So here is Chapter One and I just may put chapter Two up next week. Depends … ya know … if you want it that is 🙂
Oh and one commenter will receive an ARC of Last Chance, so don’t forget to leave a comment 😉
LAST CHANCE: DarkWorld:SkinWalker #3
Releases end October 2014
A Walker funeral isn’t that different from the funerals of any other species. Flowers, coffins, mourners. Tears, grief. Regret.
The subtle difference lies in the species itself, and maybe in particular religious preference. Most Walkers regard the goddess Ailuros, cat god of the Greek pantheon, as their deity of choice. Worship isn’t in any way similar to most other EarthWorld religions.
Ailuros just is.
She is a constant, like the air in your lungs or the rain falling from a moody sky. The goddess is nature personified. She gives no gifts, answers no bargains. She is merely the god of all things.
Ailuros has no temples, not in the modern world. Not after the tsunami that was the annihilation of ‘witches’. Call a Walker or a Mage a witch and it was a laughably simple feat to eradicate entire clans. Places of worship were and always will be an open invitation to the religious zealots.
Now, the temple must exist inside your soul. Or else you were truly lost.
I often wonder how different life would be if humans knew we existed. What would they think if their son or daughter brought home a werewolf or a Fae for dinner? Cross-species reproduction? I shook my head, the movement jerky and short as I swallowed a bitter laugh. I walked, past faces some familiar, many not, to the front row of white aluminum foldout chairs. My father’s lawn, and the weather had cooperated in my sisters honor. The ground was firm, the grass a bright, cheery green. The sun streamed down, not so warm that we’d have to shed our coats, but with enough head that an afternoon outside was a pleasant experience.
Seems Mother Nature had remembered to pull out all the stops for Greer’s farewell.
I’d already said my goodbye to my sister. I sighed, my thoughts taking back a few weeks. We’d had our last conversation in a way I’d never expected. How many people get to talk to the dead?
I recalled Greer’s last words.
“So many times I pushed you away and yet you still came to help me. I didn’t deserve you. I don’t deserve you… Thank you, Kai.”
Words I never expected to hear, not from a sister who had always remained just that bit out of reach, just that bit colder than necessary.
I recalled the expression on her face, the sincerity in her eyes, and even the love as she spoke. So unexpected. Those words. Tears blurred my vision as I sat blindly on the nearest seat. I wished we’d had more time, I wished we’d been able to be close. But fate didn’t want it that way. I sighed and felt the lead weight in my stomach settle deeper into place.
I should be happy that Greer and I had made our peace but the harsher, more awful truth hung over me a dark, accusing cloud threatening to loose a storm of emotions. I’d failed my mother. I’d failed to save her daughter. What mother could forgive me? I didn’t deserve forgiving. I’d failed her.
Failed them both.
Murmuring from the back of the seated crowd drew my thoughts away from the cesspit of my self-pity. I shifted in my seat and glanced behind me. My father Corin, brother Iain and four other men I didn’t recognize, walked steadily along the center aisle bearing the weight of Greer’s coffin between them.
Made of molded concrete, shaped to fit the curves of Greer’s figure, the coffin was finished with exquisitely fine detail. The sculptor had paid close attention to Greer’s aquiline features, replicating them so closely that I would have sworn that Greer herself lay there. The rest of her body was sculpted wearing a peplos, an ancient toga-like garment draped elegantly around her body in the style of the Greek goddesses. Within the carved casket, Greer was dressed in a similar fashion.
Her body had been gently bathed, perfumed oils rubbed into her skin. Her long ash-blond hair, was washed, brushed and draped over her shoulders and allowed to fall off her body at the waist. Her hands had been positioned at the center of her chest, her fingers entwined around the feet of a stone statue of Ailuros, The statue stood straight up, its feminine curves enhanced by the fall of the fabric of her simple peplos. With the head of a panther the statue hearkened back to the days before Ailuros had evolved into the external manifestation of a cat, the days when the goddess bore the head of a lioness. Today, each walker tribe saw Ailuros with a head that signified their own species.
Only the cats, of course. Wolf walkers bowed to the feet of Anubis.
With a start I recognized Byron Teague, the local wolf alpha, and Justin Lake, alpha of the cougars behind my brother and father. Again, I was reminded that attendance at the funeral would be more a show of support of those grieving her death rather than an actual payment of respect to Greer herself. The lynx and jaguar alphas brought up the rear of the pallbearers. I turned and faced the stone bier at the front; a simple table constructed from white marble, and surrounded with vases of white roses.
From somewhere around me a lone violin sang sweet sad notes. A song I didn’t recognize but which brought tears to my eyes anyway. I swallowed the lump in my throat and blinked away the moisture. I’d just regained my composure when a tap on my shoulder pulled my attending from the pallbearers who were setting the casket onto the bier. Behind me sat Lily, Logan, Saleem and Tara. Logan’s hand felt warm and comforting on my shoulder and I held tightly onto it. I drew strength just from the touch of the man.
Tara leaned forward, her dark hair glinting in the sun. “Mother couldn’t make it but she does send her apologies and her condolences,” she whispered in my ear before giving me a small encouraging smile.
I nodded. “Thanks,” was all I could think to say. I was overwhelmed by their support. Even more so when I caught a glimpse of Storm and Chief Murdoch sitting in the back row. Proof that I managed to gather my own little band of friends over the last few years. The one person I didn’t see was Clancy. Clancy McBride, my best friend, my supervisor at the rehab center, taken from me by the same Walker who, in the end, had killed my sister too.
The chair beside me squawked and I twisted around as Grams sat down. I took her hands and she squeezed them back. We were both dressed in white, me in a skirt suit, and Grams in a pants and matching jacket. Walkers shunned the nothingness of black. We saw death as another step in out journey, not a marking of the end, the beginning of nothing.
Gram’s and I had long supported each other in our grief, and I then guilt clawed at me, ripping open old wounds. When my uncle Niko had died we’d had no body to bury. They’d had a small memorial service but with everything that had happened, and everything Niko had done I couldn’t bring myself to attend. Grams and everyone else had understood. I’d been weak from the Wraith-sword poison, grieving for Clancy, terrified for Mom and Anjelo and Greer, all innocents sucked into Niko’s crazy schemes.
I tried to banish those thoughts, bring my attention back onto the ceremony. With the casket in place, the pallbearers dispersed and my father and brother came to sit beside us.
The light glinted off the carved face of the coffin as a woman glided slowly toward a lectern. The white podium stood beside the bier, covered in white fabric and decorated with a swag of white roses and baby’s breath. Etina was our equivalent to a pastor or a priest. The priestesses of Ailuros presided over deaths and births and marriages within the walker communities. Etina, her red hair held away from her face by a band of matching braids, came to a graceful stop behind the flowers and to to smile at the gathering.
I listened with half an ear as she spoke a little about Greer, an extolling of virtues that steered clear from her leaving home without so much as a goodbye, from her involvement with Pariah walkers Niko and Brand, and from any references to how she finally met her end. I swallowed a sob. Everywhere I looked I saw the image of my mother’s face, superimposed on everyone, saw the look of disappointment in her eyes everywhere I turned. A look I would need to face soon. My heart thudded as Etina motioned for my father to come forward to speak.
I didn’t hear his words, my mind still on my mother and the promises I’d broken. Fingers slipped in against mine and I looked at Iain as he held my hand, squeezing it in silent comfort. I’d refused to speak, not wanting to be a hypocrite. As sisters, we’d never been close. No point in pretending now.
Soon my father returned to his seat, and Etina resumed her duties. Movement around me brought me back to the present as the small gathering began to rise. The service was over and the coffin would be transferred to a special cart, whose dark gleaming wheels were almost as tall as I was. The cart would draw the coffin and the mourners along the edge of the town and deep into the mountains.
All walkers have a special place to bury their dead. Living in the world of humans the only safety we had against prying eyes is the ownership of private land. As such every Walker town would have a special burial ground. Whether they be within mountains or beneath the ground they were all lead lined to hide the contents and the entrances were all so well hidden you’d only know of its existence if you’d been shown it. And as a rule no human was ever shown the entrance to our Mausoleums.
And now, for the first time, I wondered how that rule applied to Mom.
When the gathering moved to the roadside, only immediate family, elders and the priestess completed the procession. The cart rolled back and forth on spindly wheels, then began to move, drawn by my father and brother. I followed, giving Logan and my friends a weak wave.
“We’ll wait for you at the house,” Lily whispered as my heels scraped the hard packed soil of the path.
The procession moved slowly- far too slowly for my liking. To be honest I just wanted it over and done with so I could get back to my normal life. Grams moved silently beside me sending waves of Jasmine in my direction. When she glanced at me, she threw me a soft smile, her blue eyes darker than the clear azure sky above us. But behind that comforting smile I could see a hint of resignation with a touch of determination added in for good measure. I sighed and trudges alone. If Grams could see it through, then I bloody well could too.
We walked together, following the rugged road deep into the forest of birch and ash whose branches rose high above us, but blessed us with ragged patches of golden light every few meters. I had to admit, no matter how much I wasn’t enjoying the walk, the trail through the forest was utterly beautiful. The very nature of it made my panther purr inside me. I pushed her back down and walked on until eventually we moved off the dirt track and into a clearing that seemed to appear out of the forest like magic. We’d reached the base of the mountain at last. My feet thanked them. Someone please remind me why in Ailuros’ name did I think heels were a good idea?
Someone up ahead would have pressed his hand against the plate hidden behind a fall of creeping ivy, because suddenly stone ground and scraped, and a large rock shifted aside to reveal the entrance to the burial cave. The threshold was wide enough to accommodate the wheeled carriage, allowing it to pass through comfortably. We followed it inside, and still none spoke. The last of the group stepped farther into the cool interior and the door grunted and groaned shut.
For the briefest moment we were plunged into a solid darkness so thick it felt like I was breathing shadows into my lungs. Seconds later, lights began to pop and flicker. Small electric lanterns, strung high up on the stone walls, lit the whole entrance cave up in its stark light.
The Tukats burial grounds was made up of a warren of caves leading off a long central corridor, and organized according to age of family. Each individual room backed onto solid stone, allowing the family to dig deeper into the mountain to expand their space should they expand their families. Many of the older family’s had caves within caves allocated to them. It all tended to get a little complicated so I’d only ever concentrated on the Odel tomb. The carriage wheels turned as it traveled to the furthest end of the passage, the thin wheels rolling along the stone floor. As the solemn procession moved into the shadowed depths, I followed, my heart thudding against my ribs.
Ours was the very last of the caves, as befitting of the oldest family in Tukats. The men prepared to remove the coffin from the carriage and the priestess fussed around them, wanting to ensure they didn’t damage the fragile carvings. She needn’t have bothered. The men, two others including my father and brother, were accustomed enough to funeral preparations as to take the required care with the coffin. Etina was just a fusser.
They slid the coffin off the wooden base of the carriage, then lifted it by the carved metal handles. The pallbearers hefted their burden through the entrance to the Odel burial chamber, finding the empty spot beside my uncle Niko’s coffin. Despite the deeds of his troubled lifetime they had accorded him the position in death that had always been allocated to him. He lay beside his father, my grandfather, late husband to Grams who stood silently beside me. Everyone within the community had access to the burial caves, many coming and going as they pleased, but I knew Grams hardly ever visited. I’d never understood her reluctance until now.
The walls exuded a deep cold that did nothing to counter the icy fingers of grief. Although I was not mired deeply within the grip of mourning for Greer I could understand the need to have someone make you feel better. And this cold, underground mausoleum certainly did nothing to help a me feel better. If anything it made me feel a little too closer to death than I old have liked. I moved toward Grams, happy to feel the warmth of her arm as she drew me closer.
In that moment I missed Mom so badly that I felt the stab of longing deep in my gut. It hurt and hot tears filmed my eyes. I blinked them away and just in time as Iain and my father joined Grams and me. The rest of the townspeople who’d accompanied us to the burial grounds moved to position themselves behind us. Etina walked silently to the head of the coffin, a censer swinging from her hand, her skirts rustling. Ribbons of white smoke streaming from the gleaming brass container, curling and spiraling upward until they dissipated above our heads.
The scent of incense softened the icy air, and I felt the tight fist in my gut release its hold on me.
Etina spoke about the eternal quality of the soul and how the ones we lose are never truly gone. I almost believed her.
I recalled the way Greer had retreated into the light, how it had felt so right, as if she was returning home, Or was it perhaps the expression on my sister’s face. One I’d never seen before.
Disclaimer: Please remember this excerpt is unedited 🙂
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