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Silent, deadly, and immense, they came whispering out of the bright sky with talons extended. By their unnatural size and behavior he recognized the great while owls for what they were: minions of the dark goddess.
Their golden eyes burned with ferocity. Their silver claws sank into his scalp and the shoulders of his naked body, ripping his flesh. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood to keep himself from crying out. If she was watching from the Otherworld, he refused to grant her that satisfaction.
At some distance beyond the trees, he detected a faint but unmistakable glow that could only mean one thing: he must be approaching an area of Sacred Space.
He stumbled as the ground beneath his feet turned to a gelatinous morass, sucking him down, then solidified almost instantly to trap his feet and ankles. With the palm of his hand he struck the earth, spending a valu able portion of his remaining energy to break the surface tension and release himself.
As he pulled his legs free, he felt the draught of wings brush his face. He promptly threw himself back down and cradled his head with his arms. The trio of hunters swept in low above him, the susurration of their wings all the more menacing for its softness.
At the last instant he surged to his feet. With flailing fists he struck one of the birds in the chest, bringing it down in an explosion of feathers. Before it could hit the ground he snatched up the creature and held it to his face. The distinctive, musty odor flooded his mouth and throat as he sank his teeth into the owl's neck. Trying not to gag on the cloud of plumage, he clamped down hard and inhaled deeply.
The owl screeched and writhed.
He took another, even deeper breath, forcibly drawing into his lungs a thin vapor torn from the very core of his victim. He was ravenous for the creature's hia, the living spirit it contained.
As he inhaled its essence, the energy that animated the owl began to replenish his waning strength. But one breath was not enough, he must have more. The pursuit had been so long; he was so weary.…
Sensing his intent, the owl redoubled its struggles. Its legs extended abnormally until they could reach around his torso and tear the flesh from his back in order to lay bare the spine, to seize and crush the vertebrae with its mighty talons. But he did not give it the chance. Opening his jaws, he twisted the bird's head to one side and snapped its neck with his bare hands.
Swiftly he sucked the last of the hia from the dying body, even as the creature shriveled and decomposed in his hands. Then with a cry of disgust he flung the liquefying object from him.
Drawing on his new strength he ran on, pushing his way through closely spaced ranks of sentinel trees. He had escaped the Otherworld, tearing through the fabric that separated it from the Earthworld only to find the earth itself conspiring against him. Could the dark goddess extend her reach so far?
As if in answer, branches twisted into skeletal limbs that clutched at him, holding him back. A coiling root emerged from the soil, catching his foot and sending him crashing to the ground. As he fell he was already wrapping his arms around his body and beginning to roll. If he gave up now the forest would claim him as its victim before his pursuers could.
At least he would have the small satisfaction of cheating her minions.
Lurching to his feet, he risked a glance backward. Thus he stood clearly revealed to his pursuers; a slender, swarthy man of somewhat less than average height, with a hooked nose and sensual lips. His eyes were almond shaped, his flesh fine-grained. But that flesh looked old, worn, almost as if it had long ago turned to parchment. And his eyes, rimmed around with scars, were very tired.
The remaining owls ghosted toward him on silent wings, banking sharply to clear the trees. Their pale plumage glimmered as they passed through patches of shade. To a casual observer they might have seemed beautiful.
But no normal owl would hunt during the day.
Fighting back fear—but not regret; no, never regret—he staggered on.
Sacred Space lay ahead. Once there he would be safe from their attack because no matter what form they took, these creatures were animated by hia. A hia might be the ghost of someone who had died, or the life force waiting to occupy a person as yet unborn. It could belong to an animal or a tree or a flower, for no life was possible without spirit. Nor were hia exclusive to the Earthworld; quite the contrary. In the Otherworld there were many spirits who would never manifest themselves in tangible bodies. But all hia had one limitation. Without invitation or very special powers they could not enter space consecrated to the gods.
No such restriction applied to the Ais, of course. If the goddess who was now his enemy chose, she could come after him herself, even into Sacred Space. He had no doubt that she was angry enough.
Why had she sent the owls instead?
He must recover and decide what to do next. He had to find sanctuary, if only for a little while.
As he burst from the forest, his thoughts were so firmly fixed on this goal that he reached the riverbank before he knew it. The muddy verge was treacherous. At his first step it slid away beneath his feet and plunged him headfirst into the Tiber. The icy shock drove the breath from his lungs and stole the warmth of hia energy from his body, leaving him weak again.
A powerful current battered him, dragging him away from the bank. Small round mouths lined with vicious teeth gaped just beneath the surface as ribbonlike eels fixed on his flesh. Pain seared up his legs. Frantically he fought to keep his balance while he pulled off the sucking eels. If he went under he would never resurface.
A whisper on the air warned him just in time. Turning from one battle to another, he struck the owl in midair and sent it spiraling down to the water. As it fell, the creature made a desperate effort to recapture its long-lost human shape. Swirling, melting, it presented a blurred image of a woman with the talons and snowy plumage of an owl and panicky golden eyes set in a human face. Embodied in this hybrid form the hia had neither the advantages of the owl nor the human.
With a terrific splash it fell into the river, the unforgiving waters swallowing its scream.
The eels were distracted from their original prey by the floundering of this new victim. Flowing away from him, they attacked the owl-thing before it could recover. They circled the dazed form, entwined themselves around its limbs, and dragged the hapless creature beneath the surface, where larger, darker creatures lurked.
Splashing wearily out of the river, he dragged himself up the bank on the far side. His breath was coming in sobs. The flesh of his legs was red from the cold and redder still from the blood pouring from scores of ragged wounds. The owls had torn his body and the eels had shredded his lower limbs. As he staggered on, drops of blood spattered the soil.
Deep in the earth something shifted, as his blood excited ancient memories. The banks of the sentient rivers throbbed with somnolent life, which normally required great amounts of blood and passion to rouse it to full consciousness. But this blood was different; vibrant with spiritual energy and fragrant with the scent of the Otherworld.
A shudder ran through the ground like the first tremor of a quake.
When he had dragged himself to the top of the rise he saw Sacred Space just ahead. He narrowed his eyes to call upon the weary remnants of his Otherworld sight for a better look. The sanctuary's glow was blurred, its holy radiance not fully developed. Consecration of the templum was not complete then. But that did not matter. He would be safe enough there for as long as he needed.
He had only moments left. He could feel the ground beneath his feet moving and shifting, rippling in long, slow waves. The air began to tremble as before a storm. Who knew what ancient madness lurked in the earth in this place?
Caution dictated that he advance warily; there were undoubtedly traps in the lush landscape ahead of him. But there was no time for caution. Summoning the last of his energy, he broke into a shambling run toward the templum while behind him the earth began to rise in a great, curling wave. A few steps, just a few more…
He had almost reached safety when the last of the owls struck him. It swooped out of the sky to sink triumphant talons deep into his flesh.
His cry of pain was swallowed as he pitched forward and fell headlong to the ground.
Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Llywelyn & Michael Scott