by robust roots and spreading its canopy of branches and leaves wide in the warm sunshine. From a branch a particular raven produced its unique call and gave a flap of its wings to rouse its feathers before settling back upon its perch with welcomed comfort. Another call invited Kaldric another step forward.
Eclipsed by the light, the vampire transitioned through the portal. Light flared and his form became a silhouette. “You have—seen me.” His voice sounded in the air without his body as the light continued to flare. “Will you not join me?”
“We will meet again. We already have.” Josie answered with a small, wistful smile as the light flared. It felt so good to be so close. She could go home too with just a few steps. She took a step towards the light, ready to surrender it all to go home. She thought of the wish she’d made at the top of the Ferris Wheel, of how she’d been ready to go home all that time ago. Another step. Thought of how she said she was ready to go when called and heard the music of home within the light that now illuminated her. She took another step and could feel the light at her fingertips…
“Don’t go yet.”
The deep tenor of Cane’s voice filtered through to her, soft and imploring. She paused and then the light began to wane, reminding her that that it wasn’t her time. She’d asked for one more dance and her music had yet to fade.
The portal closed and Kaldric disappeared with it to leave them alone by the tree.
Tears welled in Josie’s eyes as the light faded. It hurt to have been that close, yet she knew she could go, now, whenever she was truly ready. That she had more to do here.
Another sound broke through her reverie, a chirp, alerting her to the tall grass by the trunk of the tree where a bird’s nest had seemingly fallen along with a broken branch. Within the nest were two young ravens. Had they been here the whole time? A gift from Kaldric’s spirit? Josie didn’t know but knew she couldn’t leave them here. She swung the bag from her shoulder, but struggled to slip the nest and its precious cargo inside one handed.
It was then that Cane appeared at her side and she felt the warm weight of his hand on her shoulder. “Give me that, you crazy girl.” She thought he meant the nest, but breathed a soft ‘oh’ when his calloused fingers brushed her hand away from the tear at her throat. It was on the tip of her tongue to argue with him--he looked terrible, after all--but there was something in the man’s stubborn expression that reminded her of Isaac in that moment and she knew there would be no point.
A moment later Vie popped out with an energized chitter from the brush nearby. Clearly, the feywild familiar was no worse for wear. She gave Josie a twitch of a nose before disappearing back into the brush. There was so much to explore!
“Vie…” Josie hissed. “Get back here!” She tried to give chase, but the gentle pressure of Cane’s fingers indicated she needed to hold still until he was done.
“Let ‘er go,” he rumbled. “She’s all hyped up right now.” Josette sighed. The grin he flashed at her in response was a little anemic, but it had enough fire behind it to let her know he’d recover in no time. His gaze dipped momentarily to the nest she held cradled between her palms.
“We can’t leave them,” she started.
Cane snorted and finally let his hands fall away from her neck when he was finished. It was barely more than a patch job, but he’d had very little left in the tank that wasn’t contaminated by Kaldric. It would be some time before he could filter out the blight.
“Of course we can’t.” Josette blinked. She hadn’t expected him to agree. Cane fetched up the backpack and held it open for her to tuck the nest safely inside. “You think it’s safe for me to go home empty handed after somethin like this?”
“Good point!” Then she gave him the sort of impish smile only a sister could muster. “Yeah, I think I’ll let youexplain all this to Isaac.”
(A huge thank you to the writers of Cane and Kaldric for going on this adventure with me and taking it much further than I ever thought it could go. It was such a delight to write!)
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