♦Welcome to another edition of the Open Book Blog Hop!♦
Give Readers An Excerpt From Your Novel.
Welcome back to another edition of the Open Book Blog Hop! If you’re new to the series, the authors included are grateful for your reads and appreciate, even more so, when you share our writings with your friends. If you’re new to the series, welcome aboard. The authors engage and impress weekly. Be prepared to become a regular reader.
Having three novels out, I was hard pressed to decide on which should get my attention, but considering I have a release coming next month, why not start there. Then, I was wondering, should I give them a piece of the next installment or give them a piece of the first book? Considering I plan to release an excerpt in September for Burning Down, now would be the time to give a nugget from The Shadow Soul.
The Shadow Soul is the first book in The Trailokya Trilogy. I’ve been writing about various details of the series in my Trailokya Friday Series. You can find out about races that populate the books, Orders and other concepts. The series crosses four genres: Dark Fantasy, Science Fiction, Paranormal and Horror.
I’m struggling to choose a scene for you…okay, I’ve got one, but it’s going to be a whole chapter. Enjoy…
MAIEL GAZED ACROSS THE LONDON ROOFTOPS from her roost on edge of the Great Ormond Street Hospital. In the distance, the crosses of a Union Flag thrashed in the breeze. Big Ben’s clock tower jutted its great face into the skyline. Deepening dread filled Maiel’s thoughts. Streams of light disappeared into the milky firmament, a dazzling show that might have comforted the ones left behind if they could see it. If they only knew that their loved ones had merely disconnected from this world and were quite safe back home in Zion.
The erela had matured into a fine leader in the Moon Order. The five piercings in each ear were strung witiuh silver hoops, each marking the destruction of a Lord of Jahannam and two marked with cobalt to denote barons. Upon her form, cobalt armor declared her order, similar to the style of the ancient Greeks and Romans centuries gone from Earth and the Samsara Universe. The penannular normally on her shoulder was embedded into the breastplate, an empty, narrow ring of silver over her heart. When at rest, the device would be a silver circlet around a cobalt center boasting a small full moon. Her crimson wings lay folded on her back, partially concealing a round shield of the same hue and design as the penannular. Silver gauntlets and greaves piped with blue adorned her limbs, ending in claws that could shred the toughest shade’s hide. The blade running the length of each greave nearly completed the destructive combinations in her armor. Her flame tresses sprung from the crest of her spine-crowned helmet in a thick braid that parted into several others. Each rope formed a crushing barbed whip. At her side hung her trusted gladius, the same blade given to her by the guards of the Armory of Walhall, keepers of the arsenal of Zion, upon her placement in the order when she was just a skinny youngling. A quiver of arrows and a bow peeped from behind the shield. Still, these were not the only weapons she carried. A multitude of unseen arms could be pulled at will, like her handy curved dagger in the holster at her knee, the tip of a silver hilt the only hint of its presence.
Maiel set her sandaled foot on the edge of the roof and stepped up to gain a better vantage of that section of the city. Her fingers flexed the articulated armor. The skin of her upper arm showed the tail of a dragon, its head hidden beneath the armor where it reached to her wrist. The marking prickled with electricity. There was nothing to dread, for the cause was not present in Samsara, but she felt the warning all the same and was glad for every blade.
Caer Wydion, what the humans called the Milky Way, and her Earth changed a great deal since she first traveled there, preferring it to the other worlds of Samsara. The humans used this training ground as intended, but sometimes they abused the privilege to their detriment, struggling to dominate a place between three-twined worlds where they could at last be the supreme race. This struggle was not unique to their species. They reminded her of the shades of the Jahannam. Other souls who shared their plane, hidden galaxies apart from one another, made the same claims. Every so often lights of promise sprung up among them all. This day, she was there to guard one of those atman.
Maiel’s solemn gaze lowered to the street. Cars slid up and down the narrow artery stories below. The cloak of her penannular prevented the humans from spotting her perched far above, observing them with a clinical eye. Her kind watched and guarded. They were always watching, waiting for the shadows of the enemy to show. If she wanted, the veil of the penannular would release. However, eons of experience and the warnings, that were like tiny sharp electric pulses along the surface of her skin, suggested discretion. Maiel’s assign lay below, through several floors, ready to disconnect from a bio-interface appliance, or bio-vessel, which made her time in Samsara possible. When the divide occurred, Maiel would guide the girl to Zion where the energy converged back to full consciousness in her real home. That process required all of Maiel’s attention. This wasn’t the time to have a lark and go hunting.
The smell of sulfur tingled in Maiel’s nose. She scowled at the city, trying to detect the direction it came from. A deep frown turned the corners of her mouth down, making her resemble the common expression of her eldest akha. The hospital was rank with the dregs of Jahannam, mostly shades and imps, stealing treasures for the princes of Abaddon to curry their favor. The oath breakers filled the city in great numbers, darkening the paths of those
trying to rise, and fanning the flames of war between Zion and Jahannam by disobeying the demarcations. That flirting had caused the other races in Samsara to crack down hard. Some succeeded in destroying their inroads.
Some still struggled to do so. The struggling posed a dangerous threat to all of Samsara and thus alliances were made and greater threats yet unseen built up in yet unknown places.
Stepping back down, Maiel faced a dark-hued erela who waited in silence behind her. The second guardian was also a captain, but of the Order of Horus. Upon her figure she wore a breastplate of gold scales with a winged scarab over her heart. A golden falcon helmet covered her neatly arranged braids. A pair of sable wings shifted on her back. Clear black eyes pondered Maiel, as she waited for direction.
“I smell a mudeater,” Maiel told her.
The darker erela’s eyes glinted eagerly. A flash of white teeth revealed her disgust. Maiel nodded with a mix of the same emotions. She glanced over her shoulder. A gloomy, distracted expression drew her features down. Her energy pattern flickered.
“I’ll keep the way open,” the dusky erela said, raising her hand to produce an ethereal seal. “I still don’t know why they didn’t involve the outposts. This would be easy as pie and the package certain to be delivered.”
“You know how they are, Zaajah,” Maiel sighed.
“The fewer the better,” Zaajah said wryly.
Blue light formed in the air at Zaajah’s fingertips, concentric circles marked by ancient script. In the center, a diamond and concave-sided square merged, surrounded by more circles. Lastly, a crisscross set of parallel lines
intersected. Zaajah touched the center and opened the door back to Zion. A tiny glimpse of the orange sunset over a vast city of impossible heights lay beyond the rift in space.
“It’s time, Zaajah,” Maiel said, her blue eyes glistening.
Maiel held her gaze on London.
“Oh, Lena,” Maiel murmured. Shaking off the gloom, she focused on the moment and her task again. She pinned Zaajah with her eyes. “This will be quick, so should they try—”
“Let them try,” Zaajah replied.
“We’ll be at her window.” Maiel smiled, setting a hand on her friend’s shoulder.
Maiel stepped forward, disappearing from view and leaving Zaajah alone on the roof. A blue-silver streak, like that of the seal, raced along the rooftop to the stairwell door and was gone. Zaajah refocused on her vigil. Maiel walked the dim corridor unseen by all except for the other duta and miscreant shadowalkers. Unlike the average soul, she saw the guardians upholding their duties of watching and protecting their assigns. Some offered a nod. Some simply stared. Continuing on, Maiel’s expression hardened. Friendly faces encouraged chatter. She didn’t need to be delayed by a chatty guardian. Her pace quickened to be certain.
The passage took her near a small chapel and the figures of the frieze above the entrance seemed to watch her, seemed to rise out of the marble. The smell of sulfur thickened in the wards, making it hard to breathe. At the end of the hall, a boy crouched against the wall. He chattered to the barrier, running a hand across it, spilling the story of his life. There was no guardian near him and she didn’t expect to find one. Maiel drew a deep breath. The boy was a lost one, the gray—souls who refused to realize the story of their life ended long ago. He looked tired and disheveled, ripe for the taking by a clever shade. So fixed in a trance of lies was the gray that the shades would have no difficulty in trying to tempt him, but likely would succeed, his only hope then being a unit of duta dispatched to retrieve him from Jahannam later. Maiel understood his prison well. It would be so simple to reach out and touch his fragile shoulder, and carry him off home, if only he could see that she was really there. Stubborn belief in the life they lost kept them bound and unable to rise past the Avernus. His mind created a strange reality to augment the emptiness and answer the confusion at never growing older and how the shadows bit into his flesh. Thus, a prison fortified its walls.
Reluctantly leaving the child to his whispers, Maiel followed the corridor to the right. A squad might be able to dislodge him, and the suggestion would go in her report. However, right then, there was someone whom she could not ignore. Dashing past the open door of a dim room, Maiel caught a glimpse of a shadowalker. She halted and took several slow steps back.
A dark cloud hovered over the bed of a young patient. The curious brown ether was what her kind called smokers. A nurse checked her pulse with great dismay. In the corner of the ceiling, a youngling was trapped in weblike bonds. Maiel grimaced at the guardian, drew her bow and aimed.
“Smoky,” Maiel called out to the shade.
The wispy figure ignored Maiel, as it crouched over the child, drooling and licking its lips as it waited for the final moment. A string of light stretched from the child’s mouth to that of the shade. The human’s heart beat much too slowly. Maiel’s eyes flicked to the shade and back. The kid didn’t have much time. If the shade drew much more energy, the bio-vessel would die and she would be returned before her time, or stolen to Jahannam.
“I’m talking to you, shit-eater.”
The figure stopped feeding, turning its blank face to look at the duta addressing it. A macabre mash of scars adorned the head. The blank face opened where a mouth should have been. Sparks of lightning flashed in the cloud, followed by a long, snake-like tongue. It sniffed the air through tiny slits and hissed.
“I’ll count to three. Give you a head start.”
The shade opened its mouth, every wisp of smoke making up its sattva tightening, and bellowed a terrible howl.
Maiel loosed her arrow. It landed its mark at the back of the smoker’s throat and pressed through. She grimaced
as it slumped and dripped black blood all over the bed and floor. She entered the room and freed the young guardian with her dagger. The nurse now checked her patient’s blood pressure, unaware of the battle surrounding her, though her clothes were splattered by smoker blood.
“My apologies, Captain,” the young duta said once he regained his breath.
The small guardian nodded.
“Aren’t they training younglings anymore? Or does the council want to sacrifice you to the danava? Maybe they think we have too many and can just send more?” Maiel snapped.
“My alders declared me ready,” the youngling replied, shamefaced.
“Your alders know nothing of what is required here,” Maiel said. “I’ll have a personal talk with them to make sure that they do. Now—get back to your assign. Vigilance at all times. A companion from your order will be sent to
help you, as they should have done in the first place, despite the council.”
The youngling pulled the corpse of the imp from the bed and laid it on the cold floor. It was too kind a gesture for a shadow, but the child didn’t need to pass with a shade hovering on the edge of death, longing to restore its body with stolen energy. It rattled and grasped for the guardian’s skinny limbs. The youngling struck with his blade. The nurse sighed with relief, stroked the child’s forehead, and exited. The smoker faded in a mist across the floor.
Maiel stepped out of the room, moody from the delay. Distraction could upset the mission. She bit her lip before she mumbled another word against the alders. Dissension could upset her comfortable position.
The smell of sulfur clung to the corridors, growing distinct as she closed in on Lena’s weak energy. Any moment her assign would pass and Maiel must be there to transport her across the Avernus. The halls crawled with scores of beings from all of Trailokya, increasing the threat to her success. It would be difficult to find a clear track.
Passing an office, Maiel glanced through the door. A doctor chatted into a phone and leafed through a girly magazine, his feet on his desk, half-listening to his wife on the other end. Behind the doctor, a swarthy duta wrestled
back a shade who sought to usurp guardianship. Under other circumstances, she would have been happy to lend a hand. Walking on, she knew she couldn’t without failing dearest Lena.
Maiel at last reached her assign’s room. It was slightly larger than the others and empty except for the lonely bald girl asleep on the farthest bed. The guardians of Lena’s pitarau stood outside, grown wasted by constant vigilance as the threats had grown constant. The smell of sulfur thickened in the dim square of the room. Maiel looked to every shadow, but did not see the intruder. She pushed open the curtains to let in the light. The soldier was there, lurking or cloaked from view, unsure he wanted to test the guardians’ strengths. Warily, Maiel made her way to the bed and
sat. The girl’s amba and janya were asleep, one on the bed and the other in a chair near the door. The girl’s guardian went missing a few days ago. The occurrence was a bad sign, but explained why they had pulled a captain to the duty. Her experience and strength were a reassurance to the council.
Taking up Lena’s hand, Maiel let the girl know she was there. She sat on the edge of the bed. Lena’s black eyes opened slightly. Only those from outside of Samsara could see the amber glow that ringed them. Maiel smiled and stroked the cinnamon skin of her naked crown. She frowned, remembering the thick tresses that reached her waist, the envy of all and pride of her pitarau. Now they were replaced by scars.
“Mai,” the girl breathed.
“Shh, they cannot see me and you don’t want to frighten them. Sleep. I will stay right here,” Maiel said.
The pitarau stirred from slumber at the sound of their daughter’s voice. The pair were weak enough to be on death’s door alongside their daughter. Maiel’s heart sunk, remembering what it felt like to watch her child die, and unable to do a thing about it.
“Lena,” her amba called.
Lena fell back into her drugged slumber. Tearfully, her amba approached the bed and took up the frail hand. Tears stood in the woman’s black eyes. Maiel held her breath, leaning back. Sometimes the living saw those who walked between. They had to be in a perfect state of mind for it. She watched Lena’s amba worry over the vessel of her dying child. Any overbearing emotion could trigger sight.
“Morning,” a woman’s voice said from the door.
A nurse entered, accompanied by her very tall and thin guardian. The woman wore a red sweater and a dark scowl, discouraging the hope the pitarau may have still had. The guardian remained at the door, acknowledging Maiel and her cohorts with a slow, respectful nod. The nurse went to the bed and ran through the motions: checked Lena’s vitals, the intravenous drip, and felt Lena’s head. Everyone knew the girl was nearly gone. They just liked to pretend a miracle would happen so they could hold off their anguish.
Sheets of paper rustled together. Maiel’s attention went to another person entering the already crowded room. A doctor, flanked by more nurses and unseen guardians, sauntered in reading the chart. He looked up briefly. His
glance shifted over the pitarau and back to the girl. He seemed rather clinical, but it was a shell Maiel easily saw through, like an egg held up to light revealing the embryo. The doctor hated this process nearly as much as the
pitarau, and he had seen it too often. His only child was frail, and one was in the ground. To protect himself, he locked his emotions beneath a brittle but jagged surface. Maiel looked back to her assign and stroked her forehead.
She knew just what the doctor felt, but at least she also knew that Lena was not gone forever. She was simply returning to her original state.
“It won’t be long, little one,” Maiel said. The connection inside of the ravaged bio-vessel thinned. The link would wink out for several beats as the signal detached and then all would be done. “No more pain. No more injections. You’ll have your pretty black hair and you can play all day outside like you used to. I’ll even take you to see the dogs and you can come play with my children. Perhaps we can even color in books again. I miss that.”
The doctor asked the pitarau to leave the room and they quietly complied. Maiel listened to his voice murmur the distressing news. There was no chance she would improve and he believed her time was at an end. Lena’s amba wilted. She sobbed, gasping for breath between prayers spoken in her native Hindi. Her husband stood at her side, stoically listening like a proud British soldier. The doctor gave them a moment for their suffering. Then, he
turned and left them to his staff.
Surrounded by their weakened guardians, Lena’s janya stared. She supposed he had seen suffering when he served in foreign lands, yet it hardly compared to what he saw right then. A trickle of tears spilled from his eyes. He didn’t look at his wife. He probably didn’t even hear her cry. But he wasn’t staring at nothing. He was looking at his future, one without his only child.
The doctor’s guardian stared at Maiel from the door during her quiet observations.
“Where’s Gamael?” she asked.
The guardian was a Fire Order and quite abrupt.
“He disappeared a few days ago. A member of my unit is looking for him now,” Maiel said.
“Do you need help?”
Maiel shook her head, wearing an intense gaze. The council insisted on as few guardians as possible. Otherwise the hospital would be surrounded by those marked by a triangle-framed eye. The guardian nodded and made an awkward exit. Maiel returned part of her attention to the pitarau. She wondered if there had been any advance in discovering the lost guardian. The pair would need his added protection and guidance in the coming days, to be sure they continued on their proper paths. Gamael’s position wasn’t just that of watching their daughter.
Lena’s amba, bereft of strength, crouched on the floor. Her miserable sobs carried through the halls. Maiel’s gaze lowered to the small hand on the white blanket. It was easy enough to understand what they faced, having
experienced similar loss when helping her husband during his many incarnations, but her current view precluded real understanding. Maiel learned a great deal about the human heart, not to mention the frail interface that
anchored them in that world. Despite her empathy, reason somehow made their outpouring futile, like a toddler tantrum.
Maiel drew a deep breath. She held Lena’s hand for some time, completely focused on the shape and texture of the fingers. They felt cold, when they were once so warm. The bio-vessel clung just on the precipice. Each time it wavered, the smell of sulfur grew rank. Maiel didn’t have to turn to see the shade behind her, emerging from a gate like a black tornado. They sent Mort. She would have recognized his stench among a dozen of his kind. He was the slipperiest serpent they had; a fallen naga, who rose to chief of the Bhogin, one of many kinds that came every day from their putrid Jahannam to steal souls. Sadly, these wretched beings were more common than humans, as rampant progeny formed through the millennia. They too found ways to interface with Samsara; after all, it had been their expertise before the Conflict.
“Mort,” Maiel said. She set Lena’s hand down and waited.
“Pious rat,” Mort sneered back. He drew close, hissing over her shoulder.
Maiel sighed, unimpressed by his bravado. Chiefs ranked well below her prowess. She faced him as he coiled to the other side of the bed. The line of Lena’s life feebly fluttered. Maiel needed to keep close and make sure none of the other shades claimed the child.
“I ate him,” he replied, smacking his strange jaws. “His frail meat was just an appetizer for the big meal.” His voice rumbled like a distant storm.
Maiel watched him lick the opening of his mouth. She was not intimidated by his performance. He simply annoyed her by being needlessly disgusting and arrogant.
“Stay away from my assign. She’s not for you. I have ways of making you suffer terribly if you insist on trying,” Maiel warned, grasping the hilt of her sword.
“She’s no more than a bite. I had something else in mind to fill my belly,” Mort taunted, chortling. His scaly tail rolled and swung.
“Mind? Really? You’ll taste your words and no more,” Maiel said, brandishing her sword.
“I’ll taste this delicious pain, too,” Mort rasped.
Mort sucked in a great draught of air, reveling in the anguish of the pitarau. Their guardians moved to help her, but Maiel motioned them back. It was what the enemy wanted: their backs turned on their assigns so they could steal from them. Maiel’s eyes narrowed and she neared the creature. He cocked his head to the side and watched her. He drew another deep breath through his nose, smelling her. He hissed in disgust.
“You’ll fail, duta. I’ll have her. I’ll enjoy her.”
“You won’t get through me,” Maiel said, edging him away from the bed.
“Arrogant slave. Like your arrogant master. You can’t do this alone and those whelps are done for,” Mort growled.
The Bhogin backed away, trying to near the bed from the other side.
Maiel smirked. “I’m not alone, snake. And, you’re the slave who follows nothing but promises without payment.”
“Brazen puppy,” Mort snarled.
“Woof,” Maiel said.
A low growl rolled through the room. Maiel grinned with blue fire in her eyes. Argus sauntered to her side, his gleaming white fur on end. He lowered his muzzle and the penannular collar opened. The plates of his armor quickly covered his sattva.
“Speaking of brazen puppies.”
“I’ll break you both. Then give you to Morgentus for a whore,” Mort growled.
The Bhogin snarled and crouched in the corner beside the door. In a flash of smoke, Maiel found herself on the defensive. The limbs came fast, darting back and forth to strike and claw her. Feet kicked. She deflected the blows
with proficient efforts and the grace of her armor. They had met before and usually he gave up soon after this began, a spoilsport who was full of hot air. He was lucky she did not fancy pursuing him any of those times, but his luck had just run out. Mentioning his commander fanned her hatred and guaranteed her focus. Morgentus would be the next ring on her ear and this would be the last time she’d let his dog get away.
Argus danced between her and the bed, avoiding contact with the chief and making sure the guardians stood at post. Their interference would hardly help. Distracting them all, Lena choked, then coughed. The girl’s line winked out a moment. With a well-placed sandal, Maiel sent Mort reeling back and he fell against the wall. Dashing back to the bed, she checked on the child. Mort’s presence finished the process. He had drawn off her last energies. When Maiel first returned to her assign, Lena already had little enough strength to stay in Samsara longer than the morning.
Lena’s amba returned to the room and, despite many tears, tried to revive her daughter. Her husband went to her, begging her to let go, the agony turning him red and making his blood vessels strain against the skin. Relief could not be found. Their battle was lost. Maiel’s resonance anxiously pulsed, blaming herself for getting distracted by the serpent.
“It’s all over. Let her go. Let her rest,” the janya said.
“It’s not over! I won’t let her go—how dare you tell me to let her go—my baby,” the amba snapped, choking on tears with her last words.
Their guardians looked to Maiel, unsure of what action to take. She gestured them to stand down. The serpent fed from the distress, swelled and grew stronger, yet he retreated to a corner. He disappeared in the shadows once more. She told the guardians to focus their wilted strengths on their assigns, to ease the pain and deny the danava’s feeding. The distraction of the child’s passing and the need to return order tore Maiel’s attention in twain and she wasn’t prepared for his abrupt return. Mort whipped his tail into her back. She fell to the floor, losing her grip on her sword. The metal clattered across the tiles. Mort lunged, but Maiel jerked belly-up and struck him in the gut with her clawed gauntlets. A chilling howl escaped him as he stumbled back.
“You haven’t learned yet,” Maiel said
“It’s you who hasn’t learned, youngling,” Mort rasped, holding his middle. He looked at the black blood pouring from his wounds and over Maiel. A hissing laugh escaped his throat as it burned her skin. She refused to admit the pain. “I’ll eat you all by nightfall. Then I’ll taste your children for dessert—half breeds make sweetest meats. I’ll finish your cursed clan starting with your ape ketu.”
Maiel focused on the task, though the blood was like acid to her skin. Mort was fooling himself if he thought he could fare better against her akha. The hilt of her sword slid into her outstretched hand and she raised it to his snubbed snout. Despite the mocking expression twisting her features, something inside trembled. Mort snapped the last ounce of her coolness. The alarm on Lena’s monitor pierced the thick atmosphere. Everything stood still for several moments before the room erupted in human screams. Lena’s mother called for help, but the help she sought was beyond the abilities of hospital staff. Her daughter was dead long before the monitor registered the passing. Mort drew in the suffering with avid delight. Maiel pushed hard with her feet, sending the Bhogin slithering into the corner where he could nurse his cuts. She went to her assign, knowing the presence of so many held the enemy at bay.
“Lena! Lena!” the amba cried, as her husband dragged her back.
Hot tears filled Maiel’s white fire eyes. The pitarau crumpled on chairs outside the door, ushered out by the staff who rushed to assist. The humans who had given Lena life held each other close, quaking with anger and despair, confused and refusing to release her even though they knew there was no holding on. Outside the room, surrounded by their keepers, they were safe. Lena’s janya wept against his woman’s shoulder, losing the last tether of control to disguise his manly hurt. Maiel’s sorrow turned to anger. Lena died on her watch and her failure had hurt them
“Argus,” Maiel said, going back to Mort and gesturing to the body of the girl.
The shade drew in threads of succor from every pain-ridden emotion in the room. Lena fluttered in and out of focus, lying peacefully on her back, just a breadth apart from her dead vessel as the living tried to drag her back from the brink. Snapping to, she sat up with a scream. Argus leapt onto the bed and the girl stilled into repose. His great head lowered, keeping watch of the threat, daring Mort to dislodge him. His bright, keen eyes promised death to the chief.
“You failed, Adonai’s slave. I’m not the last. Others will come. They’ll take her and feed from her bones,” Mort crowed.
“You’ve won nothing. I should have ended you a long time ago,” Maiel said.
The white fire of her eyes filled her insides until a wild-white glow emanated from her skin. Rage wound around Maiel’s core and melted everything inside until she was pure fury. She embraced the forbidden, forgoing protocol to avenge her assign. Filled with bale, blue light glowed from her eyes and mouth, until she stood as a pillar of fire that blinded the Bhogin. He raised his thick arms before his face to protect it from her brilliance. His flesh smoked and bubbled like sweets left on the burner. The resonance of perpetual light, which beamed into the White City for all time, reflected from her atman, was certain death to the shadow. She drove her sword deep into Mort’s middle, then yanked it free, pushing the wounded sattva back with the flat of her sandal. Mort collapsed, unable to hold up his perverted torso. Maiel swung her gladius and sent his head rolling.
Maiel released the heightened resonance and the light faded as she returned to her placid form. A black circle in a ring of silver appeared, resembling a polished ebony medallion: the Seal of Oblivion and the king’s permission to destroy. The putrid carcass dissipated beneath it into black puddles that receded to nothingness. A gray fog hung above the floor, lingering as though the mudeater would return. The seal faded and Maiel went to Argus, who still guarded her assign. He sniffed then sneezed.
“Rancid,” his thoughts said to hers.
“Good job,” Maiel said and gave his ears a scratch. He licked her hand, nuzzling it affectionately.
Argus hopped from the bed as Maiel sat. The hospital staff had gone from the room. Their efforts to revive Lena were, of course, in vain. The other guardians hung their heads in dread and sadness. The girl’s pitarau wept, praying to any god to grant their request of restoring their daughter. However, Lena had an appointment to keep and plans to fulfill. This was what souls agreed to do in Samsara, though they didn’t recall it during an incarnation. Maiel wished she could make them understand, so it might not hurt as much, but her task wasn’t to comfort the confused. It was to guard a youngling bound for home.
Reaching for Lena, Maiel offered a small smile. The reedy resonance thrummed once more, undetectable to any instruments upon which humans relied. It would be sometime before they realized that technology, and gladly so.
They were not advanced enough to understand the workings beyond Samsara while incarnated. In the meantime, she could ease their anguish by taking the girl through the way gates and lessen the pull of her resonance on theirs.
Lena’s hand clasped hers.
“I’m sorry,” Maiel whispered to the girl, while fighting back tears.
Running her finger across the girl’s temple, she watched the stilled features. In her thoughts, Maiel cursed the council for insisting on sending her there with only Zaajah. They needed help if they meant to get this soul back unscathed. The guardians in place had been too weakened to make much difference. The alders’ faith in her was flattering, but she had failed, by allowing the shadowalker to feed while she toyed with it, and to choose to leave the others out of it despite needing their help even if she judged it negligible. They were sure to punish her, if not demand a lofty penance, such as a demotion in rank. The shame of it burned her essence.
“Mai,” a small voice called from nowhere.
“I’m here. Focus on me,” Maiel replied.
The girl’s image shifted as the sattva awoke from the shell. Maiel wrapped the girl in her arms, happy to have her released from the misery of her illness. Lena was theirs once more, strongly clinging to her guardian’s armor. Stroking the girl’s long black hair, Maiel clung tightly back, quietly remonstrating herself for losing focus. She shut her eyes, thanking fate for siding with her. This was too great a risk for too great a prize. They never should have allowed this atman to travel in such a manner.
Maiel picked Lena up, gestured to the other guardians and then carried the girl to the windows. Lena wore the silver gown of incarnation and looked well despite her ordeal. Maiel stroked the girl’s hair again, assuring she had a good hold of her. Then she lifted her hand to the air and a circle with a leafy tree and intricate roots appeared. Maiel touched the knots in the trunk, the leaves, and root coils in a sequence that made the apparition glow brighter until the image widened to a door. Maiel, followed by her trusty companion, entered what appeared to be a mirror of the hospital. She set the girl standing on the bed. Here they could acclimate in peace.
“You’re much taller than I thought,” Lena said, eliciting a tearful chuckle from her guardian. She was so tiny in her arms. Just seven human years old by last count. “Did you bring the doggy?” Lena asked, forgetting everything of her short journey, except for her new friends.
“Yes, I did.” Maiel smiled.
Argus placed his paws on the bed. He gave Lena a good sniff. She giggled at the tickle of his whiskers against her feet. He smiled up at her and she knelt down to pat his great head.
“Are you ready?” Maiel asked after they rested a moment.
Lena looked unsure, crouched on the bed with her knees drawn up. She then cast her black eyes around the room. No one was there, just Maiel and her dog, as they rested inside the dreamy paths of the Astrals. The hospital was eerily quiet, as if the world had stopped. Returning her sparkling gaze to the armored duta, she nodded.
“Okay,” Maiel whispered.
Where the windows once were, a forest path led into a sunny wood. The birdsong was inviting. Colorful flowers bobbed in a warm breeze. Peace whispered through the trees.
Maiel helped Lena from the bed and led her along the path. Their steps brought them to a door. Lena eyed it, wondering at its meaning. Maiel crouched beside her and the girl leaned in, unmoving despite Maiel’s encouragement. It was the door home, but Lena was still floundering between her life on earth and her true self. Maiel took the girl in her arms and the surety of her guardian’s protection loosened her jaw. Lena chattered in her ear, a million questions falling from her lips at once. Maiel tried to keep up, answering them as simply as possible.
The door stood in the path apart from any other structure, gothic in style and thus intimidating by its enormity. Maiel took hold of the door ring and electric blue flickered in the seams until the Seal of Zion appeared. She
pressed the middle, then a sequence of squares with the tip of one finger. The light grew intense, a brilliance that became an open archway to another place. Lena was silenced for the moment and they passed onto a platform
overlooking a great and dense city. Arcadia.
The final descent of the sun streaked crisscross in the sky. Duta and birds played in the air. Flaming gold blanketed the horizon. The gate to Samsara and the Avernus closed, leaving Maiel and her assign under an arch erected on the top of a tall stone pillar, which looked like the ruins of a destroyed church. Another step and they would fall or fly.
Argus brushed against Maiel’s leg, reminding her of the present business. The council would seek an answer for what had happened between her and Mort. There was nothing to do but face them, as she promised the youngling. Before they lectured her on her conduct, she would make it known that their disregard of her and the other guardians was equal to dissent. Something was wrong somewhere and their lofty seats would not keep her from figuring it out. They had either sent her into a trap or she had betrayed everything she held dear. Her skin still stung to remind her.
Sending atman directly into Samsara was harming their world, just like the days before the Conflict. The millennia of missions proved to be extremely dangerous at best, while the council ignored that proof. Many were lost, and resulted in sattva wandering the wastes and worlds with no purpose. Still more were stolen to the prisons of Jahannam. Yet the majority of incarnations were now done in this manner and had been so for as long as she served the legions. The attempt to better train the guardians was made in vain, as was the effort to keep Samsara safe.
“Are you ready to bring her to Otzar?” A familiar voice spoke from alongside the arch.
Zaajah lounged there, previously unnoticed. Maiel stared over the close, dingy structures of the city. Spires and roofs stood in the clouds, sharp and ridged, all aged and weathered. Humans flew their airships, dirigibles and engines. A gothic nirvana. The narrow streets between were like threads sewing the world together. The humans buzzed around in land vehicles too.
For them, blinking was imperfect and difficult, sliding even worse. Blinking was the less flamboyant of the two forms, but the fastest. The traveler again thought of their destination and suddenly they were there. Souls trusted
their hands to build them buggies or to simply walk on their trusty legs. Her eyes searched for an answer to her quandary, a little more enigmatic than the combustion engine. She needed more time to sort out a plan. The alders would not make it easy for her to wield her accusations to any effect. They could be manipulative and decide that making her look a fool was a minimal price for preserving their reputations.
“Is something the matter?” Zaajah asked. “Look at you. You’re burned.
Damn serpents. I told you we needed a watcher’s help,” she continued, taking Maiel’s wrist and lending her energy to heal the Moon Captain.
“I’m tired,” Lena said, enamored with the erela’s beauty.
Maiel held the little girl’s gaze a moment. The molten amber glowed intensely. How could she tell Lena she’d failed her? That she was tired because Mort had fed on her, undoing years of improved strength? That she’d cost Lena her rising? She supposed the greater goal was simply bringing her back.
Maiel smiled through her concern. “You’ll get to rest very soon.”
Placing Lena on her feet, Maiel urged the girl toward her friend. Zaajah regarded the move skeptically.
“Would you mind, Captain?” Maiel asked, distracted.
Zaajah took the girl’s hand reluctantly. Younglings were not her thing.
“Hi,” the girl said, staring up at the darker captain.
“Hi,” Zaajah replied, not knowing what else to say.
The Horus-helmed guardian gave her friend a dismayed look.
“I think Mort drained me. Take her to Otzar for safekeeping until I can present her to the council,” Maiel lied.
Zaajah’s mouth flattened. She knew it was a lie or she knew the voyage into Otzar was going to be the truly draining part of the whole mission. She’d just given a good portion of her strength to fix the burns and Maiel should have felt fine. Before she could protest, Maiel turned away and stepped from the platform, gone instantly…
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