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|Priestess Dreaming(Sisters of the Moon #16) by Yasmine Galenorn|
* * *
Returning through the tunnel was worse than heading in, primarily because we were tired and hungry. Morgaine refused to eat the last of the food that we tried to give to her, and rather than throw it away—it would go bad if we left it any longer—I handed it to Myrddin. He hadn’t eaten in several thousand years. We’d see what he thought of a sandwich. Apparently, he didn’t think it too bad, because he wolfed it down with no comment.
By the time we reached the cavern again, I was exhausted. A glance outside told me it was near nightfall.
“We need to rest. We have two days walk back to the entrance.” The thought of going that long without food didn’t sit well. It wouldn’t hurt us, though we’d all be wolfish by then, but it sure as hell wasn’t going to make for happy campers. At least not Delilah and me.
“I can try to hunt along the way,” Tanne offered, but I nixed the idea.
“We’re down on manpower. We’re in a hurry. We don’t want to light a fire to attract any unsavory types. And it’s still snowing, thanks to Beira, who left us this lovely present of winter weather. I think we’ll just push on as hard and quickly as we can. As it is, we need to melt a lot of snow tonight so we’ll have water for traveling.”
Having said that, Delilah and I gathered all the water bottles and slipped outside the cavern, into the blowing storm. Again, we took one of the plastic tarps and heaped a mound of snow on it, then brought it in. The men tied the corners to four stalagmites. Áine swept in, took one look at the snow, and breathed warm smoke on it. The resulting melt was quick enough for us to not only fill our water bottles, but to drink deep, go for seconds, and refill them again. By the time we bedded down that night, all our water bottles were full.
Áine and Morio took the first watch. Tanne and Delilah volunteered for the second, and I took the third with Bran. I still didn’t trust Myrddin enough to leave him up watching over our sleeping selves. We settled for four solid hours of sleep each, and broke camp while it was still dark. But at least we knew which way we were going, and though the snow was a bitch, we weren’t afraid of falling over the edge, given the tall rock face that sheltered us from the drop to the side.
The journey down was rough, plowing through the snow, but it wasn’t as difficult as the climb and to my surprise, we made it down with a distinct time advantage. But, staring across the marsh, I realized crossing the bog was going to be hell. The snow was deeper, and it was impossible to see the way we’d come.
“This is a mess. How the hell do we cross this in one piece?” I explained the problem to Myrddin.
He grinned. “Not so much of a problem. Áine is a cross between water and earth in the Dragon Realm, so she can seek out the path and guide us over. Would you like me to take the lead since I can talk to her?”
I wavered. I was still unsure, but if I said no, then we’d be slogging through here far longer than we could afford to. I didn’t want to be caught on the marsh any longer than we had to be. Myrddin might not be our ally—we couldn’t be sure yet—but he wasn’t going to be inclined to take a nosedive into the icy water either. Morio agreed when I pulled him aside to ask his opinion.
But Morgaine worried me. She still hadn’t spoken—the last word she’d said was to call after Mordred, and we’d seen no sign of him. I had a suspicion he might have flung himself into the lake, but we couldn’t know. We might never know.
I slipped my arm around her, and she gave me a blank look. “Cousin? Can you hear me?” Her eyes flickered but she made no reply. “Morgaine, please say something. I know you’re hurting, I know this was a horrible thing for you, but you have to say something.” Still nada. Finally, I brushed her bangs back and the look in her eyes shifted—she was pleading with me, but I didn’t know what she wanted. Then, as quickly as the light had come, it faded and she went back to staring straight ahead.
I motioned to Delilah. “We’re going to have to just take her back to Aeval and see what they can do.”
Myrddin whistled. “We’d best go. Áine says there’s a dark force on the horizon. It will be here within the hour, so let’s be off before it crosses our path.”
The last thing we needed was another encounter, so we headed out, following Áine and Myrddin, silently crossing the marsh. Nobody felt like talking, and it was well toward night when we reached the other side. I glanced up at the sky. Even though we couldn’t see her, the Moon Mother would be full tonight, which meant even more trouble for Delilah and me. And . . . Morgaine.
“Delilah, you need to stay near Morio. He’s going to have to keep you from wandering off tonight. We aren’t going to make it out of here without spending a full moon under the skies.”
She frowned. “I hate to say it but you might want to use this. I brought it, just in case we needed it.” Fishing through her pack, she frowned as she handed over a leather harness, tabby-cat size.
Morio grinned. “I think it would be a good idea if you changed now, before the moon rises and sends you into a frenzy. That way we can harness you into this and I’ll carry you on the rest of the walk.
She rolled her eyes but agreed. Handing her pack to Tanne, she exhaled slowly, shifting with an even, smooth transition. The moment she was in tabby form, I snatched her up before she could change her mind and—together with Morio—managed to get her harness on. She put up a lazy fight but seemed to be doing her best to cooperate. He tucked her into his arms and we headed off again.
Everybody was tired, but I was grateful to Áine for leading us through the marsh. It had saved us hours of indecision. I was really beginning to like the dragon and wished she could shift into human form so we could have a chat.
We passed the dead bog monster, and by the time midnight neared were back onto the grassland, and headed toward the path to the stream. I was done in. We’d been walking through snow and cold for hours without a break, and I still had to look forward to the Hunt tonight. I could feel the pull.
I turned to look at Morgaine, who was staring at the sky. With a long sigh, I turned back to Tanne. “I have no clue what’s going to happen to Morgaine when the Hunt comes riding past, but when we stop for the night, watch her, would you?”
All I wanted was some downtime. We had no food, and we were cold and tired. But one more hour and we’d reach the path again, where we’d crossed the bridge and turned off into the grassland. We might as well drag our sorry butts that far before setting up camp.
By the time we came to the rushing stream, we’d had all we could take. There was no shelter here from the cold, but we did our best, huddling together with the blankets tight around us. We had Arturo’s blanket, which we gave to Myrddin. He whispered something to Áine and she began gently circling us, slowly. Her bulk kept most of the wind from blasting right past us, and she began a thrumming that sounded almost like the purr of a cat. Whatever she was doing raised the temperature around us by a few degrees—enough to take the worst of the bite off.
“She’ll keep watch till morning.” Myrddin held my gaze. “Trust me enough to rest. If anything comes near, we’ll know in advance.”
Exhausted and cold, and still heartsore over a journey in which we’d lost two of our party and yet a third was traumatized beyond counting, I gave in and accepted the offer. Myrddin offered to take first watch, to guard Morgaine, making sure she was comfortable. Tanne and Bran laid down near them and quickly were snoring away. Even Delilah wasn’t up to her usual moon-play. She curled up next to Morio, who fixed her leash so she couldn’t get away while he slept.
I pulled my blanket around my shoulders and looked up at the cloud-covered sky. She was up there, my Lady, waiting for me. Too tired to resist, I leaned against Morio’s back, and closed my eyes.
* * *
I found myself walking out under the sky, the moon rounded and full. Bright overhead, she was singing to me. I gazed up at her, my heart swelling with love. She was my lady, my goddess, my all. She was my reason for living and from her I drew my power and strength.
As I looked around, the grassy field seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, and there were no mountains here. No trees. No place to hide. Reaching up toward her, I tried to touch the shimmering light, but she was too far away, and I could only hear her whispering.
As I turned, I realized I was waiting for the Hunt, but I wasn’t in my usual place where I leaped into the passing cavalcade. Which meant there was something to be learned here, first. Some lesson the Moon Mother had in store for me. Lucid dreaming, much like wandering the astral, usually led me to some piece of knowledge that I needed to hear.
I waited, and then, like a freight train rumbling, the world fell into shards.
As I watched, a horde of goblins and ogres came racing across the field toward me, waving their weapons and singing battle songs. To my left, men in robes were marching—wands and staves in their hands. And at their helm a bearded man that I recognized as Telazhar. The sorcerers were marching.
To my right, a legion of soldiers wearing the colors of Svartalfheim rallied to meet them. At their helm, was my cousin Shamas. We’d been in love when we were younger—long before I met Trillian—but his pride and our families had interfered. Marrying cousins was commonplace in Otherworld, but marrying a half-breed? Not so acceptable. He couldn’t bring himself to break tradition.
His jaw was set, a grim look on his face. Fear began to work its way into my heart. They were headed on a direct course to intercept the goblins. But there wasn’t a thing I could do. Once again, I turned to see, behind me, another army appear. The colors of Y’Elestrial flew high, and as the four armies approached the center, I floated up, to watch from above.
So this must be what Menolly feels when she hovers up to the ceiling, I thought. And then, once again, my attention was riveted to the scene below. As the armies met, the soldiers began to fight and the blood was flying. Bodies fell, and in that moment, I found myself standing up on the astral, at the helm of the Moon Mother’s Hunt. She was there, with her silver bow and her gleaming eyes, and she handed me my yew staff.
I reluctantly accepted it. All of a sudden, I wasn’t dreaming—I was on the astral, in full physical form, and the moon was dazzling and brilliant, commanding me with her presence. We were above a real battlefield, and though I couldn’t recognize the exact land, I knew we were in Otherworld.
“My Lady, what is this?”
The Moon Mother leaned down to stroke my cheek. “The Hunt rides tonight. The Hunt rides where it is called. The Hunt rides under the shining moon but this evening, we face a dark duty. And you walk under the dark shadow, my sweet one. There is death on the battlefield and we have soldiers’ souls to gather tonight.”
Chilled now, I realized what we were about to do. The Wild Hunts—there were many, from many cultures—gathered up the soldiers who fell in battle. The Hunt called to it the animals and the beasts of the world, and the wild, feral witches who served the gods of the chase.
With a shriek, the Moon Mother leaped forward and I found myself racing in her wake. We dove through the moonbeams, and ran on the astral winds, mighty gusts blowing in our wake, storms rising from our footsteps.
“Run, my loves, run and gather. Catch them up—for the moon heralds a bloody harvest tonight!” The Moon Mother spiraled down toward the battle and we followed.
Soldiers were thick in the slaughter, blood streaming as they used knife and sword, arrow and bow, hammer and mace, spear and dagger to kill the enemy. Screams right and left led us to the fallen. The enemies—the goblins and ogres—were not our affair. We paid no attention to their dead, but swept past them.
A soldier lay in my path, his heart no longer beating. But his soul was there, looking confused. A wild hunger filled my heart as I laughed, throaty and deep, and swept past him, catching him up in my wake.
“Run with me! Come to the Hunt—you are chosen!” And he fell in, racing behind me, leaving his physical life behind.
We passed by more men, and as we did, I caught their souls in my snare. “The Moon Mother commands you—join the Hunt, valiant one.” As I touched each one, a single tap, they, too, joined the pack.
The Hunt stretched for miles—it was ever growing and had been since the very first night the Moon Mother had raced across the sky, calling to the dead. On most full moons, she ran for the love of it—she led the Hunt in a triumphant charge. But tonight, she was deadly serious. We were here to gather. Here to increase the pack. To sweep up the dead. We were the carrion of the skies, we were the vultures waiting for the fallen. We were fur and fang, flesh and bone, and gleaming magic.
And then, I saw who was next in line. He was standing next to his body, and looking confused as hell. And I skidded to a halt, the bloodlust high but my heart screaming, “No!”
“No. No . . . please, no.”
But the Moon Mother urged me on. “This is what it means to be my priestess. This is what it means to serve the gods.”
I wanted to cry. My stomach knotted but the pressure to run, to touch, to call to the pack remained. I bit my lips as I stared at the soldier. He was a sorcerer, but he was on our side. And at that moment, he saw me and a smile formed on his lips.
“Camille . . . how did you get here? The fighting—you have to leave!”
“No . . . oh, no. Oh, Great Mother. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t want this to happen. Why did you come back here? Why didn’t you stay with us?” I wanted to smack him, to hurt him. But it was too late. He’d made his choice and I hadn’t been around to stop him. And damn it, Menolly hadn’t tried to talk him out of it. Furious at her, furious at Shamas, I stuttered out his name.