Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Gift Chapter Twenty

Justin's first step into the shadow-lands was into a blast of icy cold wind. Grit and ash blasted his face and he quickly turned to wrap a scarf around his face. Dog sneezed and coughed to clear his lungs. He was in a dark and cold wasteland with frost blighted clumps of grass separated by frozen sand and patches of ice. It was a rolling landscape of desolation that stretched as far as Justin's eyes could see.
Quickly checking his magical wards and forces near him he cast a spell seeking out dangers or those who recently passed. Justin trusted Dog to do any guiding and path finding necessary. There had been magical traffic in the recent past. Well recent in the sense that a timeless realm could have time. Perhaps it was not as timeless as his studies and travels with his father had suggested? The shadow-lands could theoretically lead anywhere or some said any time. Justin was afraid to try anything like that.
Kantrus and Justin learned the same message from their studies of traveling through the shadow-lands travel across time was fraught with extreme peril and only to be undertaken as a last resort. When it happened accidentally there was rarely a way to reverse the time travel or the damages it caused. This accidental time travel while traveling between realms was the basis for most legends of extreme differences in time between Faery realms and mortal ones. Although, there were differences of that Justin was convinced even if he had no way to test it without traveling there himself and right now he was far too busy.
“Dog,” Justin asked the hellhound, “do you know where we are?”
The dog nodded in a human fashion and pointed with his right paw towards their left straight into the blast of the wind and grit.
“Okay, it's always the hardest path that leads where you're going,” Justin gave a bitter chuckle. “Let's find Dad and Shandra.”
The two began carefully walking across the windy terrain. The ground was gritty icy sand that shifted unexpectedly beneath their feet. The tussocks of weeds had hook like thorns at the ends so they needed to avoid those as well. Justin had traveled through the shadow-lands with his father and dog before but did not remember it being this hostile to travelers nor this difficult to traverse. Most journeys were ended in a matter of steps. Once Justin judged they had walked a mile he was certain this was going to be nothing like any previous trip he had made through the shadow-lands.
Justin and Dog had been walking for hours perhaps a whole day when Justin noticed that the ground was changing. The tussocks were changing becoming taller and having seedpods at the tops rather than hooking thorns and the scent of cold salt was becoming stronger. Justin took one more step and abruptly transitioned.
The first thing he noticed was that the wind no longer was blowing sandy grit into his eyes but simply tiny particles of ice that bit like stinging insects. The sky became darker but the light did not change much as they found themselves on an icy strand with old dried drift wood sticking out from the sand and chunks of sea ice abandon by the ocean. The sea ice stretched for as far as Justin's eye could see. There was no hint of water not even when he stood at the top of the highest dune and scanned the horizon for several minutes. Dog stood waiting patiently. If he was in a hurry he showed no signs of it.
The strand stretched to their left and right. Dog paced resolutely to the right so that the icy grit blew into them on their left side. Justin decided that it was not just the particles of ice off the bergs stranded on the beach and beyond but that there was a steady fall of tiny particles of hail or ice. It was certainly not soft nor pleasant enough to be snow. The clouds were a dark gray unlike the brown gray clouds from earlier. The bergs while gritty did reflect some of the light above and left the perpetual twilight at about the same light level just from different sources. Justin couldn't pinpoint where there was a light giving body behind the clouds and whether it was a wan sun or a full moon.
Did there have to be something behind the clouds? In this blighted realm might they be the source of the dim and dismal light? Despite the tussocks of grass nothing seemed to actually grow here. The grass was a dead gray that made a hissing noise as the gritty wind blew through the stands. Justin watched for other figures. He had found other people or creatures on the shadow-path before but this time they were left alone. He didn't even have the feeling of being watched. They could have been the only two creatures in the entire realms and perhaps they were. It was hard to say how much time had passed for them. Justin knew no time or no measurable amount of time had passed in the outside world.
How long had he and Dog been walking? Justin knew he didn't need to but he spoke to Dog anyway, “Do you want to stop for a moment?”
Dog gave him a quizzical look.
“Just a moment to catch my bearings and think.”
Dog nodded and settled himself on the dead sea side of a tussock.
“We've stayed on this side the whole time,” Justin said. “Is there something wrong with the lee side of the dunes?”
Dog looked over on the lee side of the dunes that stretched into long rolling shadows and nodded.
“You've been here before?”
Dog squinted looking out across the dead sea and shook his head. Then he shook his massive head like any other normal dog clearing the grit from his head, ears and eyes.
Justin had only spoken occasionally to Dog while they traveled through the wastes. There wasn't much to say and it was a long and tiring journey for both of them. Justin knew it was psychological in nature but that didn't change the fact that he felt hunger and thirst. Dog must be feeling the same.
Or maybe he doesn't
, Justin mused. Dog was a supernatural creature. Maybe he felt nothing or maybe he felt a constant thirst and hunger and kept it in check for his love of his family? How could Justin even ask his family pet without hurting his feelings. This was the same guy he had 'speak' or 'sit' for a treat. Maybe Dog resented being Oso? If he did he hid it well.
“Time to go?” Justin asked Dog who jumped up and shook the sand from his coat before resuming his miles eating pace up the strand. Dog was eager to put some distance behind them.
The ice was thickening on Justin's eyelashes and biting into his left hand. He rubbed his eyes and he bumped against Dog who had stopped. When he looked up rubbing the ice out of his eyes he saw a woman standing before him.
No, not a woman and not standing. It had the head and shoulders of a woman on the torso and body of a lion with great black wings stretching furled above her back like a high ebon cowl reaching far over her head. The woman's face was beautiful and serene with long black hair and dark eyes. Her smooth complexion was unaffected by the wind or the grit. The creature sat on her hind quarters and was much taller than Justin.
Justin could feel dog pushing him back like the time a strange man had come to the door and Oso had growled and stood between him and the man claiming to be looking for Justin's mother. Dog was growling deep in his chest but quietly so that Justin could only feel it through his legs rather than hear it.
He could feel the force of the sphinx's gaze her eyes smote him like a physical blow. When she opened her mouth to speak her teeth were delicately pointed. She maintained her gaze on Justin ignoring Dog.
“You are far from where you belong mortal.”
Her voice was perfect indeed it was Angelic. She was one of the third of the fallen angels that did not fight Lucifer nor join him in his rebellion. They had been cast out but not into hell for their refusal to fight. They knew their fate would be decided at the end of time. Perhaps it had already been decided. There were many like her in the further corners of the universes some even took elven or human form. Some were neutral or even friendly to humans. Others were as hostile as the demons that had been cast into Hell. Justin could feel the malevolence dripping from every perfect word and glance.
“It has been long and long since a mortal has stumbled through this stretch of sand and ice. I have been exiled here before Cain shattered his brother's head and spilled his blood upon the ground.
“I was here through long ages when others joined me in exile and I was worshiped as a goddess. But since the time of the Flood I have heard the speech of others on only three occasions.”
Justin shivered but did not flee he knew that if she sensed the slightest weakness she would pounce like a cat with a wounded bird.
“No you are not Sealed with the Mark of Cain and thus you can be my prey should circumstances bring you to the right place and time. And yet -” her voice grew pensive.
“You are not fully human either but your soul is. This is an exquisite riddle. A puzzle to be savored to be sure. What are you? Perhaps I'll open you up and get a closer look,” the sphinx leaned forward reaching out with an over-sized leonine paw with needle sharp claws the size of meat hooks.
At that Dog exploded roaring like a lion and his growl was a glacier calving an avalanche in spring. Dog was the size of a great polar bear and the red glare from his eyes caused the sphinx to flinch back. She did not move from where she was sitting but she put her paw back down very carefully.
“So it appears I am the only one that shows her true face here now,” the sphinx said with a hint of irritation. “We were not all equal even before our,” she paused, “relocation. Which one of us has retained more power I wonder?”
Dog stood stiff legged and proud his tail up staring straight into her eyes. She locked eyes with him for a long moment but it was the night black eyes of the desert sands that looked away first.
Her voice dripped venom, “You cannot be but you are!” She shrieked at Dog, “You are far more than you appear in more ways than one.” She looked as if she would attack then she sat back with finality and spit out, “You've been forgiven!
“How, why, for what? How can you have earned that? What does it matter that you have taken a vow of silence with only one man with whom you can speak? I have heard rumors that others have been forgiven but to meet one, meet one in the flesh and here in front of me without even the chance to make you pay for my pain!
“Get you gone from this realm. Go! I care not that you have people, humans you love and cherish. Go before I forget that I was once mistress and worshiped by thousands.
“I have that hound. What have you ever been but a servant? Mongrel, ever eager to do someone's bidding. Dog is a fine form for you. Go howl in some corner and grovel for scraps!”
Justin edged by the sphinx without taking his eyes from her and within two or three steps he felt a cold blast across his back. Whether it was magic or just the wind he never learned the answer. All he knew was that he was hurt and bleeding on his hands and knees with the heat from the ground burning his palms. He looked up at a flat rocky volcanic plain broken with shattered stumps of mesas long ago weathered to jagged crumbling teeth jutting from the black, cracked plain.

He was hurt, bleeding, and immediately felt the air drawing the moisture from his lungs. Justin looked up to see a huge black orb hanging in the sky. It gave off no light that he could sense but he felt heat on his face as he turned up to look at it. Dog bumped a white muzzle under his ribs and Justin felt far safer than he had just moments before facing the fallen angel.

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