Authors: Scarlet Hyacinth
“Enough of this,” a male voice said, seemingly echoing from the feline. “You have crossed every possible line.”
“You must pay for what you’ve done,” the wolf said in turn.
G’aladon drew on the knowledge provided by his magic and instantly realized who they were. Shaiyta, the wolf called herself, although her people knew her as the Spirit Mother. G’aladon had studied her children a lot, seeking to improve what she had created. He was displeased with the idea that wolf shifters, who should have been powerful beasts, had somehow ended up spiritual creatures.
The panther’s name was Havedok. His people, the spirit felines, were night dwellers, predators who hid in the shadows. Even so, they retained that streak of nobility that, in G’aladon’s opinion, was useless for a powerful person.
Arching his brow at the duo, G’aladon crossed his arms over his chest. “And what can you possibly do?” he inquired. “Kill me?”
“You don’t believe we could do it,” Havedok said. “You’ve always been an arrogant fool.”
G’aladon chuckled. “Say what you will, but I’m not afraid of you.”
He thought he saw Shaiyta shake her head in disappointment, but that couldn’t be, since she was in wolf form. “You deceive yourself,” she said. “You could have been much more than you are, but you have chosen your path.”
G’aladon couldn’t care less about her opinion. Yes, he had chosen his path, and he did not regret it. Never mind that he probably wouldn’t have been able to, even if he’d been so inclined. He considered the power he now controlled a fair trade for his emotions.
He sensed the tension in the air that marked an incoming magic attack. Readying his own spells, G’aladon waited. When the first wave of power struck, he was prepared, and he parried it, pushing it back. Havedok recoiled, releasing a small growl.
“You’re going to have to try harder than that,” G’aladon said.
The two spirit beasts didn’t reply. Instead, they continued their consistent attack, with no success. They were powerful, but he succeeded in holding them off and even casting a few spells of his own. His study suffered greatly due to the magic waves bursting around them, and by now, he wondered where in the world all his orcs had gone that they weren’t rushing to his aid.
No matter. He could deal with this threat on his own. Havedok and Shaiyta might think he was weak because he’d been mortal once, but they’d underestimated him.
The battle continued, and G’aladon never once lost his focus. Distantly, he wondered if once he defeated the spirit beasts, he could take their power. He would truly be invincible then. No one would ever be able to stand in his way.
Urged onward by this thought, G’aladon shouted another, even stronger spell. His enchantment sizzled and died. G’aladon blinked and tried again. But his magic hit something that was far more intense than anything he’d ever experienced. It seemed like a strange chasm was opening up, swallowing his energy, sapping him of his strength. He couldn’t even feel shock when he at last realized their plan.
While they had been sending moderate spells at him, they had been opening a rift in the very fabric of reality. Since G’aladon didn’t have a soul, their spirit magic was wasted on him. However, this advantage came with a trade-off. He was vulnerable to one particular thing, and it hadn’t occurred to him until now that they could use it against him.
So far, G’aladon had studied the astral realm as a sort of distant concept. He acknowledged that it existed, but to him, it was mostly a place dedicated to the spirit, something G’aladon had always considered weak. However, all witches, G’aladon included, could be drawn within it. Their core energy held a connection with the astral realm that could only be severed by death.
G’aladon always took his precautions against all possible threats, but he hadn’t genuinely thought he might suffer such a fate. And yet, here he was now, helpless, being drawn into the void. He tried to fight it, to anchor himself to matter, to the solid reality he knew and controlled. He couldn’t even utter one spell now. He was as frozen as the woman he had intended to kill.
Unlike her, though, G’aladon had no salvation. The relentless energy pulled him closer and closer to the rift. As much as he tried to break free of its hold, he felt Shaiyta’s and Havedok’s magic fueling it, crushing any chance he had of escape.
Finally, the last threads of control keeping him anchored to this reality snapped under the assault of the magic. G’aladon flew forward, propelled into the astral realm. He managed to turn his head and caught one last look of what had been his home before the rift closed, trapping him.
Without a soul, G’aladon could not feel despair. He also couldn’t control the astral realm, and any attempt he made of fighting the barriers that held him at bay was met with failure.
Everything around him was pure, empty blackness. G’aladon imagined this was what it must be like in a tomb. No, it was worse than that, the sheer void reaching inside him with cold fingers, as if trying to find something that wasn’t there.
G’aladon might have left his soul behind, but he could still experience physical pain, and each second he spent here was like a lifetime. Daggers seemed to pierce his flesh. Gallows threatened to choke him. Cockroaches crawled over his skin and scarabs consumed him, gnawing the flesh off his bones. Snakes bit into his flesh, sending pure poison into his veins.
He tried to tell himself that it wasn’t real, but he knew better now. Everything was real, and in the spirit realm, even imagination had power. Emotions were everything here, and he had traded them for a different magic that was useless to him now.
He didn’t know how long he remained there, trapped in the dark. Ages seemed to fly by, with him unable to do anything to help himself. Sometimes, he thought the continuous agony would one day become too much to endure, but he was never given the freedom to just die. No, it was impossible to die here. He went on to live, to suffer more, to feel the ice, the fire, and the poison of the astral void ripping him from the inside out. Madness encroached against his consciousness, his sanity slipping away more and more. And then, G’aladon slowly started to remember.
Once upon a time, he had been a child, and he had worshipped his parents. They’d loved him in turn and lavished him with affection. But then, his magic had emerged, and they had been horrified. They’d abandoned him in the forest to be eaten by beasts.
It was only by miracle, or his own strength, that G’aladon had survived. He’d been only ten, but he had already learned more than people thrice his age. Yes, he had survived, feeding his power with anger at the betrayal.
He had wanted to return to his village to avenge the injustice wrought upon him, but years later, when he had, indeed, come back, he found that a plague had ravished it. All of the survivors, including his parents, had fled, leaving behind a ghost town. And so, G’aladon was robbed of his vengeance.
After that, he had planned to learn more, to figure out a way to find them. But as he accumulated more and more power, he found that he couldn’t be bothered with such things. He came up with higher and higher goals, until he forgot about the child he’d been and the love he had once received. He forgot about ever needing that affection.
What did it matter in the end? Love made a person weak. It had urged G’aladon to follow his parents into the forest, even if he had instinctively known something was not right. It blinded humans all the time into believing that G’aladon felt anything at all for them.
Like that woman. Lana. He remembered her now. She had given herself to him, imagining that she loved him. Why? Why did people do such unfathomable things? Why did they risk their very existence for an illusion?
A whirlpool of thoughts assaulted him, and he felt as if he was torn in two, ripped apart by two conflicting forces. Half of him wanted to shy away from the questions, wanted to forget about them and what they meant. The other ached to delve forward, to seek answers as to why he’d ended up here in the first place. Did he deserve it?
And when he asked himself that, G’aladon knew something was different. Something had changed inside him. But what?
Images invaded his mind, and G’aladon noted with shock that he didn’t recognize them as his memories. No, they were events happening to someone else, a man who held great strength, both in body and in spirit. And gods, he felt it. He felt what the man did. It was only a shadow of what he’d once sensed as a mortal, but it was undeniably there. He had emotions again. He had a soul. When had that happened? How?
Desperate, G’aladon reached out, pouring his pain and the desperation that finally had an outlet into his efforts. The barrier between the realm still held him back, but his message went through. But his agony was too much to endure for any living being, and G’aladon felt the moment when the man, the wolf, lost himself to the feral insanity.
“Help me. Help me.”
Roarke’s eyes shot open, and he blindly reached for his knife as the nightmares seemed to follow him into reality. For a few moments, he wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, but as his vision focused, he groaned. Not again. This was the seventh night in a row during which he hadn’t gotten any sleep. He didn’t think he could take it much longer.
Roarke pushed off the covers and slipped out of his small cot. Perhaps being in the city was just getting to him. He should return to living in the wild, like he had for a long time.
Only, in wolf form, the dreams were even more intense. Sometimes, he woke up and realized he’d left his cave a long time ago. One time, he’d snapped back to consciousness only to find himself munching on a recently slain rabbit. That was the occurrence that had urged him to leave and seek shelter in the lingering traces of his rational side. But he was a feral, and unsurprisingly, it hadn’t worked.
Roarke was torn. His beast snarled, yearned to be released, but here in the city, there was no real place he could go to run. One thing seemed certain, though. He was as dangerous here as he had been in wolf form, or perhaps even more so. Everywhere he looked, there was a vulnerable human. All he had to do was lose control once, and disaster would strike.
It was clear to him that he wouldn’t get any sleep tonight, so Roarke left the bed and pulled on a pair of pants. Looking around the tiny motel room, he wondered just how he’d allowed his life to decline so badly. He was more than this. He shouldn’t be hiding behind gauzy orange curtains or trying to find rest in sheets that smelled of the sweat and lust of others. He should be finding out the source of these dreams and eliminating it.
He stole a look outside at the waning moon and considered his options. This wasn’t the first time the nightmares had struck Roarke, but they had grown even more insistent in the past weeks. These dreams had been the catalyst of him losing his spirit wolf nature in the first place. There had to be a way to figure out where they came from.
Closing his eyes, Roarke focused on remembering what he could of his dream. Usually, he tried to shy away from them, since the last time he’d tried to open himself up to the voices that came to him, he’d gone feral. But it seemed that he had no other option. Someone was calling out to him, and if Roarke didn’t find out who it was, he’d grow completely insane. The risk hadn’t disappeared, but what else could Roarke do?
It occurred to Roarke then that he did, indeed, have another option. His former friend, Devon, had somehow managed to ally himself with the spirit wolves. Roarke himself had told Devon about a plan Magistrate Wolfram Rozenstadt had regarding an alliance between ferals and spirit wolves. Through the grapevine, Roarke had learned that Devon had even mated Hewitt Moore, a witch and close friend of one of the magistrate’s mates.
Perhaps Devon could help him. They’d been friends once, and while ferals weren’t exactly known for socializing with each other, their history hadn’t been magically wiped away by the changes in them. Roarke had never truly told his friend about his nightmares, so to this day, Devon didn’t know why Roarke had gone feral in the first place. If nothing else, it might bring them back together as friends.
He was considering this decision when, all of a sudden, a spike of pain pierced his temple. Clutching his forehead, Roarke fell to his knees. His mind was suddenly invaded by images, memories not his own. He saw a dark void and in front of him, Devon, accompanied by two more men. They were attacking him, or rather, attacking the owner of these memories. Agony and despair gripped Roarke, and he clutched his chest, blindly reaching forward, seeking an anchor that would keep him from completely falling out of his reality and into one that didn’t belong to him.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. Although the flashes of memory started to diminish, the voice that used to come to him in his dreams followed him, insistent whispers bursting into his mind.
“Help me! Help me!”
“Spirit Mother, yes,” Roarke shouted. “I understood that already. But what in the world do you even want help with? Who are you? How do you know Devon?”
There was no real answer, just a strange anger and fear that confused Devon. Whoever was reaching out to him didn’t like Devon very much, and that wasn’t very reassuring for Roarke. But who else could he turn to?
An idea struck him. Devon frequented a certain human family that provided him with news regarding the paranormal world. Roarke had always avoided the Tanners, realizing all too well that the stream of information went both ways. He’d wanted to keep a low profile, and if the Tanners found out about his nightmares, he might as well paint a bright target on his back. The ongoing dreams were his Achilles’ heel, and Wolfram’s magistrate abilities were powerful enough to find him if informed about Roarke’s nightly torment.
But things were different now. Spirit wolves were no longer so hostile to ferals, and even if he revealed his problem to the Tanners, the magistrate was less likely to exploit this vulnerability.
Roarke stopped himself as he realized he was considering something he’d never have under normal circumstances. Something tickled at the back of his consciousness, and Roarke realized the voice he’d been hearing had never left him at all.