Well, dear reader, I hope you enjoyed the first two chapters of my urban fantasy Blood Roots. If you are new to my Author Page, read the previous post to catch up. I am excited to share with you the next three chapters, and like the creator of a carnival funhouse, I am rubbing my hands together with anticipation as you slip, slide, and turn in panic to see what is around the corner or standing right in front of you all along. Enjoy!
Blood Roots (continued)
Night came quickly upon the church, and the old man was sitting at the table eating a portion of rice and beans. His great knife lay next to his bowl. Mira sat across from him, her mind trying to focus on the night’s task, but her imagination leaping to the locket now secretly hidden behind a loose stone in her cell. She had not eaten for two days and she was hungry.
“You will leave in an hour,” the old man said. “You will track and kill tonight.” He picked up his tin cup of whiskey and toasted empty air. “You will bring me what I’ve asked of you.” He placed the cup down. “You may not come back at all.” He ate the rest of his beans and rice in silence. At the end of his meal, he pulled out his black pouch of tobacco, rolled a cigarette and lit it. He stared at her. She looked for some sign in his face, some secret signal that would encourage her. Nothing. He pushed the knife toward her. She had never used it before, and she had never seen him without it. A sign. “It’s time,” he said. “Do not fail me.” She sheathed the knife and buckled it to her waist. She bowed slightly and walked out the door a silent, ominous thing.
She knew these woods, had wandered them all her life, and she had never come to its end. The north side was a beach ending in the great lake Erie, an endless horizon of gray blue. To the east, south, and west only forest. She had never earnestly tried to find its end. Yes, one month when she was ten, late Spring with the summer coming fast, that month she had tried to map her world. She walked for a day straight South. She crested ravines and sandstone cliffs, stood high upon a finger that dropped a thousand feet into a valley below, but as far as she could see – only forest and cliffs. It was that day she saw what she could only conclude as a flying bubble. It had a small basket attached to its bottom, and a man stood inside. She watched from a rock as it drifted in the western wind, floating over the trees, the basket slightly askew, watched in awe as it disappeared over the horizon. When she mentioned it to the old man, he told her to beware, for it was the enemy searching to destroy her and all that they had worked toward. He tore up her map and forbid her to travel such distances any more. If she had time to daydream and wander about like a cloud, then he was obviously slacking in her training. It was after that day, she was forced to catch, kill, and cook her own food.
Her senses were alive now, the dampness of the night now easing upon the low-lying areas. She hurried toward the clearing where all the other night hunts began, and when she arrived she squatted just outside the open space and waited. Her patience was rewarded, for off to her right, on the other side of the clearing, she heard a branch break, a grunt, then something large scurrying away. She ran after it. She bent under drooping boughs, leapt over fallen trees, every now and again stopping to make sure of the direction. It was a large boar. She could clearly see the path through the thick underbrush, and she was quite sure of its destination. At the turtle- head shaped boulder, she headed west, down a deer path that led to the same rocky ravine. The path the boar had taken circled back, and this gave her time to climb a tree and wait for it to arrive. And it did arrive. She could hear it three hundred yards away, the dampness of the forest echoing its confusion and determination, a sort of madness consuming it, smashing through thorn bushes, grunting, every now and then a squeal. She drew the great blade from its sheath and held it near her thigh. She was glad. She was so hungry, and such meat would be a triumph. And then she sensed something strange: another presence driving the boar, something fast, something ferocious. The boar leapt over a downed tree and tumbled over a small embankment. It struggled to gain its footing, the pink underside exposed as it tried to right itself; she saw the wound from where its leg had caught a branch. And then it was back on all fours and racing toward her tree. Three, two, one…. But just as she was about to jump, something came from the thicket, something upright. The presence of the other so stunned her that she lost her breath and instinctively pressed against the tree, the knife falling to the ground below. She watched in stunned silence as the predator swiped at the 200 pound animal launching it into the air, dead where it landed; its head nearly severed from its torso. It hurried over to the carcass and fed upon its belly, tearing large chunks from the underside and spitting them out, then burying its face into the bowels. This was it. The old man had set her up: this was a Blood Clan.
Her throat was dry. She pressed further into the trunk of the tree, eyes glancing to the forest floor, desperately searching for the knife. An overwhelming sensation surged through her body, a single will, a screaming voice: “Run! Run or die!” But as soon as she thought this, it was too late, for the animal had sensed her, jerking its head up, sniffing the air, a strange clicking noise emanating from its throat. It stood up, a hulking thing, arms longer than a human’s, uneven, large neck muscles so that the silhouette barely distinguished the head from the chest.
“I smell your fear,” it said. And it laughed, low like a grunt. “You thought you could imprison me, Hunter? I will tear you to pieces and eat your flesh.” It turned one way, then another, sniffing, wiping its mouth.
She squatted motionless, waiting, waiting, searching – there, the blade so sharp that it had caught the base of the oak, the bone handle sticking up toward her. And in that moment she saw it all clearly, like someone entering into a dream, slowly unfolding, her mind gathering every detail, all conceivable outcomes, all counter moves, her pulse slowing, her mind a razor’s edge. She jumped from the tree, reaching out her hand for the handle, clutching it tightly and pulling the blade toward her as she rolled. The animal had sensed her movement just as she gathered her force, and as it raced toward her, she counted in her head: one, two, three, calmly, arms out, the blade an extension of her arm. Four! When the two forces met, she was already spinning, her body a vortex, her fist like iron, the blade a whirling, severing machine. She felt the clawed hand upon her neck, the inhuman power behind that hand as it drove her to the ground, but the blade had danced before her, and she knew even as they fell that she had won. The shear weight of the animal crushed the wind from her lungs, and it was all she could do to push it off of her.
She stood in the shadow of the moon, arms to her side, blood-soaked and bruised. Her ankle hurt where she twisted it on her landing. She stood and looked at the human-like creature, humped flesh, severed arm, a gaping wound from its crotch to its neck. She stood over it and felt the full extent of her power, a hurricane force, unstoppable, unleashed and apocalyptic. She raised her arms in triumph and screamed, an animal howl, exhausting all of her breath. And when she had depleted all that was inside her, she stooped down, lifted the great blade in the air and pulled the hair taut. She leaned over the face, nose almost touching the enormous mouth filled with long, sharp teeth and pronounced the words she had been taught: “Blood for Blood.” And with one stroke she cleaved the head from the body, wrapped it in the burlap sack the old man had given her and sat motionless beside the large oak until the dawn appeared through the trees.
Mira stared at the forest beyond the stone window of the church. The locket lay in her palm. The old man had disappeared for days, and she knew she would have to go after him eventually. The night of the killing had fundamentally altered her…. And him. By his reaction to her return, she had the sense he had not expected her back so soon, maybe at all. He gave her food and disappeared into the passages below, no comment, no emotion.
She shoved the locket under her thigh and ate the salted meat, at first animal-like, tearing at it, stuffing her face, slurping and gulping the water from the tin cup. She was quiet and intentional, her stomach filling to satisfaction. When she was finished, she pushed herself away from the table and stared again out the window, her hand holding the locket, a sudden wave of fear, a rush of panic, flashes of moments from the night before overwhelming her, and just like a wave, it receded back into a far off pool, leaving only a shadowy residue of uneasiness. She reached for the tin cup, but her hand trembled, and she clenched it, placing it back in her lap.
In the moment when the animal appeared, she thought only of her survival, but now in the small room, the noonday sun through the stone sill, the light casting shadows on the wooden table, the tin cup – now, she analyzed it more carefully. “You thought you could imprison me, Hunter?” Yes, those where the creature’s words. And that was the old man’s name: Hunter, Colonel William Hunter. Many years ago she had discovered letters to him from a Doctor Humboldt, old letters, letters inked in a fine script dating back thirty years, just after the Civil War between the states. She had found them in a box, when she was eight, and she had read only a few of them before he had caught her. She was whipped for her curiosity, banished to her small stone cell without food or water for days. But it was worth it. She had learned much, and information was a weapon. She knew about the old man’s prison experience in Andersonville, Georgia. She had pieced together other details as well, details mentioning this strange and ancient race of beings. Doctor Humboldt had discovered them in the mountains of Peru. Mira also knew that the old man had battled such creatures before, in the prison camp, pursuing them even after his release. And now, apparently – he was capturing them.
She sat silently for an hour, her head spinning with more questions than answers. Instinctively, she opened her palm and stared at the open locket. The woman in the picture was thin-faced, her hair pulled up, small curls dangling from her forehead. Her eyes were darkened, a light gray, fragile neck moving into a thin ring of lace. Mira stood up and walked to her cell. She took the loose rock from the wall and reached in, pulling from the space a shard of mirror. She held up the picture in the locket, then the shard of mirror and looked at the two images. She made her face stern, lips pursed ever so slightly, eyes severe. No, that was not it. She softened her eyes and smiled slightly, showing her teeth. No, too happy. She smiled with her lips together, yes, that was it. The image in the mirror was hardened, skin more worn, eyes slightly darkened and sunken in. Mira’s hair was short cropped, like a boys, a colic looping up where it formed her natural part. She moved the mirror to her neck, muscular chorded, nothing like the smooth skin of the woman in the picture. And still she moved the mirror down, small breasts, nearly invisible in her torn and weather-stained shirt. For a moment she had a deep longing to be someone else… maybe even the woman in the picture. And then a soft whisper deep within her: who are you?
The noon hour had passed and late afternoon was upon her. The old man had not returned. She placed the locket and the shard of mirror back into her secret hiding space, replaced the stone, and headed out into the woods to find him.
At first she wandered aimlessly, her head still filled with conflicting images: one of the monster from the night, the other, the elegant woman in the photograph. She found herself quite by accident at the giant walnut tree. The small opening was empty. She looked around, then headed south in an attempt to find traces of the old man’s trek. Soon it was apparent that he ventured out that way, a broken twig, scuffed leaves, a half boot print where he had slipped stepping up a ravine.
She followed his trail the rest of that day, and found him laying with his back against a weathered birch, a dried creek bed below. His left arm was splayed out, palm open. His right hand held tight his bowie knife. A half empty bottle of whiskey lay at his thigh. He had obviously hacked notches in the tree above his head, another into the elm to his right, and still more here and there as his anger exhausted itself. She gathered deadfall from the area and made a small fire, then waited for him to stir.
Near midnight he came to, a sudden spasm as he entered the land of the living, his great knife sweeping up in defense, then falling to the ground. He noticed the whiskey bottle, picked it up and gulped.
“There’s a world of hurt out there, girl, you know that?” His voice trailed off in fragments of cussing.
“Give me some of that food. I’m famished.”
She plated some biscuits, some beans, a thighbone from a rabbit. She watched him for a bit.
“Where do you keep them?” she said.
He looked up, stared at her for a moment, then concentrated on his plate of food.
“It called you by name. Before I killed it, it called you by name.”
“No difference now,” the old man said, “if it did or it didn’t.”
The old man finished in silence and tossed the plate near the fire. He wiped off the bottle of whiskey and drank some more, then stared at the earth. “It was July, 1864 when we first entered the prison camp. Forty-five thousand of us, herded like cattle into a stockade of 25 plus acres. No food, some water, shoved together, starving, no way out. We didn’t know what to fear then. We didn’t know they were in the camp. When twenty-five men disappear at night – twenty-five out of twenty thousand – who takes notice? Every night, night in and night out. They’d come for us when we slept, pull us into the shadows. We stopped hoping for salvation. We stopped praying for daylight. Thousands were slaughtered. The prison camp became a holding tank of death. The South did nothing. Why would they? The Blood Clan did their job for them. We huddled together, created watches, but nothing helped. By the end of the first year ten thousand men had been murdered. The south would say it was starvation. They’d come from the shadows. They’d leave limbs and torsos behind. On Christmas day they declared war and mounted fifty heads upon stakes for all to see.”
The old man gulped from the whiskey bottle. “When Sherman marched to the Pacific, Andersonville was liberated. They escaped, but not before I killed their leader.” The old man’s voice faded. He stared into the darkness beyond the fire. “I’ve spent my life killing them. I’ve seen them wipe out an entire town by dawn. I was there, the fear, the panic, nobody thinking straight, nobody understanding, just running and hiding. You can’t hide from them, girl. You can’t run from them. They’re made to kill, to hunt. They don’t feel or think like we do. They have a bloodlust, one goal – exterminate.” He drank again, placed the bottle next to his leg and rubbed his muddied face with his hands. He turned toward her and stared. “Do you understand me?”
“You don’t understand anything!” The whiskey was taking over now. “You can’t understand. How could you? All this training… For what?”
“You’re ready.” He laughed. “They’re all out there waiting for you. Every one of them. And I the gatekeeper.”
“I’ll show you.”
The old man lifted the great knife in his hand and pointed at her. “You know nothing.”
“I killed it,” she said, her voice confident, the terrible memories crashing in upon her. “I gave you what you asked.”
“It was half starved, for god sake. It wasn’t one of them… Not those out there.” He pointed into the darkness. “You think you killed something. It was starved and beaten. God almighty, it was a test.” His voice faded “A test is all.” He drank again from the bottle.
They sat in silence. The animals were awake now, scurrying here and there, a nightingale chirping, a deer far off. She could smell the lake, feel the coolness of the night as it settled. The fire seemed small and insignificant, the night overwhelming.
“I’ve found a way,” the old man said. “I know how to get them, everyone involved – Humboldt, Magnus, every one of them.”
Mira looked up, her adrenaline pumping through her veins.
“I found it alright,” the old man continued, then cursed several times for emphasis.
“Send me,” she said.
“Send me. I’m ready.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
And whether it was the whiskey or the great battle within, perhaps his past memories, Mira could not know, but the old man suddenly stood and walked into the darkness of the woods. Mira walked after him, then stopped. She squatted down beside the tree, one hand on the trunk, one hand on the neck of the bottle. She lifted it to her mouth and drank. “If you can’t kill them, I will,” she whispered to the night. “Give me a chance.”
She wandered about most of the night, her mind racing. She felt anger, disgust toward the old man. Maybe he was right. Maybe she was not ready. Maybe they would kill her. She at least needed a chance to find out. The old man had seen something, and it had shaken him. She remembered the power of the animal she killed, the leathery hand throwing her to the ground, the bloodlust behind it. It was starved and beaten. God! What were they? Who could stop them? She felt a weight suffocating her, pressing into her chest, throttling her neck. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She spread her legs – one forward, one back, balanced – shoulders low, arms bent, palms up: a balanced scale, move like a turning wheel. Everything had a weakness. They could be killed. The old man had killed them. He had said so many times, even shared stories about the slaughter. Maybe he was lying.
She spun with grace. She spun with control, her mind clear, her hands – fists: Extension and Contraction, opening and closing. And with a final movement she stood before a large birch tree, open palm a paper’s width away. She straightened. The fear had vanished now, but it was replaced with something else. The old man had seen something. He had walked out of the forest, walked out and found… what? Walked… Or sailed! Her heart pounded with the thought. There was an out there after all. He must have taken the boat. She thought of the whiskey bottle. The barrel was empty at the church, had been for weeks. He must have purchased a new one beyond the woods, beyond the lake, another shoreline.
The sun broke through the trees as the morning came upon the forest. She squinted at the light, the shadows dancing in the swaying limbs above her. She stood up and stretched, muscles taut and cramped from the night. And then she saw it. There in the knot of the giant walnut tree: a folded piece of paper. She raced to it and pulled it out, the heavy paper sealed with red wax, an exotic bird stamped into it. She ran into the shadows and squatted down, eyes darting back and forth: nothing. Her mouth grew dry, and something deep inside her whirled, a storm, a force pulling her to itself. She looked down at the paper and broke the wax seal, opened the letter and read:
I know who you are. Do you?