Orbs

Kaden heard the muted thrumming mere seconds before he noticed the ebony disks floating above his bed. There were four of them, perfectly circular, hovering about three feet above the bed.

They hadn’t been there when he’d gone to bed. He was sure of that. He was also sure he had no idea where they’d come from. He wasn’t asleep, only having been snuggled under his blankets for about three minutes.

Kaden hadn’t seen them come flying in, they were just there.

He kept his green eyes focused on the one closest to his face, studying it. It was opaque, pitch-black, and just under a foot in diameter. The room, lit by a pale glow from the full-moon, was starkly visible around the perfectly cut edges of the disk.

The hum he heard emanating from the disks, each of the four having a different pitch, made an eerily melodic sound in the quiet room.

Kaden watched the disks warily, but they didn’t move. Until he reached toward the bedside table and the bronze lamp waiting there.

The abrupt movement of the floating objects held Kaden’s hand for a split-second, but, as if sensing his intention to turn on the light, the disks darted down, slamming into his prone body.

The searing pain, although only seconds long, knocked Kaden’s breath from his lungs. Gasping for air, Kaden rolled from his bed, knocking the lamp from the beside table. He scrambled for the light switch beside his bedroom door, flipping the lever up and flooding the room with bright light.

Kaden searched his legs, stomach and chest for signs of the disks, anything they may have left behind on their entry into his body. But he found nothing.

His heart beating wildly, Kaden crawled back into his bed, leaving the overhead light blazing. He dozed fitfully during the night, never fully allowing himself to drift into a deep sleep.

With the sun peeking over the tree-tops, Kaden sat up in his bed, relieved the night, and nightmare, was finally over.

When he went to wake his son up for school, however, Kaden knew something had changed, forever. His son’s usually bright blue eyes were darkened, turned from near royal to navy. The smirk on his eight-year-old’s face was menacing.

As was the boy’s voice, asking, “Why did you try to fight it, Daddy?”

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Vertigo

He couldn’t stop the vertigo from happening. He’d tried Dramamine, he’d tried all his grandmother’s old folk remedies, he’d even been to the doctor. But nothing helped. Especially since no one could figure out what triggered the motion-sickness and feeling of falling that came over him two or three times every day.

The doctor had sent him for tests. Then more tests, then specialists who ordered even more diagnostic processes. They all told him there was nothing to find. He was perfectly healthy and normal, they insisted.

But every day, as Lyle went through his normal routines, a wave of nausea would hit him, square in the midsection. Then his body would tumble over a Himalayan cliff, hurtling him downward, to the depths of the Marianas.

At least, that’s what it felt like.

When Lyle would regain his stability, he would find himself elsewhere. Usually no where close to where the vertigo had started.

The first time, the dizziness had come on while he was getting ready for work, still in his boxers with a toothbrush in his hand. When he’d come out of it, he’d been at work, and a close look at his sales numbers showed that he was on top of the daily bonus contest.

The last time, the spell had hit while he was driving home to visit his family for his grandmother’s 90th birthday. He remembered being in his little Toyota, in the middle of the freeway at noon, travelling along happily at seventy miles per hour, thinking about the party, then all of a sudden, sickness in his belly and darkness in his sights. When he came around, Lyle was standing under an ancient oak tree at dusk, in some random person’s backyard, looking into the brightly lit yellow two-story.

He’d called his family, to let them know he wasn’t going to be there, but his brother insisted that he had been. The party was awesome, but grandmother, being 90, wasn’t up to a long visit, so they’d wrapped things up early.

Lyle had made it to his car, with a bit of help from his dying cell-phone. He’d found visitors at his home, when he finally wandered back there. Three uniformed officers and two detectives.

The police had confronted him about a set of times, all when he’d been in the midst of vertigo. He couldn’t help them. They couldn’t help him. They’d booked him into the county lockup.

Last night.

Now, as Lyle looked around, he found himself somewhere else. Not downtown, where he should’ve been. Not in the jail, booked for murder.

Right now, Lyle was covered, head to toe, in sticky crimson while a tall, thin shadow of a man smirked at him from across the writhing body on the lavender carpeted floor. The shadow bowed, then faded away as sirens blasted through the fog in Lyle’s mind.

Maternity ward

The hallway was long, longer than Jen expected it to be. The walls were white, sterile and cold and they seemed to loom together near the end of the corridor. Jen’s feet were freezing, even through the fuzzy pink socks and purple slippers her boyfriend had brought her last night. Her white nightgown, her favorite, was flannel and long with roses and violets, but it did nothing to ward off the cold. Even her robe, thick and soft, didn’t help much against the bone-chilling temperature of the hospital’s hallway.

“Hello,” Jen called, her voice echoing hollowly even though she’d nearly whispered her call. “Is there anyone here?”

Tears flowed unchecked from her eyes. She hurt, all over. She’d known that giving birth was hard, her mother had warned her, but she didn’t think it would cause her entire body to ache. Cramps cascaded across her tired muscles, running from her arms to her legs and back again. Her still-extended belly felt soft, mushy even, and the uncontrollable moving of it while she walked caused searing pain, from her belly button to her back.

Too-bright white lights flickered in the ceiling along the hall, making Jen’s head pound. She stopped at a cross-corridor, staring at a sign on the wall, looking for directions back to the maternity ward, but the usual arrows were missing and the words were all jumbled, looking almost like a foreign language to her burning eyes.

The sound of babies crying caught her attention. She listened, trying to close out all other senses to focus on the children, but the crying seemed to be coming from everywhere. Sobbing, Jen chose a direction, hoping she was going the correct way, and continued stumbling and shuffling her way along the next hallway, identical to the first.

“Hello? Is anyone here,” Jen’s voice was stronger than before, desperation giving her call volume. She stopped, waiting for a response, but nothing came back to her. Shaking her shaggy blonde head, she continued on her stumbling way.

The hallway was growing longer. Jen watched in horror as the narrow, white line of the corridor stretched away from her. She tried to run, but her feet didn’t respond. Instead she stumbled, tripping over her own feet, and fell to the hard, tiled floor.

Lying on the floor, the chill creeping and clawing its way inside of her, Jen sobbed. Her eyes clouded with sorrow and pain, she didn’t notice the trail of crimson, extending away behind her, marking her labored journey through the hospital.

Jen gasped, trying to breathe, but it was too difficult, air wouldn’t expand her frozen lungs. She ached to hold her newborn baby girl, to see her boyfriend’s rugged face, to hear her mother scold her once more. But she knew it was hopeless. She was lost.

The lights flared once, washing the white tiled hallway and the dying woman in brilliant white light.

In a maternity recovery room, a mother cried while holding her only child’s hand. A man stood silent, cradling his newborn daughter, while the love of his life took her last breath on the narrow bed. A doctor shook his head, sadly, and muttered, “Too much blood…”

 

The journal’s journey

(Part 5 of Jerra and the Ravers. Start from here: Surprises in the night, or just read the last episode, here: Death-day)

 

Jerra spent all night studying her mother’s book. It was part diary and part spellbook. Inside the thick leather covers, Jerra found her mother, her true, unabashedly honest self. All of Ambra’s fears, her wishes, her motivations, everything was laid bare for her oldest daughter to absorb.

And absorb, Jerra did. In the single breath that was her mother’s death-day, Jerra learned many of the secrets of Masica magic. She learned how to keep her Buranga facade strong, even in the midst of extreme emotion. She learned how to create the simple magics that would allow her to protect her family from Ravers, from Masica spies, and from her Buranga neighbors.

Jerra also learned the terrible reason her mother had run away from her golden city, so long ago.

When Ander and the twins awoke the morning after Ambra’s funeral, they discovered Jerra, still sitting in her mother’s rocking chair, staring blankly at the open pages of the leather-bound journal.

“Genn, go warm your sister’s bed. Tair, see if there’s still something left in the pot. Quickly, now, go!”

Ander’s barked orders sent his younger girls running. Gently, the big man removed Jerra’s fingers from the book in her lap, closing the covers and setting the book beside the chair. He rubbed her small fingers in his, willing warmth to enter the frigid digits. When he looked to her face, he saw the glistening of tears in her jade eyes.

“Jerra, my girl,” Ander whispered, “if I’d known it would trouble you so… I’m so sorry, my girl.”

Ander was still trying to warm his oldest daughter when Tair returned with half a bowl of hot stew, thick with root vegetables and venison. Together, the pair spooned the hot broth into Jerra’s willing mouth. Genn returned from her mission, standing uncharacteristically silent behind her father.

When Jerra no longer opened her mouth for the offered food, Ander set aside the bowl and stood. He motioned his twins away and then lifted the unmoving Jerra from the wooden rocker, carrying her to her bed, like he’d done so often when she was a small child.

Genn picked up the leather book from the rug where Ander had placed it and carried it into her sister’s room. The young girl tiptoed her way to Jerra’s side, keeping quiet in her fear. When she settled the book onto the bed beside her sister, though, her fear exploded inside her as her father roared at her, tearing the book from her hands.

“Get that thing away! I never should have let her have it.”

The angry man threw the book, aiming for the still-crackling fireplace in the main room of the house, just past the doorway of Jerra’s bedroom. But before the journal passed the doorway, it froze, floating in mid-air, a purple haze surrounding it.

“No, Papa,” Jerra’s voice floated to him, “don’t. I’m fine. Just tired.”

Ander turned stunned eyes on his elder daughter. She was still lying in her bed, still as stone, but her deep green eyes were fixed on him. Never blinking, never taking her gaze from his face, she guided the flying journal back to her bed, letting it fall free from the magic to land on the feather mattress next to her hand.

“Let me rest, please, for just a bit,” Jerra asked her father, including her sisters in her words. “Then, I’ll be fine, all back to normal. Like mother.”

Ander gulped, fear and anger battling inside his chest. He nodded and escorted Genn and Tair from the room.

Before closing the door, he said, “I’ll be back to check on you in an hour. Rest, now.”

Jerra smiled weakly at her father. She waited for him to close the door before sitting up in her bed. She reached for her mother’s journal, flipping the pages until she found the map inside, hand-drawn by Ambra, showing the way from Pason’s Crossing to Hyroma, her mother’s golden city.

It took less than the full hour for Jerra to pack her few possessions. By the time Ander opened the door to check on his half-blood oldest child, she was out of Pason’s Crossing and across the river.

 

Death-day

(Part 4 of Jerra and the Ravers. Part 3 is here: Masica fever)

 

True to Buranga tradition, Jerra and her family consecrated her mother’s body to the gods at sundown, the very day she died. Her pyre was strung with garlands of early autumn flowers and fallen leaves. Gifts of food, beads, feathers and furs were set around the base of her funeral bower, left by the villagers at the garden gate.

Funerals, in Buranga, were private affairs, with anonymous gifts left for the dead and solitude for the grieving family. Jerra and Ander were especially grateful for the isolation a death-fire begat.

Ander was near inconsolable. He and Ambra had loved deeply, for many, many years. Jerra knew that her father would never marry again, even if there were no fears about someone finding out his children’s half-blood status. Ambra had been the love of his lifetime, no one stood a chance at filling the hole her death had caused.

When the fire had flamed itself down to cinders, the younger girls already deeply asleep in their goose-down bed, Ander roused himself from his grief and went searching for his oldest child.

He found his red-headed, green-eyed daughter in the barn, roughly chopping her maiden’s braids from her head, an outdated but still accepted form of mourning in Buranga. Tears poured unchecked from her eyes as she sawed a leather knife’s blade through her thick locks.

“Child,” he whispered, his voice thick and gruff with his tears, “here, let me help you. That knife won’t do. Try this.”

Ander held forth his own knife, sharpened and strong, for his daughter to take.

Jerra’s hands fell from her head, the tanning knife falling loose from her grip. Her shoulders hunched and her body began to shake with her enormous sobs. The large, solid form of her father was suddenly at her back, his strong arms wrapping themselves around her, holding her tightly, while his tears mingled with hers in their shared anguish.

When they had both cried themselves dry, Ander gently finished cutting Jerra’s luxurious hair, trimming the ends so that, even in mourning, her hair was properly kempt. He watched his daughter, who looked so much like his beloved, carefully pick up the hacked off pieces of her hair and place them all into a white handkerchief. Then she tied the ends together and slipped the package into her pocket.

“Done?”

Jerra nodded at her father, answering his question without words of her own. She was afraid she’d begin to cry all over again if she dared to open her mouth. She took the hand Ander held out to her and together they walked from the barn, separate in their loneliness.

Ander stopped just before the pair reached the safety of their well-built wooden house and said, “Your mother… she left something for you. I didn’t want her to give it to you. We argued, yes, while she was ill, and I’m sorry for it, but, at the time, I thought it was best. Now, seeing you in your grief, I believe I may have been wrong.”

Jerra’s deep green eyes glistened with tears. “What is it? And why do you think you were wrong?”

“Jerra,” her father whispered in the dark, “look at yourself.”

Stunned, the girl realized that, in her angst, she’d forgotten to maintain the hold on her Buranga appearance. Her limbs were longer than they should have been. She was also taller than her father, who at 6’1 stood taller than most of the other men in the village.

“Papa… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… What if someone had seen,” Jerra’s voice faltered, bewilderment, grief, and anxiety all jumbled together in her tone.

Ander patted his daughter’s long-fingered hands. “Don’t fret, girl, it’s dark, it’s a death-day, you’re fine. But, it does make me certain that, once again, your mother was right. Come, let me give you her book.”

With that, the father and daughter entered their darkened house. Ander sat his daughter in the rocking chair near the fireplace and retrieved her mother’s book.

“I believe it’s all the magic she knew. All the tricks and spells, all the information she had gathered from both her time in the city, and her time here. It will help keep you safe. You, and your sisters.”

Jerra nodded her thanks, giving her father a weak smile, and flipped open the book. Ander quietly made his way to his empty bed, where he cried himself to sleep.

Masica fever

(Part 3 of Jerra and the Ravers. Part 1: Surprises in the night and Part 2: Her mother’s secret)

 

“Mam, please, let me call the herb women,” Jerra pleaded with her mother. Ambra was suffering, that much was clear to her oldest daughter, but from what, Jerra didn’t know. The wise women in town were healers, users of herbs and natural remedies for a multitude of illnesses, but Ambra refused to see them.

“Jerra, they can do nothing,” she coughed, phlegm accompanying her words, “for this is not of Buranga, but of Masica.”

Jerra cocked her head, her long, curly auburn hair swinging loose from the restraining maiden’s braids. She looked frightened, not sure now that her mother would recover from the fever racing through her body.

“Masica,” she asked. “Does that mean I’m going to catch it? Or Genn and Tair?”

Struggling to sit up, her mother shook her head, “No, at least I don’t think so. I’ve never seen it before, but I’d heard stories, cautionary tales, during my training.”

Jerra helped her once plump and hearty mother sit up in her sickbed and gently demanded, “And?”

Ambra gave her daughter a scolding look before a coughing fit took hold of her, but it worked on her daughter, who ducked her head and sat back on her heels beside the bed.

“And,” Ambra choked out, “this fever, this disease, only affects those Mascia who leave the city and the magical influxes there. I don’t imagine it will affect you and your sisters, but I have been wrong before. Until you were born, I didn’t even know it was possible for Masica and Buranga to breed together.”

As if speaking their names drew them, the younger girls peeked their dark heads around the door of their parents’ bedroom.

“Is Mam alright,” asked Genn.

“Can we come see her,” chimed in Tair.

Ambra smiled at her rambunctious eight-year-old twins. “Mam’s fine,” she told them, holding her arms out for their rowdy embrace.

Jerra nodded at her mother over the twins’ heads. She waited for Ambra’s return nod before leaving the bedroom to go find her father.

Ander was in the barn, sitting on the milking stool, head in his hands when his oldest child found him. His head jerked up when he heard her footsteps shuffle through the dirt and loose hay. Jerra could see the stains of recently fallen tears on his rugged face.

“Your mam?”

His voice cracked, breaking Jerra’s heart. At only sixteen years old, she knew what losing her mother would do to her father. Her father cared deeply for Ambra, despite the fact that the woman he’d married was Masica.

“No change, really,” Jerra answered him. “She’s still refusing to let the herb women come, though.”

Ander sighed. He had hoped his wife would tell Jerra the reason for her refusal of the healers, but she was stubborn. As was Jerra, who would continue insisting until she knew the truth.

“Jerra,” he said, “daughter, you cannot call the wise women to come here. Your mother is right.”

He held up a hand to forestall his oldest child’s protests, “She cannot maintain her Buranga appearance. She does it for the twins. And you, I suppose. But at night, when you children have gone to bed, and Ambra is alone with me, she lets go of the magic. It costs her too much. And that is why she cannot allow the herb women here. They would discover our family’s secret.”

Jerra gasped. Her mother was dying, she was sure of it, now.

Her mother’s secret

(Another piece featuring Jerra, in the world of Ravers, Masica, and magic. For the first flash, check here: Surprises in the night)

 

Jerra had a secret. One her small-minded neighbors in the tiny settlement of Pason’s Crossing would kill her for. The only problem was, it wasn’t really hers, or at least, not her fault.

Years before, when she’d been a child, barely ten summers old, Jerra had encountered a dangerous group of half-men, Ravers, up close and personal. But that wasn’t the secret. The secret was that Jerra’s mother, Ambra, had destroyed every last one of the band of monsters with magic.

Masica magic.

The people of Pason’s Crossing didn’t have much magic beyond the runesmakers. Even then, those few who knew the making of the protective runes had only the barest of ideas about the crafting of the marks. Every house, barn, and shop had runes, one each on the four cardinal points, to protect those inside from the raids of the half-men. Some shops had runes etched onto window sills and doorways, to deter ordinary thieves, but they only sometimes worked.

The simple people of her village knew nothing of Masica magic except that it was forbidden to anyone not of Masica birth. Most people thought it was evil. Mothers all told their babies that if the children misbehaved, a Masica magus would snatch them up to use in their magical rituals.

But Ambra, the small plump woman in the house on the edge of town, bore the power of magic inside. And, from the story she’d told Jerra all those years ago, so did Jerra.

After her mother had stormed from their house and blasted the Ravers to bits, she’d sent Jerra’s father and twin baby sisters to bed, then she had settled into her smooth polished wooden rocking chair beside the  stone fireplace with its roaring fire and pulled a frightened Jerra in close.

The story Ambra told her oldest daughter was near to unbelievable. Jerra’s sweet, unassuming mother was a Masica magus-in-training who had run away from her city and her duties, far away from Pason’s Crossing.

Ambra told Jerra that she could feel Jerra’s magic bubbling up and that before too long, Jerra would start to grow, taller and thinner, to appear more Masica. She wanted to teach Jerra, in secret, how to maintain the look of her father’s people, Buranga, like she did.

That night began the first of many lessons for Jerra, half-Masica, half-Buranga, which would help her protect her family, her village, and keep her safe from the prying eyes of Masica spies.

 

(Part 3: Masica fever)