Bannor awoke with a start, realizing he was staring into a campfire. He sat up and pushed the blanket into his lap. His temples and stomach ached. His neck felt stiff, and he found it difficult to move without pain.
He rubbed his eyes and looked around. Stars sparkled through ragged holes in the canopy of clouds. The gurgle of a brook nearby accompanied the chirping of night insects. Brisk air brought the scents of burning heatherwood and cooked meat. The need to find Sarai didn’t feel as urgent as before. They were already following the slave caravan that took Sarai. Why did he know that?
Irodee sat across from him leaning against a boulder, her ebony hair loose and spilling into her lap. Wren lay next to her, a cloak pulled around her. The blonde woman’s face looked pale in the orange light. Irodee poked the fire with a branch, the flames reflecting in her dark eyes. The women must have carried him some distance because the trees ringing the grassy clearing were whitebarks and not needleleaf. The only groves of that breed lay a league south of Blackwater.
“Drink.” Irodee handed a clay cup across the fire.
Bannor took it mechanically. As his head cleared, all his senses became sharp and distinct. The cup felt warm, its surface worn and dusty. Steam curled out, carrying the scent of an herbal broth.
He sipped the sweet brew. It tasted of bird-meat and seasonings he assumed were medicinal. After a few more sips, his curiosity about what had happened began to nag. It appeared Irodee wouldn’t provide an answer without prompting. Brushing her hair, she only watched him. Even sitting, she cut an imposing silhouette.
“What happened to me?”
She threw some twigs in the fire. “Wren calls it backlash.”
Bannor watched the slivers of wood contort in the flames, popping and sputtering. “What do you call it?”
“A league’s worth of heavy toting.”
He sighed. Backlash? Backlash from what?
Wren rolled over. Irodee rubbed the woman’s shoulder.
“Wren said you two were looking for me. Why?”
Irodee frowned and threw some more wood into the flames. “Hecate’s minions planned to slave you. We stop them.”
Bannor digested that. Slave? But the slavers took Sarai, not him. What kind of sense did that make? Why would a goddess or her minions want him, as a slave, or otherwise?
Bannor digested that. Slave? But the slavers took Sarai, not him. What kind of sense did that make? Sarai had told him stories describing the avatars as harbingers of chaos. Why would an avatar want him, as a slave, or otherwise?
Until recently, his life had been placid. Five winters ago he’d taken a position with Baron’s scouting corps. He patrolled South Realm’s border valleys to protect the kingdom from vermin like the orcs and goblins. There’d been scuffles and their inevitable scars, but nothing remarkable except for meeting Sarai. That remained a treasured moment.
It brought him back to his original thought. Why would an avatar want him? There must be some reason–and probably a good one. What did Wren and Irodee get out of it?
“Why would Hecate want to enslave me?”
Irodee made a disgusted sound. “Slavery is slavery. You not want to be avatar’s slave, right?”
He shook his head. “But… why?”
“Who cares. Slavery wrong, we stop it. See?”
Bannor saw. The Myrmigyne’s answer was more evasion than solution. Wren must know why Hecate wanted him. It would be a good reason to compel these two to interfere. From the tiny bit he saw of the blonde woman, she was not the type to run around the countryside bestowing random acts of kindness.
“Bannor should sleep. Long run tomorrow before we get horses. Irodee not carry you this time.”
Bannor sighed. Perhaps Wren would give him a better explanation. He hoped Sarai was all right. Wish I could find out, tell her I’m alive. She must think I’m dead…
He thought it would be hard to fall asleep, but a wave of exhaustion hit him. By the time he’d adjusted his bedroll and made a pillow from a pack and some clothes, his eyelids felt leaden.
A few long breaths and a last glance into the dark serenity of Irodee’s eyes and consciousness faded…
Drifting. Bannor felt an irresistible tugging. Dragged upward, he soared away from the ground. A powerful force propelled him across the sky. He climbed through mists and emerged in an indigo sky dappled with stars.
He noted that all his sensations were muted and distant. He felt the wind chilling his face as he flashed out over a sea of knotted gray fleece, but the sensation was peculiar–unreal. He marveled at pillars of clouds that rose to support the arch of the heavens. Even the way he saw things seemed fuzzy and less distinct. His heart pounded, but the sensation registered as though not in his body at all.
Dreaming, he told himself. Drawn toward the valley between the rocky fangs of the Marin spur, he descended. Snow crowned the highest outcrops and fog shrouded them in a gauzy cloak. He saw a line of fires at the base of the pass.
He was being sucked toward the flickering lights like a bug caught in a whirlpool. The rocky pass grew, then the details of a long caravan narrowing to a single wagon in their midst. It became dark and the sense of momentum stopped.
As his vision adjusted, he determined he must now be inside a wagon. A slice of firelight between segments of the tarp gave a sketchy view of the cramped interior cordoned off by rows of metal bars. The malodor of mildew and spoiled straw smelled oddly weak as if the sense had to travel leagues to reach his brain. In the corner, a single figure lay hugging itself and sobbing softly.
His distant insides tightened and his heart stopped. Sarai! It no longer mattered whether this was a dream or not.
Straw blew away to either side as he rushed to her. “Sarai!”
The elf’s lavender eyes went wide, glowing in the darkness. Her mouth opened in a shriek.
“No–No! Sarai, it’s me, Bannor!” He tried to smother her cries with his body. Hugging Sarai’s shuddering form. Though he couldn’t truly feel it, he sensed the chilled condition of her skin. The woman’s tattered tunic and dress fluttered as though caught in a gale. Her silver hair fanned outward as if she floated underwater.
“Bannor?” she said in hesitant voice.
“It’s me.” His far away heart thundered. He stroked Sarai’s hair and sparks danced down the strands like tiny glow-bugs. Dipping his face into the curve of her neck, he tried to get a hint of her smell. Muted by the leagues separating them, he could only imagine her unique fragrance. Her pale flesh glowed as though lit by candles. “I don’t know how, but I’m here. I escaped. Now, I’ll free you.”
“Bannor, it sounds like you. Why can’t I see you?”
“I’m here.” He kissed Sarai, pulling her soft body against his. Since their separation, he’d longed to hold his beloved again.
Sarai’s lithe body shone in the darkness like a beacon. Gasping, she pushed him back. “What’s happening? It’s like I’m full of light!” She held out a glowing hand. Probing, her downy fingers found his face. “My One, it’s as if you’re made of mist.”
Bannor looked at himself. He saw only a faint outline as if he’d become a chalk drawing. He contained his amazement. “I’ll get you out of here.” Pulling away, he went to the bars. Straw swirled out of his path. Braced, he might be able to snap the thin rusty iron. He gripped the metal. Molten pain shot through his arms.
He snatched his hands back. Red glows throbbed where his palms should be. “Damn!” Dust and splinters of wood spiraled as though caught in whirlwind. He threw himself at the bars.
Agony ripped through him. Bannor hit the frosty ground beside the wagon howling. Dirt, snow and gravel flew all directions, campfires flickered out, and caravan guards screamed warnings. Two men sitting by a nearby fire stiffened and fell over as if turned to stone.
Odin’s beard, he’d become a ghost! He righted himself. Sarai yelled his name. Without thinking, he dove back into the wagon. He felt the same excruciating shock as the cold iron tried to suck the life out of him. He held in a curse. The effort made him dizzy.
Bannor wrapped his arms around his betrothed to comfort her. How could he tell Sarai he’d become a spirit? Somehow he’d died and now wandered the world as nothing more than a bodiless presence.
<That’s enough, Bannor,> said a female voice that made both of them twitch.
Somehow this voice sounded clearer and more distinct, more tangible than
Sarai yelped. Bannor turned. A red outline shaped like a huge bird of prey hovered nearby. The voice sounded familiar. “Who are you?”
The entity sighed. <It’s Wren, this is my astral manifestation. I understand you want to help Sarai, but unshielded like you are, you’ll put her in more danger.>
“Wren? I don’t–” he started.
<Now is not the time to understand!> she snapped. Flames flared around the image causing the debris on the floor to smolder. <You’re endangering all of us! The avatars are looking for you and you are broadcasting your whereabouts with all of this magic. I promise we’ll get her loose, but for now you have to leave. Please! Kiss her goodbye and let’s go!>
He sensed the urgency in Wren’s tone. He kissed Sarai, not wanting to part. “I promise we’ll get you out.”
<Don’t worry,> Wren said. <We should catch them in two days when climb the pass. Come on, Bannor.> Something gripped his arm and dragged him skyward. He braced for the searing pain but none came.
Clouds whipped past. Wren moved them much faster than when he went on his own. “Passing through iron or silver is deadly while in this state. The lords only know how you survived. Do us both a favor. Don’t do it again!”
He felt silly nodding, not knowing whether she was looking at him. “Yes. What–how–?”
Wren growled. “You’re asking me? It took me a long time to learn astral travel.” They paused high over the sea of clouds. She seemed to be looking around. <Imagine my surprise; I wake up to check you out, and there’s nobody home. Have to get your talent under control before something bad happens.>
Talent? That would have to be what the avatar wanted. “How did you find me?”
Wren snorted and white streaks shot through her outline. <Where else would you go?> She kept scanning the heavens. He assumed what she looked for couldn’t be seen in the skies around them.
The pause concerned him. “Why did we stop?”
<If the avatars detected us I don’t want to lead them to our bodies.>
Bannor strained to grasp what this all meant. “Then we’re not physically here. What I’m seeing is… what?”
<Your true essence–your tao. Regular people’s spirits are too weak to affect the physical world. Instead of soul, you and I have a tao, and it is something that can exist independent of our bodies.>
A sinking feeling hit Bannor. “And this ‘tao’ is easily detected?”
The bird image burned brighter. <Normally, no. However, when you give off magic like you do– *yes!*>
Magic. What was she talking about? He didn’t have magic.
She tugged on him again. The sky around them shimmered like a rainbow. The clouds and stars faded to become a gray realm marred by rips of obsidian dotted with colored lights. Odd shaped islands drifted by like ocean-bound flotsam. Nebulous areas of dark gray boiled in the distance. Occasionally, a bright streak illuminated the roiling masses.
Bannor could see himself again. His skin glowed and he wore his best battle-skins and boots. The war-bow Sarai made for him rode on his shoulder and his axes lay in their sheaths. Here Wren appeared as an exotic hawk with flames for feathers and talons of winking diamond.
He struggled to cope with the new environment. In the skies of Titaan, he possessed no body, but he could smell the storm’s aftermath, hear the whistle of frosty night air. Here his form was substance without feeling; no sounds, smells, not even the taste of moisture on his lips.
<I want you to see what’s after you and Sarai. This will keep us from being observed.> She fanned her wings over him. It felt as if a hot desert wind blew in his face. A blue radiance licked around his body.
“What is this place?” He pointed at the rolling chaos in the distance.
<This is the astral realm. Those are ether cyclones. Get caught in one of those and you might never find your body again.>
Bannor’s mind reeled. “Are you sure we’re not dreaming?”
The bird’s eyes gleamed. <I wish we were. Let’s go.> She soared away, pulling Bannor along.
The realm contorted around them. Isles and clouds of matter buzzed past at a phenomenal speed. She slowed, circling and entering an area suffused by a black radiance.
A single titanic figure surrounded by a squirming sea of smaller creatures filled the shadowy zone. An ebony snake with a hood large enough to cast a city in darkness, undulated slowly across the astral-scape. Its eyes burned and its mouth hung agape. Tree-sized fangs dripped green liquid. In each of its scales Bannor saw the images of people in torment. As they watched, the monster struck down into the massed beings around it and came away with a squirming bounty of screaming creatures.
Bannor felt his guts churn as the snake masticated its prey and the shrieking dwindled. A new row of scales appeared around the giant entity’s neck, each plate now filled with a writhing victim.
“By Odin, what is that thing?” It felt as if icy hands gripped his insides.
Wren’s bird form dimmed. Her voice sounded hard. <That is the astral presence of Hecate. That is what is after you, Bannor. That mob around her are servants searching for you.>
“Why would that thing want me?”
Her voice dropped. <Hecate is after the power of Gaea, and she thinks she can get at it through you.>
Power of Gaea? “What do I have to do with this Gaea? I’m a woodsman, a border guardian. I’m nothing special!”
<You are a *savant*,> Wren emphasized. <And you *are* special. How do you think you survived the gallows, or flew astrally to Sarai? I’m sure it’s worked other times you’re not aware of. It is essential we keep that power out of Hecate’s control.>
Wren countered with a question. <You want Sarai free?>
<You’ll do what I tell you?>
“How do I know you’re not as bad as she is?”
<Bannor, look at that,> she waved a wing toward the monstrosity. <I couldn’t be that bad if I tried!>
His mind whirled. The nightmarish apparitions of Hecate loomed behind Wren. If she was telling the truth, these creatures were arrayed against him. He couldn’t protect Sarai from them. He barely escaped from those three ruffians. Wren knew the enemy. She knew about his power and how to use it.
If she was an enemy, he could always rebel against her later. He would need someone like Irodee to help him get Sarai away from those slavers.
“Guess I’ll have to trust you for now.”
The bird bowed, sparks of yellow dancing through its plumage. <Cautious. That’s fair. You’ve seen enough, they probably wouldn’t probe this close to home, but no sense taking chances.> Bannor felt himself pulled back the way they’d come.
He felt a chill. “Will they ever stop looking for me?”
Ripples of blue shot through Wren’s flames. <Immortals are patient and they have vast resources. They work at something until they lose interest or it becomes too costly to continue.>
They plunged out of the gloomy astral and back into the sparkling night sky. Spiraling down through the clouds toward a single patch of countryside that expanded beneath them.
“It sounds like you have a plan.”
<I do, and it’s pretty simple, grab Sarai and run.>
That sounded simple enough. Why didn’t he think it would end up that way?