By Sheri L. McGathy
(As is, And I really mean that
Copyright® – No part of this may be reproduced without permission)
"Wings of Hope"
"CaRous," a high-pitched voice stated.
Dione instinctively clutched the children to her as she whirled around to meet this new threat, pushing them behind her as she turned.
"We are CaRous! I am Ri-ee-lee, TiGaRoc, CaRous!" the stranger before her preened, thumping his chest as he threw his head back and silently crowed toward the sky.
He was barely taller than the children, almost reaching Dione's shoulders. His frame was slight but rippled with sleek muscles. He appeared human enough to her except for his extremely large, round eyes–the softest, warmest mix of browns Dione had ever seen, with splashes of lighter hazel and gold swirling in endless circles around large opaque pupils. Those eyes mesmerized.
He held his head to one side, arms crossed over his chest with one leather-clad leg cocked before him. He appeared to puff his chest out even farther, if that was possible, as he stated, "Not angels. CaRous."
He nodded as he pointed a slender arm toward the rock outcroppings to his left. "You must hide there. Caves will shield you while CaRous flee intruders."
Not waiting for a reply, he threw his head back again and set free a blood-curdling screech, then bending low at the knees, he opened his arms wide, stretching them out stiffly before him as if preparing to jump.
"W-What the–" Dione stammered as she plopped unceremoniously down upon the ground, landing on her behind.
Large wings unfolded from the CaRous' back. Hints of gold flecked the hazel tips of each feather, fooling one into seeing earth-toned rainbows flashing radiantly before them. Lighter browns peppered up and down the darker brown plumes, creating the illusion of sparkling lights.
One mighty push against the ground, followed by a rain of hot air and bits of churned up earth, and the CaRous was airborne.
"And that's just about all I can take," Dione whispered, as she spat the dust from her mouth.
A shadow crossed Dione's face. Startled, she looked up to see Lance standing before her, his hand outstretched. She took it. Rising, she experienced a momentarily queasiness as the world before her seemed to lurch, but it passed. Dione noted Lance's haunted gaze as he scanned the skies. Visibly pale, his clothes were torn in many places; dirt and sweat marred his face and his hair was in wild tangles as it waved wildly in the breeze. Dione reached up and brushed an errand lock from his brow. He closed his eyes as her fingertips brushed his fevered skin. As she withdrew, he turned away.
"Perhaps we should do as our winged ally has suggested," Ovid hinted. He held the Orb to his chest and stared about him nervously. "Should we not?"
Lance easily scooped the slight form of Aldous into his embrace and walked toward the cliffs. "The little CaRous was correct. The cave will shield us from," he hesitated before adding, "others."
"Then what, Warrior?" Ovid whined.
"Then . . . I do not know."
Dione and the children followed closely behind Lance. For once neither Twin spoke. Ovid brought up the rear.
A slight tug on his arm caused Lance to hesitate. Looking down, he saw the prince staring up at him with round glassy eyes. Col waited for Lance to acknowledge his presence. Lance nodded and the young prince whispered, "Will we always run?"
The warrior did not answer, remaining silent as he kept them moving toward the cool embrace of the shadows surrounding the cliffs. Once Lance reached the cave's opening, he simply stated, "Wait," and disappeared into the yawning darkness. He returned quickly, without Aldous, and instructed, "Inside, hurry."
Stepping aside, Lance waved Dione and Callie forward, but stopped the OrbWard. "Ovid, see to the wizard."
Lance ran a shaky hand through his hair and turned his attention to his charge. Col stood alone before the opening, biting his lip yet saying nothing, as the warrior knew the young prince would do.
Kneeling down before the boy, Lance's cool gray eyes met the soft frightened brown of the younger, and waited for the boy to speak.
Col shifted his stance and took his stare to the ground while he worried a small rock through the dust with his toe. Then in a whisper, he again asked, "Will we always run?"
"For now, we will run, whenever it is possible," Lance stated truthfully.
Col's head flashed up. "But Lance, you can defeat them, you are–"
"Nay," the warrior stalled him, "hear me out, young one. We will run because we have many who look to us for protection. Ovid," he smiled, "would be theirs for the taking if we did not aid him. Aldous is an old man," he added mournfully. "What would you do, leave Dione and Callie to defend them? Although I pity the fool who faces Dione's tongue."
The young prince grinned. Shaking his head, he stated, "No, I would never wish the others harm, or harm such fools." He sat upon Lance's bent leg and wrapped an arm casually about the warrior's neck. Placing his other hand lightly upon Lance's chin, feeling the stumble growing there, hearing the slight hiss as his fingers brushed against the sharp whiskers, he asked, "We will not always run?"
"Nay, one day, we will go home to claim what is yours by blood. This I promise. One day when you are older, and the time is right."
Lance stood. Swinging the boy upward, he easily saddled him upon his shoulders. Col laughed, a good clean sound. They moved into the concealing shadows of the cliffs.
They walked within a large cavern deep enough to shelter them from prying eyes. Ovid had already started a fire and the flames had immediately begun to banish some of the chill. The slick walls of the cavern oozed moisture, and harbored slimy vegetation.
[It will do,] Lance thought.
Looking stronger, her color returning, Dione came to meet them. She tousled Col's hair as he ran by to join Callie by the fire. She shivered as she folded her arms beneath her breasts. "You know, this is probably the wettest damn place I've ever had the misfortune to be stuck in."
Lance could not argue her words. "How is the wizard?"
Dione looked toward the fire and smiled. "He seems to be coming around now that he's near the heat. Won't be long, I'm sure, before you'll be hearing him." She grinned.
Lance grinned back. "No truer words were ever spoken."
Placing a hand gently between Dione's shoulder blades, Lance coaxed her toward the fire, stating simply, "Seek the warmth."
Aldous sat hunched before the flames, his arms and hands completely hidden within his voluminous sleeves. "What is happening beyond?" he asked as Lance approached.
"CaRous!" Ovid supplied before Lance could respond.
The wizard's head snapped up. "CaRous? For or against?"
"It appears," Lance stated flatly, "for."
Drawing a lanky finger across his lips, Aldous mumbled, "Interesting, interesting, indeed."
"What?" Dione asked, slightly confused.
"CaRous rarely trust anyone," Ovid stated while absently twirling the end of one long eyebrow.
Aldous nodded. "Indeed."
Ignoring the wizard and OrbWard, Lance gently pushed Dione down in front of the fire and withdrew a cloak from his pack. "Wrap this about you and the children. It will help to keep you warm." Then without another word, he turned and headed back toward the cave entrance.
"Lance?" Col's nervous voice echoed out to him.
The warrior turned back to face the prince. "I go only to check the entrance, that is all."
Dione opened the cloak and drew the Twins to her. She wrapped an arm about each of their frail shoulders and pulled them into her embrace. "Rest easy, kiddos. The big guy will watch over us tonight." She offered them a smile, relieved when each pale, exhausted face smiled back.
"Young lady," Aldous piped up as if he just noticed Dione's presence. "Do you realize what you did? Do you understand?" He was so weak that his voice was a mere whisper.
Dione raised her head to meet his strange, piercing stare. "I haven't the faintest idea. All I know is there was a flash of light, first in my mind, and then all about me."
"Then what?" the wizard coaxed.
"Damned if I know. I remember thinking that my head hurt so badly that I really thought I'd die. Then, through all the pain, I heard the children screaming. I saw that, that . . . thing!" She waved her hand in front of her as if to push the memory away. "It came toward me, wanted me. It was in my mind trying to take control.
"It hurt having it there. Its voice droned on and on, telling me to surrender, to give myself over to it." She sighed. "I almost did. Anything to stop the pain."
Callie took Dione's hand within her own small one and squeezed hard.
"Yet you did not."
Dione kissed the top of Callie's head. "Almost, but something within me rebelled. A new voice spoke within my mind, a voice as foreign to me as the other, yet strangely, I wasn't afraid. It pushed against this thing's touch; demanded that it leave me alone. The part that I knew was me, agreed.
"Then something, oh I don't know what it was, I guess something alien wailed up within me and burst forward. Manifesting as the light, I guess. Or that is how it seemed to me, at the time. The voice of this new presence instructed me to rest, that it would see us all through," she finished in a whisper, hardly believing her own tale.
"Aye," Aldous stated. "Your power has surfaced, this is obvious."
"Now look, I keep telling you–" Dione started to protest, but the wizard held up his hand for silence.
"It is as the Orb predicted. Your power has come . . . it is unfortunate that it decided to steal energy from me in order to manifest, but no real harm done. I will renew come the morn. What I will need to do, and soon, is begin your lessons."
"Lessons?" Dione asked.
"Aye, girl, lessons. We cannot have you draining me again. You'll need to learn to draw from the available energy about you, wherever you happen to be. Elements of earth, air, fire, wind . . . the sun and the moon . . . Oh," Aldous flashed one of his rare smiles as he warmed to his subject. "So many wonderful things to taste, to savor. We start at sun up!"
"Joy," Dione mumbled.
Col and Callie ducked their heads beneath the cloak's edge and began to giggle.
"Stop that," Dione admonished, which only made them giggle harder.
"What's this, then?" Aldous asked of the OrbWard, thumbing toward the Twins.
Ovid answered with a shrug.
"Oh balderdash," the Wizard mumbled. "I am really too drained to care."
Ovid jumped to his feet and in a rush stated, "Wizard, let me fix you a pallet so you may rest."
"What? Why?" Aldous asked, eyeing the OrbWard curiously.
Ovid ignored him as he busied himself gathering blankets from their kits. Still cradling the Orb Key, he looked about him at the rocky cave floor, then at the key in his hand and back at the floor again. Shrugging, he turned toward the Twins and held out the Orb Key. "Please, young prince, would you mind?"
Col formed his mouth into a silent 'O' as he held his hands out toward the key.
Ovid placed it gently into Col's upturned palms and admonished, "Do not drop it!"
Shaking his head, Col whispered, "Never," then leaned across Dione's lap to allow his sister a closer look, the Orb Key leaning precariously off the tips of his fingers.
Ovid groaned softly, running a hand over his forehead before hurrying to complete his task.
Gathering the blankets, he piled one on top of the other to form a soft bed for Aldous' ancient frame. He looked over at the frail wizard and sighed. He had never seen him so pale or so weak.
Footsteps echoed out to them from the darkness, each step louder than the last. Someone, or ones were coming their way. Soft wisps of noise accompanied the footfalls, the scrap of metal on metal coupled with the raspy sound of something soft brushing against something rough.
Aldous and Ovid rose as one, each turning concerned eyes toward the darkness beyond the fire's glow. The yellow of the OrbWard's eyes matched the blaze of the flame, reflecting the glow and intensifying its radiance.
Then they heard the easy sound of men laughing.
"'Tis I," Lance's familiar voice sang out to them from the uncertain blackness, "with our new friends."
Aldous drew himself up, knowing Lance was never so at ease.
Within moments, dim figures appeared. Lance shared the lead with a stout, burly CaRous, this one was not as short as the first they had encountered, nor was he as young. The whiteness of his hair, coupled within the caves deep darkness gave one the impression that his head floated inches above his body . . . freely detached, but functional.
Beyond Lance trailed a large host of CaRous' in various stages of battle fatigue.
As they drew nearer, Dione noticed that the young CaRous who had helped them before walked quietly at the older, white-haired one's side. As they neared the fire, only Lance and the older CaRous stepped into the light while the others formed a menacing circle of flesh and metal at the edge where darkness met light.
Stepping toward Aldous, the CaRous thumped the wizard firmly upon his frail shoulders with both of his beefy palms, nearly knocking Aldous to his knees. Dione gasped, but Lance held up a finger, silently instructing her to be still.
Ovid reached out and took Aldous' elbow, hoping to steady the old man. Aldous shook him off.
"Now is not the time to show weakness," the wizard whispered, as the scent of magic rose from him.
Ovid could smell the spell as it settled on the wizard like a mantle and knew just how much the act was costing the near depleted man.
"Greetings, Wizard. I am Noe-ell, GaCaRoc, CaRous," the other supplied.
Aldous reached out and thumped the CaRous firmly upon his shoulders and responded, "Greetings, Noe-ell, GaCaRos . . . he of the nest . . . CaRous . . . of the winged people," smoothly translating the odd wording for the benefit of the others. "I am Aldous Ja Aval of the High Sun Fellowship from the world of Egressus."
The CaRous, Noe-ell, nodded as he motioned to the younger CaRous they had encountered earlier. "This is Ri-ee-lee, TiGaRoc, CaRous, my son."
Again the shoulder thumping was performed before Aldous added, "Greetings Ri-ee-lee, TiGaRoc . . . he who is now leaving the nest . . . CaRous . . . of the winged people."
Bowing his head, Noe-ell waved his arm out to them and loudly informed, "Ri-ee-lee will now travel with these beings, known to us as "the other," until his quest is completed." His tone dared any to disagree.
Lance shot the wizard a warning glance and shook his head.
[Aye, Lance,] Aldous thought, [but how do I deny them?] The wizard sighed. How indeed? As he opened his mouth to try, the Orb flared to life.
Col jumped up, bobbling the Orb Key from hand to hand, trying to regain control of it. Ovid leaped across the fire, nearly knocking Aldous down as he dove forward to catch the tittering Orb before it fell to the stone floor. Once he had the Orb Key within his own hand, he stood and directed it again toward the young CaRous. It bathed him in its warm glow. The other CaRous' knelt down upon the cold floor and hummed.
"Well," Aldous proclaimed, "it appears this matter is now settled."
(As is, And I really mean that
Copyright® – No part of this may be reproduced without permission)