Call of The Zodiac (Prologue)
October 30, 2011
Chagrin Heights, Washington
The sun was a mere stain on a golden horizon, leaving behind faint remnants of its red-orange fingers to kiss a blue-purple sky like a feeble goodbye. The winds picked up, howling restlessly and scattering a cluster of dead autumn leaves around the feet of an anxious old woman and her much younger companion. They trudged through the darkening town with much haste, keeping their hooded heads bent low, hugging their belongings tightly to their chests. Time was running out. The streets were eerily empty; sidewalks cleared of any living beings except the occasional bird perched high on a crooked branch, peering down unblinkingly at them with gleaming, dark eyes.
For any normal pedestrian this wouldn’t have been much of a sight. For most, this would’ve gone unnoticed. But both Madam Dulca and her granddaughter, Gitana, knew better than to let their guard down. Not when it was the very same bird that so persistently pursued them. Gitana tucked a lock of her glossy black hair behind an ear. Her heart seemed to swell in anxiety, her mind teeming with unanswered questions. She quickened her pace, keeping her eyes fixed on the narrow road that vanished into the thick foliage of trees a few yards ahead of them. The sounds of their heavy breathing and the clanking jewelry echoed through the unusually still air.
“Grandmother,” Gitana whispered. “They are closing in. How much farther must we journey until we’ve reached the caves?”
Madam Dulca frowned. “Hush child!” she snapped. “I am aware of their presence. We shall not travel far.”
The buildings of the town fell away behind them as they quickly dove into the greenery of trees. They broke into a run. The trail was vague and seemed to twist sharply at odd angles, vanishing into random shrubbery and clusters of old, gnawed trees leaning askew to the sides. Gitana glanced back over her shoulder at her hobbling grandmother. The old woman shot her a warning look. Run. Do not waste time fussing over me. She spared herself a brief look at the sky. The last of the sun’s rays were dipping over the horizon, submerging the forest into a rapidly growing darkness.
Nightfall would soon be upon them.
Caw! A single bird cried out into the approaching night. Gitana’s heartbeat sped up. She glanced back at her grandmother again. Where were the caves? She reached into the pocket of her blouse and pulled out a string of twelve beads. Her footsteps thudded nosily through the woods, twigs snapping feebly beneath her boots, bushes rustling as she passed through them. Time was running out. They would soon find them.
“How far must we go?” Gitana cried out. She peeked once more over her shoulder.
The old woman was gone. Gitana stopped short with a startled cry. She spun around. Her grandmother was nowhere in sight. Indecision slammed into her like a tidal wave. Should I continue to the caves with the others? Should I fetch her? Where could she have gone? She tightened her grip on the black beads. She moved slowly, gripping her knapsack tightly in one hand, and lowered herself to the ground. She placed the beads to her forehead with a trembling hand and closed her eyes.
“Fac apel pentru elementul Luminii Sacre,” she whispered and sucked in a breath of air. “Ajutor pentru mine în căutarea mea de a căuta adevărul. Spune- mi, unde se găsesc bunica mea iubita?”
She waited in silence for several moments. Then she felt it.
It was warm and pleasant. Slow at first, but growing steadily as a familiar heat emitted from the beads and pricked at her forehead with a persistent, prickling sensation. Gitana bit down on her lip to keep from shouting out. She willed the memory of her grandmother to appear in her mind: her scraggly black hair, large protruding ears, and small, gaunt neck. The heat intensified, spreading from her forehead to the sides of her head, jabbing ruthlessly at her temples.
Her eyes came into focus, dark and large like marbles, followed by a large, bulbous nose, thin lips, and russet skin creased with age like worn leather. She saw her necklace, its golden coins glittering brightly in the light that penetrated her mind. Her shawl, flowered calf-length skirt, and bare feet came last. Her hands now shook violently as the light dove deeper into her mind, pushing past her emotions, viciously pulling at the back corners of her mind.
“Ahh!” Gitana cried. “Arata-mi, mare Lumina sacră! Mi dezvaluie locul bunicii mele!”
She let out a long, helpless scream as her forehead began to burn, the light expanding in her mind. She saw trees and within those trees, lying on the dirt floor of the woods, was Madam Dulca. She was clutching a golden talisman in her hands, the contents of her knapsack scattered all around her. Her eyes remained closed, but her lips moved, quietly reciting an incantation Gitana knew all too well. High above her, perched calmly on a single blackened branch was the bird.
Gitana’s body shuddered violently as the light finally exploded in her mind. The beads fell to the ground as she was thrown a few feet away, coughing and sputtering in pain. Her eyes watered, her head and body ached, but she managed a sigh of relief. Her grandmother was still alive, but at the mercy of their dreaded feathered fiend. She touched her scalding forehead gingerly with her fingertips and winced.
With great difficulty, she climbed to her feet and quickly gathered her things. She sped off in the direction of her grandmother.
“You foul beast,” Madam Dulca grunted as she struggled to sit up.
Her bones ached from having been thrown to the ground, the bird having repelled her last spell.
The bird said nothing. Instead, he met its victim’s glare with one of its own. Its inky feathers shown brilliantly in the silver light of the moon, like smooth obsidian, but its eyes remained shadowed by the surrounding darkness. The old woman clung to the golden talisman with her remaining strength. Surely Gitana might have reached the caves by now. The sealing ceremony was to be performed before the midnight hour struck. A small grin played on Madam Dulca’s lips. She could not banish the creature to where it came, but she could definitely lock away its abilities.
“Begone, you filthy creature!” she cried. “For you befoul these hallowed grounds!”
“I will not ask again,” the bird responded. “You know what I want from you. And I will have it.”
“Elementul de foc! Vin în ajutorul meu!” The old woman held the talisman out.
A jetstream of yellow-orange fire spouted from the center of the talisman, bathing her surroundings in bright light.
Caw! The bird leaped into the air, its dark wings flapping vigorously as the flame shot past like a comet. Madam Dulca grinned and flicked her wrist. The beam curved and made another attempt at the bird.
“Now for the last attack!” Madam Dulca pulled out a final a final object: a golden coin, the last from her necklace. She held it out towards the bird.
“Elementul Luminii Sacre! Vin în ajutorul meu!”
With the last of her strength, Madam Dulca tossed both of the amulets toward the flapping bird.
“No!” The bird howled in despair. “Sacred Fire? This cannot be!”
The two objects collided head on with the winged animal before they concurrently burst. Madam Dulca dove for the ground and flung her arms over her head as the explosion shook the earth.
“Grandmother!” Gitana shouted as she broke into the clearing and stared at the sizzling pile of ash before her.
Madam Dulca groaned as she rolled over onto her back. She wheezed and waves of pain slammed into her at all ends relentlessly. Gitana hurried over and dropped down to her side, beads in her hand. She scooped the frail woman’s body into her arms and placed the beads onto her chest.
“Take me to the caves, Gitana!” Madam Dulca demanded. “Now.”
Gitana knew better than to argue with her. She tossed the beads into the sky. “Elementul de vânt! Vin în ajutorul meu! Ne transporta la destinație dorit!”
A sudden gust of wind wrapped around them and hurled them into the air. Gitana clung to her wounded grandmother as they sailed atop the trees. Madam Dulca sighed and let her eyes flutter shut.
Gitana gasped. “Grandmother?” she screamed. She shook her by the shoulders. “Grandmother? Are you gravely injured? Please stay with me! We’re almost there!”
“Reunite with the others,” Madam Dulca whispered. “Hurry… before the midnight hour!”
Gitana’s eyes welled up with tears. “Please don’t die,” she whispered. “Please.”
A series of caves came into view and the winds dropped them at the edge of another clearing, this one better and brightly lit with a large bonfire. Gitana quickly hoisted her grandmother into her arms and stalked forward, stumbling and sobbing as she went.
They broke into the clearing. The caves were silent like the night.
“Tamás!” Gitana shrieked. She staggered forward and placed the unconscious Madam Dulca on the ground near the fire.
“János! Katarzyna! Dunja!” Gitana let out aloud wail. “Anyone here? Grandmother is injured! She needs help! We have dealt with the bird!”
Still no answer. She ran to the first cave and stepped inside. Her shadow danced along the wall as she moved.
She stopped and sniffed. The smell wafted towards her, sickly sweet and acidic, assaulted her nostrils. Gitana staggered back, clutching her churning stomach, and struggled to remain upright. Her eyes swam and she heaved the contents of her stomach over the cave floor. And that’s when she noticed it. The charred remains of human bodies scattered all around her.
“Oh Doamne,” she moaned as another wave of nausea washed over her.
She dropped to her knees then, shaking her head back and forth so hard that her scarf fell off her head. And with the last of her strength, she let out a final scream of anguish.