Chapter 20: Lunar Shadows

CWs: violence, racism/anti-indigeneity, starvation (referenced/implied), drug use (opiates this time, whew), body horror

And O, I have seen the lotus-eaters
drinking laudanum and wine
with voices loud and hollow
with nothing left inside—
O, thy tempting nature rails
against the strength of every soul
do not eat the fruits of Lethe
keep your virtue whole.

Prohibitionist and anti-alcohol activist Andrew Matthesohn Wilkes, 1919, from “Against the Degeneracies of Youth”, a pamphlet of polemic and rhetoric poetry.

The cruelest thing about being a bastard child to two cultures, Csindra thought with the taste of bile in her mouth, was that you never knew who was abusing you because of the stranger in you, and who was abusing you because of the familiar. Maybe she was overreacting.

Maybe, but still.

She’d been angry with Odette for the comment about Kaullo. But when Odette had gotten that little smirk, and barefacedly admitted to the manipulation, she’d gone cold. She could still feel it, the stiff ache. Temper, temper. It didn’t really matter where she was – someone found a way to push her buttons and make her look ridiculous.

God. She kept finding new reasons to hate it here. She pushed through the doors back outside, and took a deep breath, hoping the fresh air would help. Then she leaned against one of the carved marble pillars holding up the portico and tried not to cry, or be furious with herself for how much she wanted to. She’d tried to warn both Scheffen and Rook about her and manor families, but that was their problem for not listening.

And the fact that this is why you left home, too?

Let them blame it on her being primitive, or whatever other word they bit back or replaced with something nicer. Backwards, uncouth, feral — they found all sorts of ways to disguise their disgust in pretty words. She got crap for being Kanet’ or “tribal” in the first place, even before anybody put together that she had an Elessan father. Until now, nobody in Den Elessa had run their mouth about it — but Den Arden, Haberjasse, Avolara, people had always put it together eventually, and the white assholes started making comments about mixing and the clansfolk who were supposed to have her back suddenly got distant and nervous, if they weren’t implying that she was a traitor in the first place.

No point in getting hung up on it now. It wasn’t like she’d expected anything different. She adjusted the radio that sat uncomfortably on her belt, trying to get the crawling feeling off of her spine. Rook had given it to her in the car, and she understood how radios worked, but she wasn’t used to having to carry one around like this. “First station for military-wide, second for cops, third for Investigations, fourth for NatSec, fifth for… uh…” She’d forgotten. Whatever. “Oh, right. Fifth for medical, sixth for bomb squad.” At least she could remember that much, and as she calmed down, it helped to remind herself that Rook… well, it seemed like he was on her side. It felt like he was, which she couldn’t take to the bank, but if it meant she could focus now, it was worth it. On her side, even if he was inconsistent in what he believed about himself.

Csindra closed her eyes, still rankling a little over Odette. She could already hear the accusations her anxiety was spinning out of nothing. That she’d attacked Odette, or tried to, or that she’d overreacted, or been bullying the poor little white girl. That she’d insulted her — well, she had called her a bitch. There was even the small, quiet part of her asking if she should consider apologizing – the part of her which was long overdue for a good hard stabbing, but you couldn’t stab all your problems, apparently.

If she’d been less preoccupied, she might have noticed the change in the air sooner. It didn’t bother her, either; it wasn’t until she found herself shrugging off her jacket that she froze. The air had gotten thick with humidity, hot and damp, sending trails of sweat dripping down her back.

Den Elessa was cold. Not freezing; but north enough of Etamara and far enough from the desert that she shouldn’t have found herself feeling at home.

The back of her neck prickled, and she reached for her knife – before realizing she still didn’t have one. Axe or nothing.

“Show yourself,” she said, feeling a little stupid as her voice hit the empty air. The humidity was the only part she didn’t like; humid heat was completely different. Maybe it was a heat wave.

Yeah, and maybe all of the murders they were investigating were suicides.

She glanced around at the trimmed and shaped hedges, and the fountain in the front field, gripping the handle of her axe. Nothing yet, but the heat was rising. Why here? Why now? All the other murders had been at night.

Csindra took a step back — and her boot trod on something. She looked back over her shoulder, and swallowed, her mouth dry. The broad flagstones had previously been neat and well-groomed, at worst a little worn; now three of them were being pushed aside by something growing beneath them. Toadstools; red and white, with small but expanding heads. Nothing grew that fast naturally, which meant —

Something breathed.

Csindra whipped her head back around, and found herself face to face with… something. Someone. She looked human enough, but lingering on the edge of it; ghostly pale, with her eyes closed, and unnaturally-black hair falling down her back, strands framing her sharp cheekbones. The odjaken. She could tell, even if she hadn’t shown up out of nowhere. The twinge of her healing wounds illuminated the silver threads of édjan’na hanging off of her like cobwebs — just like they had off of Rook.

Csindra’s breath caught in her throat, even though they weren’t making eye contact – and the odjaken’s lips twisted up into a smile as razor-edged as the rest of her. She was too thin. Not slender, the way the women on billboards and in newspaper ads tried to sell as desirable now; she looked like someone who hadn’t eaten properly in months. A famine victim, on her feet out of some miracle, with jutting bones at her shoulderline and wrists.

“And who are you?” the odjaken asked. Her eyes were still closed. “You aren’t on the list.”

List. What list? Csindra took another step backwards — and onto one of the toadstools. This time, the crushed fly agaric sent up a cloud of spores, and in sudden horror, Csindra lifted the neck of her shirt over her mouth and nose.

The odjaken didn’t move or avoid the spores, which confirmed what Csindra had already known. They were her weapons. “I’m not here for you,” she said with a small frown. “Step aside.” And even before Csindra had the time to think about it, she shoved Csindra aside and strode for the door, black braid swinging down her back.

Csindra had been almost paralyzed at the girl’s appearance, but the shove — and the touch of skin on her bare arm — brought her down to earth. Skin. Warm, human skin. Normal skin. Odjaken or not, this was just another person to fight. And she didn’t care for the Rivieres — but a job was a job.

She hoisted Raivita out of its sheath and threw it at the wooden door, blade thudding into the heavy oak with a splintering noise. The odjaken, Csindra noticed, didn’t flinch as the axe passed over her shoulder… only when it hit the door. Sound. She was tracking sound, at least in part. Was she blind, or just odd?

The girl scowled, glancing back over her shoulder. An odd gesture for someone not using her eyes, but maybe a learned one. “You’re wasting my time.

She wanted to say something in response, spores or no — but something yanked on her ankle before she could decide, and she instinctively let go of her shirt, palms slamming into the flagstone. She kicked back at whatever it was, but her boot only landed on what felt like leaves. And when she caught her breath, this time she did feel it – spores flooding down her throat.

Csindra threw out her hand, and Raivita started to pull itself out of the wood. She glanced back. Ivy vines, moving of their own accord, coiling like snakes around her legs —

That’s it. I’m sick of feral magic.

Raivita finally tore out of the wood. Csindra waited for it to come back through the air —

A pale, black-nailed hand closed around its handle in mid-air.

Csindra froze, staring at the odjaken in horror, and at her still-closed eyes. At the feeling of the handle in her fingers, the odjaken just smiled again, cocking her head. “Isn’t this pretty,” she said, with a voice poison-sweet, drawing her fingers across the blade.

The enchantment. Raivita was supposed to come back to her. Nobody else.

“Give it back,” Csindra seethed.

The odjaken frowned — then lifted Raivita with obvious effort, resting it on her thin shoulders. “No.”

A thin whip of ivy found Csindra’s neck, and tightened.

——

“Major?” Odette said nervously, the bravado fading fast as the light did. Rook dove for his bag. He hadn’t planned on this until sundown —

Why?

Fuck.

He hadn’t even questioned the assumption. T.O.D. for the other corpses had been roughly sunset, sure. That said nothing about how long they’d been stalked before then.

Gun. Hated the damn things, but it was a back-up. He clipped the holster around his waist, and the radio to it. Flute on his back. Smokework pouch across his chest, with his lighter. He preferred to keep Mirrorwork out of his battles, so he left that one in the bag —  but he did grab his butterfly knife, and the bottle he’d kept aside just in case.

“What’s that?” Odette asked abruptly as he uncorked it. At first he thought she was just being nosy, but then he remembered someone like Odette would recognize the lingering smell of liquor and honey for what it was.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a small smile. “It’s mixed in with other stuff.”

“Like?” she challenged.

“Like stuff that won’t kill me. It’s a drink. I know what I’m doing.” He took a swig, pulling a face at the odd mix of tastes and the burning trail the alcohol left down his throat. “Stay here – and stay quiet.

Odette just glared at him, her fingers gripping the wheels of her chair — but she nodded tersely, face tight with fear.

The last thing he needed was his mask, and he gripped it in his hand, flipping his butterfly knife in the other and trying to get a glance at what he was dealing with through the thin margin between the ivy and the window-pane. He couldn’t see the attacker through the vines coming down over the glass, and the red-and-purple staining wasn’t helping either. But he could make out someone moving on the ground, fighting against the tendrils—

Csindra.

He yanked off his boots, bare feet quieter against the dark wooden floors, and crept as quickly as he dared towards the front door. Bitey crawled off of his shoulders, curling onto the ground and Rook waved him away, trying to keep him out of trouble. He was useful from time to time, but this didn’t seem like someone who’d hesitate to snap him in two.

Don’t panic, come on. You’re good at this. He had twenty minutes before the drugs started working. Fifteen, if his metabolism was nice to him and worked as fast as it usually did. Csindra didn’t have twenty minutes, so he was going to have to make it work. What did he have? He’d been smart enough to restock, except —

—Except he hadn’t restocked what he’d used in the Pawn spell. He’d forgotten about it.

Fuck.

Rook swallowed, mouth dry. It wasn’t that he never made mistakes. Well, he didn’t. Not when it came to this. Not when it came to what he’d been doing for three years, training for on and off for six. What he’d been doing with his entire remembered life. And when he miscalculated, they weren’t mistakes this stupid.

Keep it together, he told himself, already feeling the wood floor slip away from him. He could panic about losing his mind again later. He pulled his mask on, gripping dried plants and incense sticks alike in his hand.

Showtime.

——

You remember, and forget, and remember, that this is not the first time you’ve seen your own blood, and you forget it again, push it to the back of your mind, where the rest of your cast-offs live, and we hoard them and collect them like pieces of glinting gold here below the waves. You will never come back to the ocean. You throw so much here and let it sink beneath the foam, down to where you believe something of you must remain. You have forgotten, and sometimes remember, and forget again that you have looked beneath the black already and found only flotsam.

And yet, like driftwood washing up to shore, something has come back to you.

I don’t know who she is, either.

Please be careful, Rook.

Comments

Oh, I have been looking forward to these chapters. Folks, meet the character officially pushing this into the ‘horror’ section. You’ll learn her name later.

Also, Rook is making really bad choices, and I need to be really clear: laudanum is administered in drops. For a reason. When I say Rook is making bad choices, I mean ‘it’s a literal miracle he’s not dead’. Don’t do laudanum. Even if for some reason or another you’re doing opiates, prescribed or otherwise, don’t do laudanum. Certainly don’t go mixing it like it’s Red Bull. Normally I like to let ‘don’t do this at home’ speak for itself but I cannot even begin to emphasize the level of ‘don’t do this at home’ involved here when I have a character just straight up fuckin’ swigging this shit.

This and the next chapter mark the official mid-point for The Nowhere Bird! I’m still cleaning up the end, but I’m very excited with how the first book’s been coming together. No guarantees on when (or if, frankly) a print copy will become available, but I do want to make one – it’s just a matter of figuring out how bloody expensive it’s going to be at how big this is clocking in.

Song: Moondance by Nightwish

Bell, Clock and Candle is free to read online and I don’t plan on changing that; however, if you like it and want to support its author, please consider supporting me with a Patreon pledge or a Ko-fi donation! For bonus goodies, Patreon readers get every chapter a week early, and pledging to the Elementals tier ($5+) gets you access to deleted scenes and conlang progress posts.

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