March, 1998 A.D.
Year 9990 Ariatless, Vanora City
What are you afraid of?
She’d trekked to the end of the earth, backward in time and now the Fire Sorceress stood beneath the ribs of Vanora City, a day’s distance from the Scalding Sea: the end of the line.
Vanora’s ribs were ruins, domed supports with nothing left to hold. All that remained of the prehistoric Eyrie was broken beams: a wasteland littered with slabs of fallen wall and jagged panes of the building’s outer shell.
But wreckage was not all that remained of the old world.
The Sorceress’ words were sarcastic and ill-mannered, “I’ve been waiting for you.” There was no difference between this terror and the Source’s false prophet. She was not impressed.
Shafts of light fractured against the vines hanging down from crumbling supports. The Sorceress was wet from rain and mist; she stood in the chest of a structure haunted by death. Sill she took no notice of the ruins, not while the evils of the old world were living.
What are you afraid of?
Shards of the Eyrie’s old, metallic casing jutted up from the ground showing the Fire Sorceress a hazy visage of herself out of the corner of an eye.
There was her body, her eyes, lips, nose and mouth… but it wasn’t her question:
What are you afraid of?
Standing alone and distorted—her twisted nature unexpectedly revealed—the Sorceress erupted in laughter. Every moment of her life, every battle for her soul came together here where the Devil, the old world’s earthly ruler, stood amongst the rubble.
Hysteria, coupled with the irony of the present bent the Sorceress in half. She faced the very thing that her clan meant to wipe out of existence—from the past and in the present.
The voice of her dead father only made her laugh harder. Stand straight, he’d say; have some pride. The Fire Sorceress’ laughter hitched as she sank down into the mud. Her poor father, he didn’t even see it coming. His children were too weak, too subservient…ah, but what a way for the patriarch of the Natalie family to fall: by losing his head at the hands of his daughter. The Sorceress couldn’t stop laughing; tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes. She was in her element.
Still, the devil did not move.
The Sorceress had run from the Tyrant of old and he allowed it only to corner her here in Vanora.
Let the games begin.
She prepared to tap dance a path through the Devil’s reign, intending to dance long after the monster’s end.
There was nothing to alert the Sorceress to coming danger, but it took a demon to know a demon and she was ready. She was always ready.
The Tyrant touched her mind, his power subtle. She was already twisted, what did the dear devil hope to accomplish?
In a show of courtesy the Sorceress swallowed her mirth, smoothed her ragged frock and daintily fanned the air with a hand while she preened in the mud and weeds. One must be prim and proper to play with a king.
“What do you want, Talicor?” Her smile widened.
The Tyrant’s name debased the history of Vanora: the silence shattered. A swarm of screaming birds and squealing animals fled the old city until all that remained was the wild thrashing of sea waves in the distance. Blackness followed the screams. Clouds of smoke billowed over moss choked cobblestones and corroded what was left of the city walls. The ground shook as tons of stone crashed to the earth.
Laughter rose during the leveling and then quieted to a snicker as the black smoke finally came snatching at the Sorceress’ feet. Her hysterics died as she drew upright.
Impenetrable darkness, the tainted smoke of Que’Triall and the power to bend others to his will…and still, The Sorceress wouldn’t be outdone. Fearlessly, she stepped into the cloud. Her reflection disappeared from view and smoke surged over her skin, but she barely noticed the suffocating effect of Que’Triall’s thickening atmosphere. The dead world that once imprisoned the Tyrant was all around her now, she was completely lost to the cloud; she was unafraid. Her Ancient ancestors survived this hell—thrived in it, and here she was, a product of it. The truth must be told.
The Sorceress’ laughter ended abruptly and her keen green eyes hardened. The Ancients were wrongly imprisoned. It was too late to release the darkly twisted creatures now. She had a better idea. The Fire Sorceress wanted to change the past.
Out of the darkness, came the body of a beast; her first glimpse of the fabled demon unwittingly created by Humans and Ancients, together. A long muscled neck bent and curved until one of the demon’s opaque black eyes was even with the Sorceress’ face. The Tyrant rose in his Ancient form: a black stallion with a spiraling grey horn breathed superficially in the mist. The devil huffed silently over the woman’s face and she greedily inhaled the moisture of his breath. Power…
The Sorceress’ single word was a hiss, “Yes.” Tendrils of smoke weaved between her braced legs and wound higher, around the woman’s knees, her waist and around her chest.
“Yes.” Que’Triall must be destroyed, erased from history. She would do whatever it took—had already begun to. The Fire Sorceress and her clan were going to help return the worlds to the way that they once were. The Chosen Ones to come must be destroyed, the Guardians of the natural order be ground into gravel, the five Governors of the worlds—the Priam—be corrupted and then, only then, would the worlds unite.
Whatever it takes…
Black fire blazed along The Tyrant’s neck, flowing in a rush from his hindquarters. At its edges, flames faded to gray and the atmosphere crackled angrily as it fed the demon’s mane.
There was no reason to fear. The Sorceress forgot her hatred of the Devil. Vaguely, in the far reaches of her mind, the path that she shared with the Tyrant diverged. If she tried, she’d recognize it.
Instead, the Fire Sorceress forgot the war that the Natalie Clan had fought for this very reason…to keep this creature from coming again.
The Black Tyrant lifted one delicate hoof from a pedestal of smoke. His legs would not touch the ground. They stood above it, lifted by the spreading carpet of Que’Triall.
Outside of the darkness, the landscape began to change as Talicor took back the Ancient city of Vanora from the Prophet and his God.
Fresh Laughter escaped from the massive bank of black cloud that captured the dead city and the brush; then the cobbles began to burn.
December 30th 2000, Saturday
Ariatless year 10000, 17th month, 12th day
The excitement of an audience: exhilarating. To think nearly thirteen years of Ariatless time was spent in the pursuit of this tasteless animal. A mental shrug lifted The Sorceress’ hint of annoyance. Ten years here equaled two years in her home realm of Earth. Realistically, she’d gained time.
“If you hurt her…”
Pleas were insufferable. Threats were absurd, but at least they provided amusement. The Fire Sorceress turned on her toes like a dancer and held her suffocating hands out in front. An ounce of feathers struggled between them. She offered the tiny Cairn hatchling back to its struggling parents. She was teasing, physically and emotionally.
The man and woman were middle aged, the same as the Sorceress; their offspring was very young. The Sorceress eyed the silver fledgling between the gaps in her fingers; it was the youngest she’d ever seen.
“Let her go!”
Pitiful. The mother’s pleas buzzed at the Sorceress like a fly. It was irritating. The Fire Sorceress and matriarch of the Natalie Clan ignored her. Fathers were more fun.
He was a large, furious black man. Delirious really, seeing as he was trapped in place, forced to watch as some frail looking woman in a heavy hooded robe had her way with his flesh and blood.
Oh, but please, feathers and hollow bones did not a child make. The Cairns were a perversion—yet another human creation gone wrong. Born to human parents, a Cairn hatchling was undetectable…until it ascended, growing strong enough to join with a spirit bird.
Sharp nails slipped through The Sorceress’ fingers and a slim line of blood ran down the side of her palm. She lifted her elbow to flip her hands and get a better look. The hapless creature trapped inside, squawked, causing its mother’s sobs to start again.
“Shut up.” All mirth was gone. The Sorceress would kill the woman herself if the Tyrant didn’t.
His was the driving force behind everything. It was his will that kept the man and woman frozen and out of control of their bodies. Why he hadn’t muzzled the audience, the Sorceress didn’t know.
History named him Talicor and he presided over them all, hooves invisible in the cloud of smoke that followed wherever he walked. He was as shrouded as the Sorceress; one day was too long to be exposed to the smoke of Que’Triall. Black, raised veins branched out from the woman’s fingers and continued up her right arm. The power of Que’Triall spread in her blood. She had no feeling left there.
The Sorceress drew close to the violently desperate black man, “Look at me.”
His neck strained and his eyes bulged. A small favor: Talicor finally took their voices.
The demon could kill. He could make the couple forget. He could change their minds. Instead, he made them watch.
Bloodshot eyes stared into the recess of the Fire Sorceress’ hood. Thin fabric wrapped her face from the bridge of the nose and down, but the blackening hollows under her eyes were more than the man wanted to see. The fabric moved as she spoke,
“I’m going to crush your hatchling.”
Nothing. The man couldn’t speak. She could see the fear in his eyes…and smell it in his sweat.
The Sorceress looked disgusted as she stepped back. Yes, she was going to kill the bird-child, but first, she was going to use it. The Tyrant’s desire became her own. The Natalie Matriarch deliberately followed after Talicor’s flaming tail, toward the fast moving stream that ran through the glade chosen for this moment. Some part of her shook; hesitated as she watched the Tyrant lift a hoof from his darkness and step out, into the water…
Onto…the Tyrant stepped onto, the water. Where he walked, white caps sprayed up and beaded on his hide. Nature was no match for him. The white of the small, vicious waves turned grey and the depths became black and calm.
…into the water.
The Sorceress fought it; she wasn’t laughing anymore. Fire was in her blood and it left no place for water.
…into the water.
One foot in front of the other; excitement buzzed in her veins as she kicked off the scraps of moccasin on her feet. Her ankles disappeared beneath the black water as the Sorceress stepped in deep, robe dragging behind, floating on the surface before it began to sink.
She fought for her head. Talicor needed her. There were places he couldn’t go. Places like Earth. Not yet, not until the veils between realms were destroyed completely. Rules and limitations existed, even for the Devil. She focused on the tiny heartbeat between her fingers and her head cleared enough to remember that what she wanted was different from what he wanted.
Talicor wanted the Heiress for Jarath’s Ring and the rest of the Chosen destroyed so that the Magi protecting the veils between worlds would fail. She wanted The Heiress so that she could keep the ring from Talicor and use it herself. The Sorceress would kill the Chosen to get them out of her way; to hell with the Magi and the veils. She had no desire to see Que’Triall opened here and now. All that was left of the imprisoned Ancients were demented, dangerous skeletons. No, the Sorceress intended to erase the dying world from history. If it must be opened first, then so be it.
Water raged against her waist.
The Sorceress’ fingers tightened and her arms plunged down, under the black water. Feathers came alive beneath the surface, but the little bird was no match for the Sorceress. She ignored the pain as the Cairn hatchling ripped her hands to shreds.
High above the trees a long, lone cry split the bright night and a glimmer reflected from the wing of a large, silver gyrfalcon.
Contempt lifted the Sorceress’ lip, distracting her from the death throes of the drowning bird in her hands. The gyrfalcon was Rhiannon, no doubt: Queen of the Cairns. Watch and suffer.
The Sorceress giggled as bubbles drifted to the surface of the black sheet of water around her waist. Something else rose with them. A silver wisp roiled in the dark water and seamlessly broke the surface. Giant, phantom wings beat and broke over the Sorceress and the Tyrant as the Cairn’s spirit bird ejected from its human host…
The Sorceress almost lost her footing. The weightless bird that she’d drowned was gone and the woman’s hands were caught in the floating strands of a child’s hair. The body floated below the surface, against its killer’s legs.
There would be no forgiveness. The Sorceress knew that she was doomed. Morbid curiosity compelled her to reach down into the water and lift the child above the waterline.
A soft, dark skinned infant looked up at her.
The spirit bird squawked in grief and an answering cry came from the perched falcon in the distance, but the Tyrant was not finished.
Stringy silver hair clung to the Sorceress’ forearm. She stared. Where was the laughter now? Where was the fire?
An unearthly screech, painful and frightening, rippled across the water as Talicor’s neck lifted and lowered, snaking forward, forcing the child’s spirit bird down into the blackness.
He’d outdone her. The Sorceress stared between the child and the Tyrant. She felt a strong current rising against her legs and slowly let the body go.
This was it, a part of his plan. The Sorceress felt her control slipping along with her feet. She didn’t try to stop it. Her head swept under the current; all she saw was the silver of the struggling spirit bird being dragged along with her. Phantom wings made her skin tingle; the black water drew them together. She knew what Talicor wanted. She couldn’t remember what she wanted.
Find the Heiress. Find the rings. Find the Chosen.
The Tyrant’s power and the nature of the bird spirited the Sorceress between realms. Her body couldn’t follow as the bird crossed through the veil.
Carrie McCarthy wasn’t optimistic and it was overly optimistic to think that no one could find them. The twelve-year-old just didn’t care anymore. She was untouchable.
Carrie absently tucked straightened, light brown hair behind an ear and under a black winter skull cap, attention divided between her company and the cold. She suddenly felt nauseous.
The nearest street lamp flickered a few hundred feet away at the bottom of a small hill. Its sphere of light barely lit up the little park in the valley and Carrie felt paranoid, as if someone other than Mel was watching her.
Frigid wind eroded the young girl’s angry face, making her eyes water while the metal chains holding her swing squealed. It was too loud; Carrie stopped moving immediately. They were so going to get caught…hanging out at the park after dark wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Come to think of it, neither was swinging in the dead of winter.
“Carrie, I’m freezing.”
Apparently, best friends were overrated too. Carrie tried not to snap at Melinda. She couldn’t really blame Mel. It was only ten degrees out, but at least there wasn’t any snow.
Carrie let the swing sway gently on its own and wrapped her arms around the chains so she could look at her hands. She could see enough to tell that they were stained with rust. Gross.
“Can we go inside?”
Carrie opened her mouth to reply and turned to the hill that rose on her left instead of answering. She shouldn’t have invited Melinda over, but Carrie didn’t want to be alone anymore. Yet, now that Mel was here, Carrie wanted to get rid of her.
“Carrie…” Melinda looked away from the hill, squinting at the bush line along the outside edge of the park. A small gap along the hedge revealed Carrie’s house just beyond it. Mel could see the second floor rising above the bushes: lights came on. Melinda shivered, swinging her legs, trying to build some warmth. It didn’t matter to her if Carrie’s dad came out and caught them. She hoped he would. Carrie was out of her mind, and Mel was cold.
No, no, no…Carrie stared at the light inside of her house. One look at Melinda and Carrie felt the walls closing in. Carrie had a reputation to protect. Running would ruin it just as much as staying.
Mr. McCarthy’s voice sounded much louder than it was, “Carrie!”
Mel glanced at her best friend, but Carrie looked at the ground. Melinda didn’t dare answer Mr. McCarthy’s call. Instead, her teeth clacked together, and she kept on shivering while Carrie kicked at the dirt under her swing, dragging her boot along the ground, leaving behind a deep furrow.
Running wouldn’t be so bad. Either way her reputation was done for. She could take the easy way out instead of letting everyone know how crazy her father was.
Mr. McCarthy’s voice grew frantic.
“Carrie!” Abbot McCarthy broke through the bush line and spotted his daughter on the swings.
Melinda shifted uncomfortably. The way he looked passed her made Mel feel invisible.
Carrie pretended she didn’t hear her father, but her chest ached from the effort of keeping still. Maybe if she didn’t move…
“Carrie.” Mr. McCarthy was angry and scared, but Carrie only heard the anger. She wanted to hear it. If only. Carrie could handle anger and match it too. She was vicious.
“What are you thinking? Your mother is worried sick. It’s almost eleven o’clock!”
Melinda slid off of her swing as Mr. McCarthy marched over to the girls and she stomped her feet to warm up, happy to follow Carrie’s father back into the heated house—that was before she realized what he’d said. Melinda froze, confused.
Blood pounded in Carrie’s ears, but it wasn’t loud enough to block out her father’s reproach. Please don’t do this. She wanted to cry. The girl would get on her hands and knees and beg if it’d make a difference. She wished something would. She’d do anything to make him stop…
The little voice in the back of Carrie’s head didn’t sound like hers.
Mel’s mouth snapped shut automatically. That command was usually meant for her. She couldn’t believe Carrie was saying it to her father.
Neither could he.
“What did you say?” Maybe he really didn’t hear. Abbot’s thick beard quivered as he waited for his daughter’s response.
Stand up for yourself.
Carrie slipped off the swing.
Her voice shook, “I said, shut up.”
Standing straight was difficult, but Carrie did it and Melinda took a step back, toward the jungle gym.
Carrie couldn’t take it, wouldn’t take it anymore.
Hurt him like he’s hurt you.
The girl started to scream, “I said shut up! Shut up!” Carrie didn’t know what she was doing, but she was going to finish it. She stumbled forward and shoved her father in the stomach. Carrie wanted to hurt him; she wanted to get back at him for every day that she’d taken care of him; pretending to live in his make-believe-world.
He didn’t get it. Abbot McCarthy would never get it, but he wasn’t the only person that Carrie was angry with. She was mad at her mother, and Carrie was furious with her sister.
The use of Carrie’s middle name was supposed to scare her.
You’re not afraid. Fight back.
“You’re pathetic,” Carrie spit the words, “You can’t tell me what to do!”
Melinda couldn’t get far enough away. Her feet wouldn’t work. She didn’t see this coming. This was not Carrie. Mel’s best friend never lost it like this.
Carrie was getting lightheaded. The voice in her head was loud, heavy too and making it hard to breathe, but she didn’t stop.
“She’s gone. Mom left. She’s been dead for nine years. Open your eyes!”
Abbot McCarthy broke so quickly that neither one of the girl’s had time to react.
His slap made Carrie’s body turn; her trembling legs collapsed. Her knees hit the ground and the voice in Carrie’s head started to laugh. It laughed and laughed. She’d never been hit before.
Melinda swallowed a squeal and covered her face, but Abbot McCarthy was breathing as heavily as his daughter. He stood over her, unsure of what he’d done. It took too long for him to reprimand; to correct the lie that made him slap her. He pointed shakily at his daughter, “Don’t ever talk about your mother like that again.”
Carrie stayed on the ground while the cold seeped through her fishnet leggings right to the bone, holding her jaw with one hand and staring up at her father. He might as well be gone too.
Nothing was going to work…so this was it. Carrie saw the ground, saw Mel, and saw her father clearly for the first time since her sister moved out. This was it. Nothing was ever going to change.
The voice kept on laughing.
Abbot McCarthy couldn’t see his daughter on the ground. He turned his back on the park and went home to an invisible wife.
“C—Carrie…” Melinda crept closer.
Both hands covered Carrie’s face: in and out. The girl counted breaths behind her fingers and waited. Her body started to shake. Carrie’s head was swimming; she blinked tears from her eyes, looking around for Melinda, but her friend was a blur. Everything was a blur. Carrie couldn’t think.
“Carrie?” Melinda was closer; her voice louder but she looked strange. Carrie tried to see; she really did. The thought of passing out scared her. All of a sudden, Carrie was really scared.
Get out, thought Carrie. She only made the laughter in her head worse. Who was she talking to?
Finally, Carrie yelled aloud, “Get out!”
The inaudible hysterics died instantly; the voice snuffed out, and the Fire Sorceress was forced out of the Heiress.
Her link to life on this side of the veil was fragile and spiraling out of the Sorceress’ control as the borrowed spirit bird fought to break free and fly on in search of its new [PC1] host. She was close.
Why did everything look yellow? Maybe it was the lighting.
The room was spinning and the rounded corner of Will Matson’s old gas stove jammed into his niece’s stomach.
He left the radio on. No way would it be loud enough to mask the noise, not this time.
You let him do this?
Adrianne curled over the stove and her forehead smacked into a raised burner before she caught herself. The girl’s ears exploded, all Adrianne could hear was the music. All she could hear was Cher belting it out in the background.
Laughter bounced around inside her skull, amused by the lyrics.
Adrianne’s head buzzed, her eyes opened before the hands came back. Dirty fingernails dug into her collarbone groping for a grip on the back of her baggy jeans.
He lifted Adrianne clear off of the ground.
He’ll kill you. The laughter bubbled and spilled over into Adrianne’s throat. She couldn’t stop it.
The girl’s short, bitten fingernails slipped on the smooth oven top. When they broke, Adrianne laughed at the pain. Her fingers bled and slid. She couldn’t get a grip. Precious air rattled into her lungs as the hands lifted her and swung her like a rag doll.
Adrianne was a fish out of water. Her mouth opened, but she lost the breath as her spine collided with the wall. The back of Adrianne’s head cracked against the corner of the door jam, too dazed to feel fear.
You were asking for it.
Buzzing drowned everything out except the voice, and it was screaming—or was she? Was that her voice yelling?
Half open eyes desperately tried to focus on the towering man spitting into Adrianne’s face. He was going to kill her one day. Finally, the room stopped spinning and Adrianne caught her Uncle’s sharp green eyes; saw his knotted hair, but she was drawn to his hands. She knew them best. Dazed eyes followed as his arm rose and left her field of vision. Adrianne remained removed. Let someone else take her place.
If she hadn’t run on the night of her parents’ murder maybe they’d be alive, or maybe she’d be dead too. Either way, she wouldn’t be here.
The voice in Adrianne’s head was silenced. She did deserve this.
Panic flared, making Adrianne’s skin flush as the voice spoke again, differently. Something changed it.
Don’t let him.
As if she had a choice. She knew every line in her Uncle’s palm. Adrianne knew every twitch of his fingers; she knew exactly what each one meant and she always knew what was coming…except for tonight.
William Matson’s huge hand whipped across his niece’s bruised face. He hit so hard, or she was just so weak, that her head turned and he could hear the crunch of her skull against the corner of the door jam.
Red hot anger made the child’s skin break out in hives, but it wasn’t Adrianne’s anger.
She didn’t understand. He knew better than to leave marks on her face.
Adrianne’s arms sluggishly spread. One wrapped around the opening into the living room and the other pressed against the refrigerator. The girl’s fingers twitched against the cool door as her body slid down along the wall—too tired.
The voice in her head growled; Adrianne wasn’t listening. She saw the peeling white paint that covered the screen door to the front porch in high definition as she sank down and it disappeared behind the stove. She saw her dog too.
Adrianne knew that the snarling white animal would save her. Russel always did. It was all going to be ok.
The dog stood outside with foaming jaws and braced legs. Adrianne welcomed the terrible tearing sound that came from the front porch, but William Matson twisted immediately in the direction of the door and roared in rage. She’d never seen him so angry...
He wasn’t the only one. A mixture of relief and disgust tempered the angry voice squatting in Adrianne’s head. The girl was too complacent, too beaten to take notice.
Sharp canine teeth left the screen door in shreds, and hard, uncut nails tapped on the linoleum floor inside of the kitchen.
Adrianne’s eyes struggled to stay open. The stove was in her way. She couldn’t get up, but she wanted to see. Everything hinged on her seeing. It took all of the strength that the girl had left to push away from the wall and onto her stomach. Matson’s boot heels lined up with her face; Adrianne belatedly realized that she’d made a dangerous mistake, but she could see the dog now and Matson was preoccupied. The rusty red tile that pressed against her cheek made her face pale and sickly.
Better late than never…
Drool dripped onto the floor as the white dog advanced. His hackles rose while long, powerful jaws locked, displaying sharp teeth. The dog’s usually erect ears laid back and his blue eyes were tiny, swamped in the folds of a snarling snout.
A hell hound advanced on William Matson.
Make him pay.
The man’s jaw quivered. He showed no fear. There was only rage. He growled at the dog, “I’ll put a bullet in you this time…”
How could Matson hope to get away from that? Adrianne’s eyes rolled over the animal that protected her, and then they struggled to rise up along her Uncle’s pant leg. She was always looking for his hands. What she saw was the gun. The dull flash of metal struck her harder than the stove or the wall. It broke her.
The white shepherd dog kept on coming. Russel didn’t know. How could the dog know what a gun was?
Slowly, Matson’s arm moved, and the dog’s snarls grew louder in warning. The animal was close enough now that Adrianne could see the vicious twitching of his lips. She’d never seen Russel like this before.
He’ll be dead soon.
Russel’s haunches tensed, and Matson’s finger moved to the trigger.
“No!” Adrianne screamed and cried, but the laughter in her head was back; the girl didn’t think she had the strength to stand.
Let it happen. It’ll be easy. He’ll leave you alone after, and you can rest.
The voice fought to weigh Adrianne down, but she wasn’t going to let it happen. Her fingers clawed at Matson’s leg, and the girl dragged her body upwards.
The man responded, startled. His arm dropped, his body turned…and the dog leaped into the air.
Christmas lights dangled, blowing in the wind on the neighbors’ houses sending multicolored shadows skittering across cold, frozen ground, as a sharp crack split the neighborhood.
Life is a battlefield, my dear. You will lose.