“Did you see my daughter? Did anyone see Ash?” Ronan moaned. A frigid wind stole his words tumbling them across the white mountain face.
Genesis’ teeth chattered. She clamped then together and received an instant, piercing headache. The wind stabbed at the cavities in her ears. She opened her mouth and her breath froze on her lips. Landing in fresh, soft snow when Ronan pushed her through the door made Genesis happy. She welcomed the winter chill as they rushed out of Mara’s hell hole.
But, she had to acknowledge the danger which surrounded them. The Door remained their only option of escape. They could have done no better. Charging through it turned out to be like jumping in a river in the winter. Or magically appearing on the side of a snow-capped mountain minus winter clothing.
The frozen North wind blew down from a cloud shrouded top. It bit through Genesis’ black coat and her pants tucked into boots with little effort. She wrapped her arms around herself shivering. Snow melted against her inflamed skin and soaked her before refreezing. It both surprised and did not surprised Genesis to see herself manifest as her normal TrueSelf her on the Spirit Plane. 140 years of walking this plane dressed in black was a hard habit to break. She wished her TrueSelf dress warmer. Something with fur and a real coat, not this old patched one of Vash’s. The guns tied down at her hips felt good, though. She wanted to turn around, go back through the door with them, and put one bullet in Mara’s brain.
Her breath turned to ice each time she inhaled and exhaled. She scratched the build-up off her upper lip. Genesis knew hypothermia endangered her and the other normal humans. Already her shivering and chattering lessened and the desire to sleep whispered at the edges of her mind. Dora, Ronan, and Sundance had taken on their TrueSelves. Sundance’s jeans and sweater had given way to fur-lined boots, tan deerskin leggings, a skirt with a high split which caught the wind, and a wide belt over a loose, wool tunic. A fur-lined, ankle-length vest stopped some of the wind’s chill. Dora’s TrueSelf provided no protection. An empire-waisted, sky blue dress with a sheer wrap left her chest, neck, and arms exposed. Small ballet slippers covered her feet and soaked with melting snow. Frostbite already attacked her toes. The wind tore at the bun in her hair pulling parts of it loose. Old eyes blinked back tears in her young face.
Ronan dropped down in the snow and Sundance stabled him with her hand. Even sitting down in the snow, he looked taller and more muscular with thick, long hair. His white shirt tucked into dark fitted pants while a soft, leather vest with many buckles wrapped around his torso. Leather bracers protected his wrists and buckled on the sides. His trousers were stuffed into scuffed, nicked and squared off boots. A large watch, filled with gears wound and ticked on his left wrist. Jack’s long duster, which he still wore, gave him some protection from the wind.
“I didn’t see her, I didn’t see Ash, Monk or Zephyr, only Mara and the mercs who attacked us before,” Sundance responded to the empty question Ronan asked. She reached down and struggled against the wind to tie a new scrap of fabric around his eyes.
“We need to get off this mountain!” Sebastian yelled, but the wind carried his voice away. Genesis fell to the ground. Her legs just gave out. Sebastian hauled her up out of the snow and wrapped his arms around her. She huddled against him. Genesis’ eyes caught sight of Janie. She jumped. Janie’s passage into the Spirit Plan undid years of careful primping. An ugly, monstrous form twisted her limbs and thinned her hair. A long hooked nose and large, bulging eyes destroyed any beauty her face ever claimed. Her track suit ripped and stretched over her gray skin.
“Oh dear, it can’t be,” Sundance said as she gazed at Janie.
Sebastian moved Genesis further away from her and her long claws.
“What?” She snapped. Janie’s high-pitched voice issued from the mouth of the twisted creature confirming her identity.
“Look at yourself,” Dora said. “I should look like you.” She hung her head and turned away.
Janie looked down at her hands and her legs. She probed her face feeling out along her new dog-like muzzle and long teeth. A shameful wail billowed from her mouth.
“What happened to me?”
“You are here in the Spirit Plane as you are in your heart,” Sundance whispered.
“You bitch!” Janie leapt towards Sundance more beautiful now than on the Material Plane. Ronan came to his feet with a growl. Blind or not, he had no trouble putting himself between Janie and Sundance.
“Janie!” Sebastian hollered over the wind. “Now’s not the time. We’re going to freeze to death!”
She stopped, but sneered at Sundance. Sebastian pulled them all together, huddled with their backs to the cold. He kept Ronan, back on the ground, and Genesis in the middle of the circle. The wind blew, singing and dancing over the sides of the mountains. Genesis watched as Sundance started to tap her fingers on her thigh to the beat of the wind’s song. Bitterness reared its ugly head in her heart. Once, long ago it seemed, yet so fresh, Genesis’ level of comfort in her magic equaled Sundance’s. Genesis never dreamed someone could take the magic away from her by any other means than death. Sweet death, how much easier would it have been if she just died when the magic was removed?
“Dora, we need to do something here or everyone is going to freeze to death,” Sundance said, cupping her hands around her mouth against the wind.
“Maybe that’s not such a bad idea,” Genesis said. Her eyes grew heavy and she stopped shivering.
Dora and Sundance reached into their pouches and pulled two small squares of flannel out. They whispered over them and threw them to the wind. Soft warmth wrapped around the small group of beaten, broken people and the wind rushed around them instead of through them.
“The question we need to answer is where in the Spirit Plane are we?” Dora said, no longer needing to yell over the winter wind.
Ronan shook his head, tossing it back and forth like a fly buzzed around him.
“What’s wrong?” Sundance asked.
“I can hear voices everywhere but I can’t hear what they’re saying over the weeping of the souls around me. Before I could see the torn souls, but now I can hear them. Just a whisper of longing to be whole which the wind brings to my ears,” Ronan’s voice broke and faded. His screams of pain in Mara’s dungeon destroyed his throat. His voice held no volume or depth. Sundance wrapped her arms around his neck and said, “You can’t see, but the power is still there. Heal the broken souls.”
Ronan stumbled to his feet and took Sundance’s hand. Evidence of exhaustion showed in his slumped shoulders, his hanging head. So worn down, no sleep, so much pain and torture, so much lost.
“Before we try to get down, I have to heal the souls here which are torn.”
“What if you can’t, SoulDefender?” Genesis asked. She could not help it. The words, the pain, leapt out of her, ready to rend others in the spasms of its own agony.
“What if I can?” Ronan held out his bleeding, twisted hand towards her voice. Genesis hesitated. Did she want to be healed. Sebastian’s hand moved up her back pressing her closer. Genesis reached out and –oh, so gently – took Ronan’s hand. He reached out to Sebastian with the other hand. The sunlight grew kissing the mountain top with light. A surge of power out shown the sun as it surrounded Ronan, Sebastian, and Genesis. A light even Genesis, stripped of power, could see enveloped them. Ronan dug deep down and found something left to give. Something Mara had not taken. Golden, electrical lines coalesced out of the light and wrapped around Genesis and Sebastian. The hair on Genesis’ arms stood on end. Ronan clasped their hands together and cupped them in his bleeding palms. He pressed his lips to their fingers. A sudden, wild joy fluttered tiny wings inside Genesis. She gasped in pain. Electrical lines arched from Ronan’s bleeding hands and wrapped around them. It drew Sebastian and Genesis closer together. Closer and closer. With a bang and a flash the day returned to normal. The cold wind blew. The snow piled around their feet sending shivers through everyone even with the blanket of warmth cast by Dora and Sundance.
“I’ll. Be. Damned,” Sebastian said. He ran his hand across his chest, right over his heart. He had eyes for Genesis alone. Genesis, with no tattoos, no magic, only a woman with white hair. He took her face in his strong hands and kissed her. His fingers lit trails of fire across her skin; his gentle kiss broke open her frozen heart. Warmth blazed within her. Joyful tears spilled from her closed eyes as his lips melted into hers. Genesis found something which her life lacked. Something she believed impossible to find. Love. When he broke away, Sebastian did not release her face or her heart, but stared down into them. Genesis returned his gaze. She found him. She found something of herself in his eyes. A part of her moved over and nestled in Sebastian’s soul.
Ronan’s healing soothed her pain. It rested and raged no longer. The loss of magic curled in a corner and slept. The room of her soul filled with a bold light, the light of love. A human magic, an unseen magic, but a magic none the less. Genesis grasped it, grasped it as her only lifeline of hope – this wild love of Sebastian.
“Do you know how terrifying it is to almost lose someone you just started to fall in love with?” Sebastian whispered. He touched his forehead to hers and kissed her again. He caged her protectively in his arms. Genesis perspective on the world changed. She watched the sun turn the snow into a field of diamonds. She listened to the wind whistle around the rocks and through crooks and crannies. A new wonder and just a hint of hope bubbled inside her.
Ronan turned to Sundance; he tilted his head and listened. With a smile, he held out his hand and she took it in her own.
“This is my idea of a proper healing.”
She stepped into his arms and Ronan kissed her. Without magical lines to tell her what had happened, Genesis knew both souls healed as their lips met. They not only re-knit the holes made in their souls, but like her and Sebastian, they re-knit as one soul instead of two. Ronan let Sundance go and stepped back. He reeled on his feet. Blood dripped in the white snow from his hands. He turned towards Dora and Janie, the betrayers. Before he could speak, he doubled over wheezing.
“It’s impossible to catch my breath in this thin air,” he said, each word coming out in a forced gasp.
“Just breathe,” Sundance rubbed his back to calm him. “Don’t rush it.”
Ronan straightened up. “Your souls are the most damaged other than Genesis, and I’ll heal you if you want.”
“Don’t waste your strength on me, SoulDefender,” Dora said, “I’ve much to repay and don’t want to feel healed yet. I…, my eyes were bound more tightly than yours, until she pushed me in the cage.”
Ronan turned, inclining his head towards Janie.
“Stay the hell away from me, you freak. This was not how this was supposed to happen. That woman promised I would get Sebastian back and look! He loves her more than ever,” Janie pointed a crooked finger at Genesis. Murder flashed in her vile green eyes. Slim dripped from long fangs as she snapped her teeth.
Sebastian pushed Genesis behind him, protecting her with his body from Janie.
“See!!” Janie yelled.
“I can’t force you to accept the healing, but the offer is there if you decide you want it.”
“Can you hear what the wind is saying now?” Sundance asked him.
“Yes, it says there’s a cave a little ways down the side of the mountain. It knows cause it is blowing past it but can’t get inside.”
“Let’s roll,” Sebastian said.
They started down the mountain, the stronger helping the beaten and weak while Janie trudged along behind them. It took them the better part of two exhausting hours to get down the side of the mountain to the level of the cave. The mischievous wind twisted them around as it gave directions. Ronan stumbled on a narrow path and Sebastian grabbed him before he tumbled down the side of the mountain.
“Where’s this damn cave?”
Ronan held his breath and listened. “The wind says just around the bend.”
Numb and shivering with chapped, cracked lips and red, burning noses, they stumbled into the cave and dropped to the cold stone floor. Since before midnight, they had battled for their own lives and others. They opened a Door to the spiritual plane to escape, and Ronan healed three souls. After enduring in half a night more than most endure in a year of their lives, they hiked through wind and snow down a slippery mountain slope to the cave. For a long time they laid on the floor huddled in a pile for warmth. Janie refused to come close to them, and moved deeper into the cave. The humans and witches laid on the ground, breathing. They ignored all the pain racing through their bodies and hammering on their brains.
Genesis became aware of the fading light in the cave. She wondered if she slept through a whole day? Was it the evening of the same day? She wondered where in the Spirit Plane they were, and more importantly, if any demons lived nearby? They would not be happy to find three of the King’s witches crossing their land. She did not have any magic to gamble with, only her two guns. Genesis stirred out from under Sebastian’s arms and sat up. Soft breathing and faint snoring filled the small cave, while outside the wind blew snow across the entrance in a flat line. A quick shiver shot through Genesis. The cold tickled her skin as she disengaged herself from the huddle. Once free, she put her hands flat on the cave floor and pushed up. Muscles and bone cracked and popped. The room spun around her, and she closed her eyes waiting for it to settle down. Cracking one eye to take a peek, she turned and examined the back of the cave. The room agreed to be solid, so Genesis opened both eyes.
She found Janie behind a rock curled into a small ball. The woman turned monster whimpered in her sleep. Pity shot through Genesis, but faded when she remembered the Necklace of Pain. Janie had opened a way for Mara to do what she did. Capturing Genesis would have been a lot harder without Janie, and James, Tell, Rickie, Leon and Dune, Alistair, William and Valkyrie might still be alive. With that thought, all pity died in Genesis. Janie could endure being ugly and cold for a while.
Genesis strode across the stone floor to explored the deeper reaches of the cave. Behind some boulders she discovered a pile of furs and dried out wood. She thanked whoever left the supplies as she piled the wood behind the tallest boulders to retain and reflect as much heat back into the cave as possible. Genesis searched her pockets and the pile of fur for a light, but found no matches, lighters, or magic. Sundance would have to start the fire. Before waking everyone up, she dragged the furs out and laid them in a circle around the soon to be fire. They might not have food, but they could at least be warmer. A few handfuls of snow could quench their thirst. Genesis returned to the huddle of bodies and shook Sebastian and the others awake.
Sundance took a pinch of cold ash from her pouch, and reminded it of the burning heat from the fire it had once been. The ash sprang into flames. It licked hungrily at the logs piled on top of it. Everyone sighed as warmth filled the small back area of the cave. They settled in around the fire. Sebastian dropped behind Genesis. Something about him made her heart dance. It thrilled her that he wanted to keep her close to him. She had lost so much power, but he loved her even more. Genesis gathered his love into her heart. She packed it deep in around the edges to reshape it. To reshape it around him instead of her vampires. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, and she leaned back into him.
Dora sat off to one side, but stayed close to Genesis as if by allowing herself to be associated with the former witch she could start to pay for the pain she had caused her. As the blaze grew and danced across the walls with an orange flicker Janie moved in closer, comforted by something familiar.
“What is going on here?” A deep, resounding voice broke through the quiet whispers of the group. Everyone’s heads flew up. Sebastian leapt to his feet. Genesis rolled to her knees in front of him, guns drawn and ready to fire. A lithe, muscular man with silver skin stood in the cave entrance. His black eyes and black hair gleamed in the firelight. Two large, bat-shaped wings spread from his back out into the storm filled night. A tattoo of a green mechanical dragon, complete with steam, nuts and bolts, covered his upper chest. He wore striped baggy trousers with lace up boots to his knees. A wide leather belt sat low on his hips with a tied down band of sheathes, each holding an ivory handle knife, wrapping around his thigh. A cropped, black brocade vest provided little protection against the cold on his upper body, but he seemed unaffected. Black bracers covered his wrist and upper forearm. A substantial onyx signet ring sat on his right hand.
“Who are you?” Genesis asked, old habits of command died hard.
“I am Vlax, Commander in charge of this storm and Captain of the Shepherds of the Storms which blow with the NorthWind. Now, I have been honest with you, please tell me who you are.”
The depth of his voice surprised Genesis, like the cave itself spoke to them. Neither Sebastian or Ronan could command such a bass voice.
Blind Ronan stepped forward, “I’m Ronan, the SoulDefender. This is Sundance the witch of Dance, Dora the witch of NewLife, Genesis, Sebastian and Janie from the Material Plane. We came here through a Door which we made to escape the witch of Darkness.”
“Darkness? She has brought trouble for many years.”
“We don’t mean to encroach on anyone’s territory,” Sundance said, “but this is where the Door opened and we had to find shelter. We weren’t dressed for this winter storm.”
Vlax bowed. “I am not under your direct command, but all witches who serve the King may call on the Shepherds of the Storm in time of need. How may I be of such service?”
They all glanced at one another and Sundance took Ronan’s arm.
“We need food, clothing, and rest, some of us have wounds as well,” Sebastian said taking charge.
“I need to find the Inventor,” Ronan added.
“I don’t know of the Inventor. But, I will return when this storm is done and take you someplace you may rest and regain your strength.”
He turned and leapt out into the storm. His large wings beat in time with the wind.
They gathered back around the fire, but noticed the room grew warmer and the storm quieted.
“He put some sort of block over the door to keep the heat in,” Sundance said looking to the cave entrance.
“Or keep us from leaving,” Janie spoke up for the first time since they entered the cave.
“Do you always distrust everyone?” Ronan asked.
“Sebastian taught me everyone has an angle their trying to work. It’s a rule of business.”
Sebastian shook his head.
“The Valyni, as they’re also called,” Dora said before he could defend himself, ”are not evil beings. They serve the Wind Witch, but they aren’t witches. They’re lesser angels, beings who live forever, and they’re formidable enemies. Be glad he knows who we are and who we serve.”
“We should have pushed Darkness through the door and let them deal with her,” Genesis muttered to herself.
“Really,” Sundance agreed.
“I don’t know that they would have done anything with her as long as she did not try to trespass into their territory,” Dora said. “Or she didn’t try to use them for some evil purpose.”
“Figures,” Genesis said.
“How about a dance or a song if you’re not too tired?” Ronan suggested.
Sundance smiled and then remembered Ronan could not see her; the smile faltered.
Feeling sorry for the her, Genesis said, “A song would be nice, something to get our minds off everything, or a dance.” Genesis corrected her suggestion at the last minute. This was the Dancer not the Singer. Powers often used in concert did not guarantee both witches were gifted in the other area – just because she could dance did not mean she could also carry a tune.
“Song and dance are strongly intertwined,” Sundance said the smile returning, “many times in the past my powers and hers have manifested as sisters and lovers. Now, we give each other space and let our musing bring separate works into existence. We let our artist marry the arts together. But, I believe I have enough knowledge of my friends work to sing and dance for everyone.”
With a wave of her arm a macabre band rose behind Sundance startling the others. The band started playing and Sundance started singing and dancing. Her voice filled the room like golden water trickling over rocks and the scales of small fishes. It fell like soft snow on upturned, freckled faces. It rose like the sun and crashed like the thunder. She sang a song, written not too long ago, by an artist not too long dead. She sang of the love in her heart which filled her to the brim and let little else in.
As she sang, as she danced, she wrapped her magic around Ronan. She did not leave the others out of her magic, but she focused it on Ronan. Around and around she spun, her hair flowing in an arch, her song saturating the cave, her weaving, moving body reaching through Ronan’s blindness. It opened his mind, cutting into the darkness he had bandaged himself with. She decorated the darkness with beauty and light, until, panting from the fire of the dance, she stopped.
Outside the storm continued to blow, but within the cave Ronan, the SoulDefender, sat surrounded by healed souls, or healing souls. Sundance, the Dancer, sat by his side, after filling the cave with warmth, joy, and love. Genesis, the witch who lost her powers, smiled as she gazed into the fire light. The flickering orange tongues sparked in her iridescent hair. Her powers were lost, but she had found love. Dora hung her head and did not stop the tide of tears running down her face. The people she sought to kill surrounded her with acceptance. Janie alone looked on and nursed a quiet hatred in her heart. She nursed the hatred with love, blaming others for the lack of it in her own heart.
The day faded to darkness before its natural end, and the night took an early command of the world. The witches and humans gathered close together and slept. They decided not to worry about keeping watch, trusting to the rumors others had spread about the Valyni, the shield on the door, and their souls to the King. The fire continued to warm the cave, and even Janie sitting further away stayed fairly comfortable. Sleep whispered in Genesis’ ear. She curled up on her side and Sebastian curled around her. Safe and warm in his arms, the broken witch fell asleep.