Selkies' SkinsInstallment 45Chapter 24 (part 4)
Morvan tried not to glare at the Makay wench. Something about the blue on white of her face irked him. It reminded him of how some of the selkies that danced on the beaches painted their faces. Not all did it, and these swirls were different than the ones they would wear. The similarity still bothered him, as did the way she held so still.
He less than half listened as the rules of the excursion were told to the gathered students. He was a Guardian for now, so the injunction to stay with the professors likely did not bear as much weight. He felt pride stretch inside himself again at being less restrained than his fellow students in their costumed cortege, as they would perform empty rituals in the honor of mere phantoms. The other students listened attentively. There was no need to hang on each word though. It was no more than a trip with mummers and soul cakers, and no more dangerous than American counterparts trick-or-treating. The self satisfied smirk began to curl his lips.
The Headmaster went to the gate and pushed the wrought iron and silver bars open. A shimmer spread out from the center of the boundary to the edges of the gate, and they slipped through. The boundary rippled shut behind them again and the gate closed with a clang, leaving only a tumbled ruin beside the loch at the end of an overgrown road. Cows grazed in the fields and wandered over the grounds, which had before held evidence of no such thing.
The Headmaster placed his stang on a round flat stone enscribed with worn linear etchings and half-dreamed scroll-work. Without being told, each of the others there placed a hand on the staff, gripping tightly.
The hair on Morvan's arms and the back of his neck rose, unfamiliar energies beginning to thrum in the ground beneath them. The Headmaster's eyes smiled at him patiently, and he gingerly laid a hand on the now shining rod.
When Morvan touched the stang, he felt a consciousness appraising him coolly, then turn its back on him. The only way he could have felt a deeper rejection in his bones would have been to be told, then booted over the nearest cliff by Maldein.
There were too many hands and arms to decipher which belonged to whom, but the one next to his was cool and soft. Morvan had the impression of slightly long and well cared for nails. The hand on the other side was square and earthy, yet refined.
The air began to crackle, and a green light flowed out from the stone, formed a circle, and rose above and down below. Morvan was not sure how he knew it was below, but the ground beneath him felt more alive somehow.
"From Caer Carrick and guarded shore
To sparkling sea and stone girt door.
By Earth and Firth, Sky and Flame,
Woe and Mirth, To Artanhame."
There was still a bit of day, yet the light drained away. Morvan felt as if all of the universe pressed in on him, and a rushing filled his ears. Clouds roiled up from the ground around the edge of the circle and he could see everyone's robes billow in unfelt winds while the stone and staff entwined in blue and green light. Soon, it was full dark.
At the edge of the circle he saw something horned, more accurately someone with vast spreading antlers, almost like a man otherwise – but the silhouette seemed broken by fur and leaf!
Just as suddenly, the vision was gone. He looked to the other side, shaking and trying to catch his breath.
A woman in black shrouding with a deep hood drawn over her head and shadowing her face stared at him from there, belted in the red of freshly spilled blood. Morvan thought it a woman at least; the long, scraggling death-grey hair flowing out from the hood at least gave the apparition a vaguely feminine air. His heart pounded harder. The woman reached her hands up and drew back her hood far enough to reveal...
He remembered feeling dread on the train, but this was much worse that that which followed with the Things. It was worse yet that this nothingness was smiling at him.
"I know what you did." The Cailleach's voice came to him like churchbells at midnight over a graveyard on a dark and misty night. "My children are not yours to call, mortal child."
Her finger pointed at him, white as the bones of ancient battles left to bleach in the sun, and he felt a shaft of jagged trepidation piercing through his soul. The edges of the wound burned with icy fire as guilt began to run through his mind.
The light returned.
The clouds dispersed, and robes settled. When looking around there was no trace of Castle Carrick, the loch, nor even the grazing herds. Morvan heaved a sigh of relief at seeing no horned shapes or hooded women swooping down on him. All that remained was the stone and the sod.
Kirsty kept her head down after laying her hand on the headmaster's staff. Her stomach churned and knotted, but not because of the distance folding or from being slipped through the planetary matrix to another point.
No, the hand that brushed the side of hers felt slimy and dark, although she knew in her mind that it could not actually be physically slimy. Whoever it belonged to, they had more baggage than she wanted to be near – and her skin itched because of it. To cope, Kirsty allowed herself to listen to the sea and whale song that was always in the back of her mind, and the slow drip of secret caverns.
Her eyes opened a bit when she felt the presence that sometimes overshadowed David. Looking out of the side of her eye, she saw the Horned One flit by. The last chase she had been part of was too fresh, so she could not smile at Herne's presence. Even though she would not object to being involved in a hunt, she was there to answer Mara and the Lady's summons. What should she do if all three of them had things they wanted her to do? Also...was he there because he was annoyed that his last Hunt had been interrupted? Or was he only here for Creighton?
Distantly, she wondered what aspects each honored deity were going to take, since some of the ones that she guessed were going to be represented had aspects in various regional religions.
The ground beneath their feet changed from the packed road of centuries into a rolling green swath, overlaying sand. She could always tell where the sea had washed. Her feet tingled.
Looking up and around once they had fully 'realized' physicality again revealed a landscape that made obeisance to every land type imaginable. In one place there was the desert, another held high granite outcrops. The forest that swept to the sea shifted, tropical one moment, mixed the next. The forest was like waves, never fully settling into one sort out of the many. A stone circle, each stone graven with nine spirals or waves, capped a small hill, out of the side of which a spring sprung and ran to the sea.
What made her shiver was the wave-song and salt-sweet in the air, and the mist of it on her skin. This mist coagulated at the edge of their vision, demarcating the edge of worlds.
The shadow of wings passed over them. Looking up, the owner of the shadow turned out to be a strange mix of human and feline, ottering her way on the airlanes and the skirts of purple robes whipping around her legs without care. A single blue feather dropped from one of her wings and was carried by the breeze, eventually landing on the stone altar in the circle of roughly hewn stones.
A pair of black boobries escorted the unidentified bird/feline/human woman. Their wings looked more suited to penguins, and they were twice the size of the human sized flying creature and she knew them to be dangerous hunts of both the land and sea. The beaks alone were 17 inches and hooked similar to an eagle, and midnight webbed feet would rival the spread of a red deer's antlers though for now they clutched only air, despite the gleaming claws. These paid no attention to the humans below them, instead disappearing with the other strange apparition.
Kirsty stared at where they had vanished for a moment, trying to classify the being, then deciding that it was something Professor Gerwulf had not yet covered.
As quickly as the being materialized, she was gone into some other realm, fading from sight.
Silently, several of the students checked themselves over. Kirsty saw no need, nor did Morvan remember to check himself.
Kirsty looked again to the surf, murmuring her gladness in Gaelic to be near it again. The answer washed through her, soothing seething wounds.
"Headmaster... Where are we?" Morvan found his voice to be lacking the confidence he usually felt.
Dunstan bristled and puffed. "Artenhame, boy. The Home of the Stone! Were ye nae listening? Tis only one o' the places where witches and wizards repelled the Nazi invasions from! It's in the histories it is!" He winced, shooting apologetic looks to the cocked eyebrows of the Heads. "Och, sorry 'eadmaster, 'eadmistress... You know how worked up I get..." He bowed slightly to each in deferrence.
Professor MacLeomhann smiled a bit at Dunstan's indignation and nodded.
"Even so." Professor Guirmean agreed with Dunstan. Though his demeanor was gentle, there was something far older yet more vital behind his words. "This is one of the places of the Wise, a place between realms, Morvan. Some places of the planet's energy grid lend themselves well to travel. Others are... different. Surely you remember this from your first year classes?"
Morvan considered, but could not remember. Most of the first year's classes he had barely paid attention to, believing that his parents had already well prepared him; he had strained instead toward the possibility of ferreting out ancient hexes. "I must have forgotten, sir."
"I think your house head would be a little disappointed if you could have forgotten this. Why else would places like Stonehenge, Mt. Shasta, Koyasan, the Bermuda Triangle, the Well of Youth on Dun I, and Auchnabreck continue to be important places of power?"
Kirsty wrinkled her nose at Morvan's idiocy and edged closer to the water, glancing now and then at her aunt and the others to make sure they did not see. Something inside was screaming to get into this water, burning and writhing. Her world was focusing into one point and one purpose. Their voices faded out just the way Ally and Nevin's had before.
"I'm not sure sir. I hadn't thought much about it. I always thought that it was some sort of Pagan superstition, like the O'Drake family's well and forge for Brigit is."
Kirsty heard her aunt sniff at Morvan's reply. "That is why the O'Drakes mingle more with the non-magical people. Those getting specialized training tend to forget their roots and loose the ability to access those roots so easily."
Down the beach Kirsty could hear the floating notes of a coral flute. The days before and after Samhain made for good hunting for the Finmen, especially along beaches that were lightly populated. Focusing and slowing her breath, she looked through the mist for the source. Her heart sped and something inside tingled. Reaching out – with something she wasn't even sure what to call it – she hoped to feel how far away this Finman was, and if he had any child enthralled.
Something warm and furry, but coated in oil and slime met her probe. The notes broke off.
Kirsty frowned. That had not felt like the last Finman that had tried to lure her off the Point. Had it been something else once? Even stranger, why did it feel now like she was now aware of something she'd not realized was missing?
The water was a bit less appealing. Where there was one Finman there might be others. With no voice with which to scream and use against it, her first instinctual response would only cause her damage instead of him.
Kirsty opened her eyes, unaware that she had closed them in the first place. Her aunt's bored into her and she shrank back. Professor Guirmean's regarded her curiously, though still talking to Morvan.
"This is why guardians and a few trusted observers have to come. Those that come for their rituals and offerings run the risk of being distracted from their task, and even being lured away. Sometimes it's one of the sidhe, sometimes it is something more on our sort of existence."
"And why didn't you tell me of this before you brought me?" Morvan's eyes had gone wide, and he released the sour fear-stench. Despite his fear, he tried to hide it with anger as he glared at the headmaster.
"You are in very little danger compared to those that will go inside the circle, but they have responsibilities they may not shirk. You also would not have believed until you saw for yourself, or so it has seemed with how long we have been watching you." Professor Guirmean's tone was firm, like the sound of his stang as it clicked the stone again.
"We will leave you now, gentlemen. I trust you'll anchor us and protect us from any that might stumble here." Professor MacLeomhann's voice slit through in measured beats, already slipping toward the otherworldly over and undertones that the Leomaris students knew from the morning chants of her own prayers which usually roused them.
Strangely enough they mingled with the pipes playing themselves.
With that, the headmistress ushered Kirsty, Thomas, Demeter, and a few of the other students toward the stone circle.
For those interested, the editor is starting to get healthier again and looking forward to getting back to work.