As the sun set over the ocean, three men along with Liking, headed to the camp. The men with him were young, not more than a hundred years, but they were brave and willing. That was enough.
The plan was simple. Liking intended to show them the army, then have one return with information on their location and the numbers while he and the other two observed Lynn. That was the official plan. Liking had another idea. He intended to find Sarah.
He felt lost without her presence in his mind. It was maddening to be so alone with his thoughts circulating. There was a good chance that whatever evil Lynn had conjured, was blocking the mental connection. At least he hoped that was the trouble. It was the kindest of the options.
Marabeth had decided to stay until the flyer army had a.s.sembled. Besides, she still considered Anzele a friend and felt it necessary to help with the babies. Children, Liking mentally corrected. This morning they had grown to the size of a four year old although they were a week old. Thrusting three active young on an expectant first time mother, wasn't fair. Even though Marabeth was a powerful witch, he was glad she lingered behind to a.s.sist.
The flight seemed longer than usual. Liking knew it was because he hoped to see Sarah. The closer they drew to the area, the more he searched the woods for his lovely siren.
There was no sign of her and still no connection formed. He couldn't believe she had died though. Even with his past sins, surely a love so pure wouldn't be stolen from him so quickly.
The first stop was the cabin, or what was left of the cabin. The s.h.i.+fters had destroyed it, leaving long claw marks in the wood and jagged bites from the freed planks. The four of them landed and Liking looked around.
"Search the area carefully. We have to see it they've spread out."
Liking really wanted to search for a body, hoping he wouldn't find one. If Sarah had died in this battle, where he'd deserted her, he'd never forgive himself. With hope in his heart, he started pus.h.i.+ng away the largest boards. Every time he found dirt beneath and not his siren, he prayed his thanks and kept going.
"We need to hurry. The area is clear." The youngest of the group spoke. "Where is their camp?"
"Just a minute."
In the dirt were footprints. Liking followed them finding bits of strange rock as he went. It wasn't until he found long dark brown hairs that he realized the battle had moved away from the cabin.
"Those rocks are what's left when my wife destroyed some. You might want to gather one or two to take back."
The footprints kept going. He nearly ran, finding more rock and still no Sarah. Ahead he saw some cloth. That he picked up and found part of her dress had been ripped away, the cloth too bloodied.
"Sarah?" There was no answer. "Sarah!" He called louder.
He kept walking with the three others behind. They came to a place where the ground turned black with rock. A great battle had to have taken place there and from the look of it, Sarah had been successful.
His voice filled the forest and still no one returned his call. He hung his head and noticed something strange. A rock rolled on its own momentum. The wind wasn't blowing hard enough for such a thing. Then the truth struck him.
"To the sky, now!"
The ground beneath their feet s.h.i.+fted. Hands reached up grasping their feet, while the creatures grew from the rubble the men had been standing on. At first one or two appeared, stepping to the captives to hold them as more formed around them.
Liking drew out fire but there was nothing fully formed to take the blows. He struck the ground but they wouldn't release his feet from their grip. The other men tried to attack then the rock grew into a snake, gripping their hands and binding them from behind. The fire and wind stopped. The men had been taken captive.
"h.e.l.lo Liking." Lynn crept from the shadows in true form. "I told them to wait here. I knew you'd be back to check on your wh.o.r.e."
"Where is Sarah?"
Lynn didn't answer, only laughed. The sound crept through him like ice, making him wince despite the creatures that restrained him. He'd been captured and it would seem Sarah had died trying to stop the s.h.i.+fting army. There were too many, maybe too many for anyone to stop.
Marabeth watched the elders gather magic, summoning it from the ground, charging their bodies. Flyers were better at fighting on their home territory where their ties and energies were the strongest. What they did now was like packing provisions for a long trip.
Such things didn't limit witches. Her magic was as strong here as a thousand miles away. In fact, she wasn't certain how far her magic reached. Tara made her timid when it came to spell binding, but now Tara was gone.
"How are you doing?" asked Marabeth when Anzele entered the room.
Anzele looked like a natural mother, toting one child on her hip from the stream where she'd bathed her. It was hard to tell which child Anzele was carrying. The kids kept s.h.i.+fting, playing some version of hide and find.
"Fine. Celia seems very attached to me. At least I think it's Celia." Anzele touched the child and kissed her cheek. "How are the others?"
"They'll be fine. I think they miss their father." She looked down at Elise who levitated waist high. "Elise seems to be growing the fastest. Faller keeps picking on her. The two will fight like animals when they get older."
"I've heard that s.h.i.+fter babies grow quickly. At least they're eating solid food. Getting enough milk to feed these three would be a ch.o.r.e." Anzele took some fruit from the shelf and peeled it for the children.
Marabeth had heard that s.h.i.+fter growth rates were quick too, but Elise's growth was phenomenal. The child stood tall, managing small words, and already attempting flight. The most disturbing thing was the way Elise watched everything, taking in every word spoken.
"Is there someone else who could come and help with the babies?"
"Going off to battle, huh?" Anzele set Celia on the floor and Elise dropped next to her. The two started playing until Faller crawled between them.
"Actually, I'm going to go before the army arrives. There has been no word from Liking or his band. If there's trouble, Kartin might need to be aware of it."
"You really want to check on Cordin."
Marabeth sank at the table, letting her head rest in her hands. "I'm afraid for him."
Anzele opened a cupboard and took some flat bread and fruit, then wrapped it in a cloth. When she tied it with string, she handed it to Marabeth. "Something for the trip."
"Will you be okay?"
"Of course. If I weren't with child, I'd be going with you. Cordin is an old friend." Anzele patted her hand. "Go and be careful. I will get a lady from the village to help."
Marabeth took the food and had to control herself to keep from running out the door. As soon as she felt the sun on her face, she waved her hand, calling the birch limb to her. She climbed on and flew into the sky.
The flyer village looked so beautiful beneath her. She'd never fit in there. Her bright red hair stuck out in a world where black hair and wings were considered the highest standard of beauty. She supposed she could blend, make a good wife for Cordin. In the evenings she'd weave with the other women while the men gathered food. A little magic could change her hair color, but at heart she'd always be a witch.
She'd make the change for Cordin. If he really wanted her to return with him, she'd do it and never doubt her decision. It was cruel for Cordin's unta to be a witch. Witches didn't believe in the mystic bond, but Cordin had made her a believer the first time he reached into her mind. The sensation had been unnerving, even irritating, but she missed it. All this time she'd been blocking their connection, now she craved it.
The ground blurred beneath her feet. She flew as fast as she could but there was a lot of ground to cover. Every minute seemed an eternity. It was more than reaching Cordin or the first group sent out, she was alone with her thoughts.
She wondered what would've happened if she'd ignored Tara after the battle with the s.h.i.+fters. It would have been difficult, but she could've said no and returned the star to its hiding place, instead of betraying Cordin and stealing that stupid dagger from him. By now she could be raising her own children, teaching her daughters. There would be no dark army if she'd left the star alone. That also meant that if Cordin died, she only had herself to blame.
Marabeth drew closer to the cabin they'd fled. The sun was high in the sky but not too hot. There was no sign of Liking or his men below. Patches of the ground were bare. Even the gra.s.s that had been there yesterday was gone, leaving empty mud and debris from the wrecked building.
The flyer army would be leaving soon. She had a few hours lead on them but not much more than that. Looking at the remains of Liking's home wouldn't help matters, she had to hurry to the camp.
More trees went by but she noticed dead growth running in lines from the cabin towards the campsite. Those she followed. It only took moments before she found them. Dark centurions stood in lines, waiting for something. She couldn't be sure. They'd formed a slow moving line.
Marabeth hid her presence, making herself invisible to those below. As she flew over, she saw the reason for the creatures steady progression. Lynn had captured Liking and his men, holding them with heavy rope to a tree. A young man was first. The creatures knelt at him, drinking his life force away, smearing blood on their dark jowls.
It wasn't like a flyer feeding. Even from the air, Marabeth could tell that they were killing him. At first the young man screamed but quickly grew too weak as another and another joined the feast. Cordin was in the line. He looked weak as if they'd already had a turn at him, but for whatever reason, he had been spared death. They would all die soon. There were too many creatures and too few flyers to feed such an army.
Lurking on the edges, Marabeth saw the night demons. There were five now. It was unheard of for such a number to lurk in the shadows and during the day. They were waiting for something.
As Marabeth watched, she saw the creatures feeding grew stronger, larger. Then she realized their intent. They were waiting on the flyer army. Their near escape had probably been part of some plan where Lynn intended to bring many flyers for dinner. It was also the reason for keeping Cordin alive. He was bait.
"Witch," A whisper came from the trees. "Come witch."
No one below noticed. The sound terrified Marabeth, then she recognized the voice. The water siren had survived the battle after all. There was no telling if a water siren could be friend or enemy but she was better company than the things below.
Marabeth glided to the trees. Sitting on a branch was Sarah. Her clothes were b.l.o.o.d.y and torn but she seemed in decent health, except for the pure horror at the display below. Of course, her husband was next on the buffet.
"Can you make it rain, Marabeth?"
"Sure." Witches could control the weather but Marabeth couldn't see the point. Sarah had to have a plan though. Sirens usually planned well.
"Brew me a storm. Lots of water."
"Are you suggesting a witch and siren join forces?"
"Unless you want us both to die of broken hearts." Sarah's gaze never left Liking. "I am not an evil being, Marabeth. I am simply a woman who loves and wants to be with her family."
Marabeth couldn't trust her but there was no other choice. Liking was a friend and Cordin would be consumed by the beasts eventually. There was no time to wait for an army, one that might join the bound men as dinner.
Sarah watched Marabeth conjure. This was their only hope. She had no idea if she was strong enough to stop the monsters, but she wanted Liking. In her life she'd known love, but only in a family way. She'd never loved anyone like she loved Liking. The unta he'd caused made her crazy with need and longing, but she wouldn't trade it for anything.
"Marabeth, can you freeze water?"
"Not well, but a flyer can."
Sarah watched the creatures lapping black tongues against darker lips. Lynn was working them, making their hunger grow as they watched others feed. The progression was slow. By the time any reinforcements arrived, the creatures hunger would be at a fever pitch.
The flyer in front of Liking turned gray and slumped over. Lynn stopped the line and tossed the body to the darkest section of woods where a night demon laid claim to it. It kissed the man then drank in the soul. Lynn made her creatures watch before continuing their feast. Liking was next.
"Please hurry, Marabeth."
Above them clouds gathered and the wind picked up strength. The smell of rain grew heavy in the air. The night demon finished consuming the flyer. Time was gone. Sarah watched helplessly as Lynn went to Liking, touching his face and kissing his cheek, then she sent in the first magic made s.h.i.+fter.
Lighting broke across the sky. Thunder rolled through the air and even the creatures looked at the heavens to see what was in store for them. Sarah hoped the storm would be enough.
Lynn watched her creature come closer to Liking when a small sound caught her attention. She stepped to the side and saw Elise hovering a few feet above the ground. The child was hiding in the woods, clearly trying to stay out of her father's sight.
Her little girl was growing, even faster than she'd expected. The babe wasn't at her second week but already looked like she was five. Her body was developing into a perfect s.h.i.+fter with long black hair already reaching halfway down her back. Her eyes were gla.s.sier than the rest of her black body but featureless all the same. Only long black lashes rose above her smooth face with the touch of silver outlining her eyes.
"What are you doing to my daddy?"
The first sound of her daughter's voice took her off guard. Elise already spoke in clear words, complete sentences. It was a wonderful sound, even if the question was one Lynn didn't want to answer.
"Honey, you're too young to understand." Lynn saw the child's eyes flare and realized she wouldn't be able to ignore the topic. "He betrayed me, Elise. I'm afraid he has to die."
"I don't want him to."
She hovered higher, staying just out of Lynn's reach. It was a shame. All Lynn wanted was to hold her, hug her, feel the child's breath against her cheek. Elise didn't seem open to that though. Her father had already poisoned her mind.
It hadn't been that long since she'd pulled the babe from her womb, wiping the blood from her face. How could holding a child inside, bringing her forth, be forgotten? Elise may have been too young to remember. Was it impossible to hope that she'd understand?
"I'm afraid he has to."
"Were you really going to kill my brother and sister?"
Lynn never expected these questions, not now. She should've killed Faller and Celia out of the womb. All she needed was Elise, and now her baby had come back to her.
"I was never going to kill Celia, only clip her wings." That's when Lynn realized an important fact. s.h.i.+fters didn't levitate. Elise may look like her, but the flyer part was in her blood. Liking had even contaminated the perfect one. "Come here and talk with your mother."
"No. I'm here to find my mother."
"I am your mother!"
"No." Elise s.h.i.+fted, turning into Sarah. "This is the woman who loves me and my siblings."
"Come here!" Lynn jumped, swatting at her feet.
"Free my father then."
Lynn saw her soldiers moving behind the girl as the first raindrops fell. She motioned and one s.h.i.+fted into a bird, rising behind the child. Elise never moved or seemed to notice him. She must've thought she was safe in the air. That was a foolish mistake.
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