Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part XVI

Sami gasped, as if she had forgotten Silas was a cat and that cats always play by their own rules. Somethings do not change whether one is above or below, in our world or the Other Side.

I wasn’t angry or surprised. Silas had more than one apprentice to worry about and more than one world to mind. I would see him again, if the Sisterhood was willing. If not, well, best not to dwell on such things.

“Stand up,” I said, pulling Sami up next to me.

She resisted, or rather, she didn’t help and it was like lifting a bunch of overly heavy potatoes only not in a useful carrying sack. There were many emotions in the face of almost certain death or at least dismemberment that I could stand. Fear made sense. Only fools weren’t afraid of a painful death. Panic made sense for those who had less experience than I with such things. But hopelessness, giving in, not fighting until the end, I couldn’t fathom and it kindled something raw, something deep within my soul that I had forgotten until that moment.

“You will stand with me or you will fall.” I released her arm and Sami stumbled, but rose next to me. She placed both hands on the hilt of her sword and though she trembled she stood.

“Good.”

The he was before us and laughing. Sami shrank back, but to her undying credit remained facing him. Perhaps some of my teaching had sunk into her after all.

“Here we are again,” he said turning his hand so the mud rose in front of him and formed a circle. “The wheel turns and you’re to lose yet another yearling to me.” He reached out and Sami screamed as he flicked his hand, using the air to pull her to him.

“Enough!” I slashed my sword in the air between them and both jerked back. “She is not yours to take. She is of the Sisterhood.”

His eyes flashed. “I see no mark of a Sister on her.” Then a vial appeared in his hand stoppered so as to not lose the blood inside it. “And her blood binds her to me. Blood is thicker than anything, isn’t it, Sister?”

I stepped in front of Sami as she moaned, “He’s inside my head…” She grabbed my arm and pulled me to face her. Her eyes were not her own and her lips parted in a falsehood of a smile. “He is good.” Then she tried to stumble toward him.

I didn’t have the power over mind, nor a blood binding with Sami. Blood was thick, but it was never just about blood.

I pulled Sami back, even as she screamed, ducking her attempt to slice me with my own sword. I knocked the sword out of her hand and managed, barely, to reclaim it before he could. I didn’t take my eyes off him and he merely smiled his smile that promised painful death and the end.

“She is not yours.” Then I launched myself at him wielding the swords he’d once had fashioned for me, long ago.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part XV

The plains parted like water, impossible anywhere but the Other Side. His coming was inevitable as time passing too quickly for the aged and too slow for the young.

“What is lesson two?” I asked looking at Sami.

“No.” She shoved the tip of her sword into the muddy ground and leaned on it, shaking her head. “No.”

I snapped my wrist and the last of the goblin blood staining my sword splattered on the ground.  “You are still my apprentice, even here. What is lesson two?”

Her eyes shone with fury, bordering on madness. Any sane person would be mad by now. Good thing the Sisterhood never accepted totally sane people into its ranks to begin with.

“Four minutes, give or take,” Silas called from his perch above.

Why did problems always come with such short deadlines? I looked across the expanse, now littered with piles of goblin bodies, fast decomposing into the sludge that seemed to power this place.

“What is lesson two?” I turned to Sami and wished, not for the last time, that the Sisterhood had less faith in me.

“What does it matter? He’s won. I can hear him in my head. He’s—”

I grabbed Sami and shook her so her teeth clacked together and I could feel her rage throbbing into my hands. “He has not won until you give up! I will not allow it! Now, what is lesson two?”

“For every action, an opposite reaction!” She yanked herself back and stumbled as I let go.

“Precisely.”

“It means nothing, nothing!”

I smiled and she leaned away from me as if, in this moment, I was more terrifying than him. “Everything means something.”

Silas roared a warning and I reacted more from instinct than from conscious thought as I threw myself and Sami sideways as a volley of fire flew past, close enough to singe the hairs on the nape of my neck. I looked back and he was impossibly closer. But then, thinking like that, that there were impossible things on the Other Side got one killed.

“You can’t win.” His voice rumbled toward us and Sami cried out, falling to her knees. “Stop this foolishness.”

And, for a moment, I wanted to stop. It was foolishness. Why was I sacrificing myself for one apprentice? One who didn’t even care about the Sisterhood. Why was I on the Other Side? I had no need for this fight. It was not mine.

Then Silas growled, low and deep, and it broke apart such delirium that I laughed, which caused him to stop in his tracks. Like a windup doll that stuttered in its walk.

“Who said anything about winning?” Winning, whatever that actually meant, was far from my mind. I merely wanted to survive and have another cup of tea without the world ending around me or my innards being exposed for all the Other Side to see.

And I thrust my sword deep into the ground beside my feet and was met by a bellow of pain as the Plains reacted. As above…

“What?” Sami cried out and latched on to my arm as the ground shook beneath our feet, fissures breaking apart the ground along the plains. A standard reflex to pain.

“Not what,” rumbled Silas. “Who.” He turned to me. “You will be owing the Plains.”

“It cannot be helped.” …so below.

I pulled my sword from the ground and watched as the Plains reacted to being stabbed in what was essentially its hand. It writhed and we leaned against the rocky outcropping to keep our feet. Out on the body of the Plains, there was nowhere to find shelter and he was driven to his knees.

The Plains bellowed again and the ground exploded. Mud splattered up and over our heads, a volcano of earth that swallowed him. The grinding sound pain quieted as the Plains found it was now more tired than hurt. He was closer, but now limping, covered in mud. It would have to be enough.

“Two minutes,” Silas growled and shook his head, spraying mud mixed with blood at my feet. “Remember, you owe me cream.” Then he was gone, slipping through a portal that only cats could traverse and leaving us behind.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part XIV

It’s not as terrifying as it sounds to break your mind. Most things that are broken can be repaired.

Eventually.

And now I needed two minds more than I needed sanity. One part of my mind to fight. A mind is no good without a live body.

The other to prove lesson one.

We are never alone in the universe.

Not even on the Other Side.

I called for help. Only the proud don’t call for help when they are in trouble. About to be hacked apart by a goblin horde counts as trouble, heaps of it. So I focused the clam part of my mind, the part not preoccupied with avoiding goblin blows and called,

“Ladies of the Other Side!” Slice, dodge, kick, grunt. “I call in my favor!”

A rumble like thunder rolled across the plains, followed by laughter. Sami screamed and clutched her head. I sliced through two goblins and I planted myself between her and the horde. Silas roared against the laughter, so it was of victory. He was on the battlefield.

“We can’t win. I should go to him, he’ll stop. He said he—“

I slapped her cheek and her eyes focused. “We do not give in.” I stabbed a goblin through the chest who dared to get within arms’ reach. “Especially when help is coming.”

“What…”

And the song of the Ladies cut through the laughter and the goblin chattering, a piercing, clear melody that struck fear in every being of the Other Side. For it was the song of the Ladies hunting.

I smiled because, for once, I was not the hunted. I barred my teeth like Silas and added my roar to their hunting song.

And the Ladies came through the horde, slaying the goblins as if it were no more difficult than flicking dust from one’s hem. The goblins closest to us tried to flee, but we did not let them. Silas swatted them with his huge paws and my sword sung as if it knew the Ladies were here, too. Sami cowered behind me, holding her head and the part of me that wasn’t killing goblins felt sorry for the chaos swirling inside her head.

Then, all was silent, apart from our panting breath as the Ladies had reached us. They pulled back on their mounts who snorted, their breath as hot as the wind across the fiery plains.

“Well met, we are,” said the Lady nearest me.

“Well met indeed.” I inclined my head slightly, never taking my eyes off her.

She smiled. “It is a good day for battle, but you are short of time, Little Sister.”

“Perpetually.”

She laughed and the other Ladies threw their heads back, too, and added their musical laughter which was so out of place, yet fitting, like the Ladies themselves. Then she reached down and touched the middle of my forehead. A bright, sharp white pain flared through my head followed by cool relief.

“You will need your mind intact.”

“Thank you.”

“Our debt is paid.” It was more statement than question, but still it lingered in the air. Part challenge, part oath binding as old as time. Part of me wanted to hold them to further deeds to settle the debt between us. But that was greed whispering in my ear, so much stronger on the Other Side. In my lifetime, I’ve never found being greedy to bring anything but pain.

“Yes, the slate between us is clear and I thank you for it.”

“Good.” She looked over her shoulder to the plains that had begun to roil like a pot about to boil over. “He is still coming.”

“Nothing is ever easy.”

She tilted her head slightly. “He is not truly Other Side, not yet.”

My face must have shown my shock as the Lady’s eyes glittered with something close to mischief. “That is why we cannot slay him…As above, it is below.”

“Always and forever,” I replied in the ancient greeting.

She shook her head. “Nothing is forever, Little Sister.” Then she and the rest of the Ladies left in silence without so much as a glance back.

“You should’ve held them further. Never know when we’ll need them again.” Silas smoothed the hair on the back of his paw with a lick as if simply discussing the weather.

I watched the last glint of light from their tack as the Ladies disappeared back into the clouds and shook my head. “They have given enough.” I turned my attention back to the plains where one lone figure continued his way towards us.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part XIII

“What is lesson one?”

“Are you kidding me?” Sami’s eyes were unfocused as she swung around to face me.

“No, what is lesson one?”

“You are crazy!” She turned back to look at the horde approaching, looking like they sprang from the ground, multiplying with each breath. Who knows? Perhaps they did.

“Lesson one!”

“I am not alone in the universe!” she shouted as the vanguard closed in, now a leap away.

“Then prove it!” I yelled as the wave of goblins crashed on us. Then I had no breath to spare for talking.

Swing, pull, duck, kick, breathe, repeat.

The reality of a melee never aligned with what the authors and the bards described. It was not romantic or glorious.

It was terrifying, bloody, and abrupt.

No time to think. No time to fear. No time to worry.

I yelled, adding my voice to the cacophony. Silas roared. Sami screamed and didn’t stop screaming. She wouldn’t be aware of it until her voice was lost tomorrow. If we all lived past the next 10 minutes.

Even as goblins piled at my feet, there was no break in the wave. For each that dropped, another took its place. My lungs burned as I slipped on a slick of blood and stabbed a goblin who tried to use my unbalance in his favor. He hacked at my hip as if to cut me literally off at the legs. His blade cut through my apron but clanged on something, surprising us both. I regained my footing and slashed him in two.

“We seem to be at an impasse,” Silas growled as he struck down a goblin with a massive paw then snapped another in two with his jaws.

“Yes.” I couldn’t spare as much breath. “Suggestions?”

“Do something.”

“Of course.” Jab, duck, repeat. “Never occurred to me.”

“Your humor is ill timed.”

Humor was the only thing that kept one sane in battle. That or the ability to disassociate.

“Eight minutes.”

As if I needed a reminder, as if a clock was not ticking in my head every time I took a breath or swung my sword. Fools who thought themselves wise said sanity was necessary for life. That’s why they are fools.

Sanity is not what keeps you alive. The willingness to fight to survive is what keeps you alive.

So I took a breath and broke my mind in two.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part XII

“What took you so long?”

Sami shrieked and tried to jump into my arms.

“Be still.” I turned to Silas who was perched on an outcropping of rock beside us. “Where do we stand?”

“Physically or metaphysically?”

I didn’t reply, but gave my best annoyed cat expression back.

“Not bad physically. They’ll have to cross that flat and there is no way to hide.” He flicked his ears forward. “They are still a few minutes out. The darkening horizon.”

I nodded. “As good as can we can hope for.”

“Inversion on this side will be in ten minutes, give or take.”

“Nothing is ever easy.”

He said nothing, but stretched and dragged his claws across the rock so tiny sparks leapt and sputtered. Good we were not in a forest. The last thing I needed was a fire to contend with, too.

“That’s not Silas.” Sami held her sword fully extended in front of her, her elbows locked. That stance would get her killed faster than trying Silas’s patience.

“Fix your guard, unless you want to die before the battle even begins.” I knocked my palm against her inner elbows. She dropped her guard with a flush spreading across her face.

“Of course, I am Silas.” He dropped down with the grace of all cats. In fairness to Sami, he was ten times his normal size. “And you, mousling, better learn fast to get us out of this mess. I do not look well inside out.”

“What?!”

I glared at Silas. It is one thing to try to prepare someone for the Other Side. It is quite another to talk about inversion to someone who is an apprentice and on the fine edge of panic.

“Do not worry about that now. That is our future problem. First we must survive the goblin horde.”

“What?!”

“You don’t think they are coming for tea, do you?” Silas growled and it shook the ground, causing Sami to stumble.

“Get your guard up and stay near me. Do not let them surround you. Do not give up the high ground.”

I did not know if she attended to me or not. I had my own preparations to see to as the horde came close enough to begin to count individual goblins, each holding a pick or axe or sword, and snarling curses that thankfully Sami could not yet understand. A small blessing, perhaps, of my apprentice’s less than enthusiastic study. I laughed and Silas twitched his ears.

“There’s always a silver lining even to laziness, you just have to come to the Other Side.” Then I drew my sword and yelled.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part XI

“No!” she grabbed my sleeve as I opened the kitchen door. “The threshold—“

“Will not save us.” I pointed to the smudge of darkness that looked like the lazy heatlines above a road under the summer sun. “It will grow and devour until it finds you. Blood always wins.”

“But I didn’t mean to!”

I grabbed her shoulders and shook her once so she attended to me. “Your intentions do not matter! Only your actions and their consequences. Now move!”

And I pulled her out of the house with me. She stumbled, but didn’t fall. That was good. Her dying by falling on her sword before we even made it to the Other Side would have been an ignoble way to go, even for a failing apprentice.

When we reached the splinters of the gate, the darkness had grown large enough to swallow a horse.

“Where does it go?”

“To the Other Side.”

“Hell?”

I shook my head. “Nothing that nice.” I turned and looked in Sami’s still clear eyes. There was too much to say and too little time. Wasn’t there always? “Trust me, trust yourself, trust Silas, trust no one else. They whisper lies. Do not accept anything and remember your lessons. Then we might get out alive.”

She said nothing, but blanched in return.

“Good.” Fear, not panic, was healthy and could be worked with. “Time to go.”

I have been to the Other Side twice to bring back something that was lost. Once I succeeded and once I failed. I placed no bets on the outcome this time. Only amateurs and fools did that.

I took one last breath of the country air, filling my lungs with its freedom, then stepped through the portal dragging Sami beside me.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part X

“Listen well and quickly.” I paused, feeling a lump in my apron pocket. I pulled out a teaspoon and frowned, then the house shook again, it fell from my hand back into my pocket and I turned my attention to more important things.

“The man you met has your blood, he will try to command you. He is very powerful, but the Mountain and the River have held him back for years, perhaps even centuries. We forget what true evil is when it is out of sight.”

“That makes no sense.”

“More quickly,” Silas said. “Your gate is next.”

“The Sisterhood is here not only to teach things to grow, but to prevent the Inversion. Do not believe his lies. Remember your lessons. Stay close to me. Do as I say. Do not touch anything on the Other Side.”

“What?” Sami’s question was more of a strangled cry. “What is the Other Side?”

Silas jumped from the window ledge to the counter nearest Sami. Eye-to-eye he stared at her and her trembling stilled. “She’ll try to keep you alive, but you are blood bound. Don’t be a simpering kitten. Fight, if you want to survive.”

“What?”

“And don’t be a parrot. They’re nasty birds.” He jumped down. “I will see you—“

“—on the Other Side,” I finished.

He flicked his tail and walked into the Other Side, though it appeared he’d simply disappeared.

“Where’d he go? He vanished!”

“No, he is waiting for us.”

The house shook again as the gate exploded. “Well, clearly I was had.”

“What?”

I laughed, picturing Sami as a parrot. Panic and terror rendered most next to useless, at least for a while. Sami would recover or not, but that was not our current problem.

“I paid for Elder ash. Clearly that was counterfeit.” I took a deep breath, my panic and terror could be saved for later. “Come, let us face him together.”

Happy 2020!

Happy New Year! Yes, I’m well aware we are already more than a week into 2020 so I’m a bit late to the well-wishing game. But, really, can you have too many good wishes for a good year? I think not.

It’s been quiet around this blog for a bit, for which I’m both sorry and not at all apologetic for because life happens. And when we say life happens, we usually mean all shit hits the fan and blogging is the last thing on our minds. Which is true, so very true.

It’s been a bad cold season here with everyone getting sick, except the cat. She’s fine, thank you very much, and has enjoyed people wanting to only sit on the couch and sip tea while napping. Though she has been very much annoyed by a cough I had that lasted over 5 weeks.

Then the end of the year rush came, much of it lovely and fun, but still tiring and little writing happened between the end of NaNo (which I hope treated everyone well) and the beginning of the year.

But now things have settled, as much as they ever do, and I’m back to writing my way through things and especially through the ending of my story, Close Enough. So expect new parts to it coming as Saturday Shorts and it wrapping up soon. How soon? I don’t know. I was asked by a dear friend and writing buddy if I knew the stories’ endings I serialize on this blog before I started writing them and the answer is no. I have only a vague shape when I begin writing them and they evolve their own ways. I find it exciting and if I already knew the ending, there’d be no point in writing it down, at least for me.

So we shall find out together how the story ends and where the next story leads.

I wish you all the best in 2020. Thank you for reading and I wish you inspiration, fortitude, and luck in the year ahead. May your creative works be a force for good and may you always have a cup of tea, a good book, and a friend nearby when you need them.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part IX

“What are you talking about?” Sami hurried to follow me into the kitchen.

I ignored her as I pulled the canisters of flour and sugar from the cupboard and felt for the knothole behind the papered wall. I pushed it and the back of the cupboard swung in.

“What…” her question trailed off as the house shook again causing us all to catch our balance.

“The mountain has surrendered,” Silas said as if reporting the weather.

“Yes, thank you.” I pulled out the bundle I’d stashed behind the cupboard. I’d hoped not to need again. Not after my last apprentice. “Do you know how to use one?”

“One what?”

I pulled out one of the weapons from the bundle and snapped it open with a flick of my wrist, the blade glowed with the flash of lightening from the storm. It was a very old sword, one that the craftsmen no longer knew how to forge. The sheath of the blade was its handle, as long as my forearm. It made it easier to carry, easier to conceal than today’s swords.

“We don’t have to learn to fight. We’re responsible for making things grow!”

“That is not what I asked.” I pulled the second sword from the bundle and palmed it, holding it out to her. “Do you know how to use one?”

“Yes,” she said in a whisper. “I do.”

“Then for Mother’s sake take the blade.”  I thrust it in her hand.

She shook her head and tried to shove it back to me. “No. I don’t want to.”

I grabbed her by the collar of her dress, an affront that could get me expelled from the Sisterhood or worse, but there was no time. “I do not care what you want. I do not care what happened to you in the past. What you did or did not do, does not concern us. What I care about is surviving until tomorrow. So take the damn blade and try not to run any of us through with it. And if we survive, we can talk about your wants tomorrow.”

Her eyes narrowed as I spoke until the panic turned to anger. That I could work with. That might keep her safe or at least safer.

“The River is boiling.”

I ran to the window, not that I doubted Silas, but I needed to see for myself. The mists rose where the River should be and though I knew the mists would be as hot as teakettle steam, my heart felt like a shard of ice had lodged in it. I was afraid.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part VIII

“She’s too stupid to know what she’s done,” Silas continued. “But how did he get his hands on her. He hasn’t been in this area for years. The River has seen to that.”

There were many ways to infect an impressionable mind, especially a young one. Ways that didn’t require one to be physically present. The old saying might be that words couldn’t hurt you, but I always found that laughable at best and incoherent at worst. How could words not hurt yet knowledge was power?

It was bad to look to trite sayings for wisdom, worse to look to them to save you. Most of the time words got you hurt, at least in my experience with the young.

But Silas was right. There was no way to get that type of control without being present. He’d need a lock, a touch, something with her on it. Not even Mother was powerful enough to replace a mind without that connection. It made all of this unbelievable, impossible.

I grabbed on to the kitchen counter as another shockwave caused the house to shudder. The wooden frame groaned, but held. I would never complain about the Carpenter’s fees again.

“Well?” Silas was more impatient than usual in his fright.

“I do not…”

I spun around and ran to Sami’s room. I threw open her door without knocking. Her head snapped up, her eyes registered surprise then anger at my invasion.

“You can’t—“

“Did you go to your parents a fortnight ago?”

“What?”

“Were you at your parents or not?”

“I haven’t seen my parents since last winter.” Her honest answer tumbled out of her mouth before her brain caught up. I saw the look of panic on her face as she realized her mistake.

“Where did you go?”

“I missp—“

I grabbed her shoulders, our faces inches apart. “We do not have time. Where did you go?”

“To Deeping Market. There was a festival…”

“Ah.” Silas sat in the doorway. “A masquerade no doubt.”

Sami nodded, tears welling up in her eyes. “I…I went with some of the other apprentices…”

I sank back on my haunches and rubbed my left temple that had begun throbbing in time with the rolling thunder. “And had your fortune told.”

“How did…”

“By a man whose eye color you cannot describe, but cannot forget. And voice that made you remember and forget. And you had an unexplained cut on the side of your finger that you noticed in the morning.”

“Yes, I…” Tears spilled as she jumped at the next shake of the house.

“Not good.” Silas cocked his head to the side, hearing something we did not yet. “Not good at all.”

“No, not at all.”