Here's chapter 2 of The Spell Reaper. Please read chapter 1 if you haven't yet, or this will make very little sense. Any critiques are welcomed. Thanks!
Neilin lay on his belly, crouching among the thorny bushes. Dark patchwork clouds, like shredded bits of sackcloth, obscured the half-moon. Waving treetops creaked at the urgency of the wind in his face, a wind bearing the stink of cool moisture that preceded a storm.
Rain is good. Prey beds down. Easy to kill.
He slunk on all fours to another clump of shrubs, nose tilted skyward. The alluring perfume thickened in the clearing ahead. Each gust brought another morsel of the tantalizing scent to his twitching muzzle.
Foamy saliva dripped from his fangs at the cloying redolence of death dancing in his nostrils. He crawled to the edge of the clearing, peeking out between the giant stones.
Just a little closer...
He stepped a paw into the clearing. He would chance being seen. Anything to slake the acrid void in his gut. Burrowing inch-long claws into the dirt, he settled his feline body to the ground and waited for a break in the clouds.
Neilin could not see his prey under the veil of darkness that covered all, but he could smell it. Dead blood and burnt wood. He could hear its ragged breathing as it slept in the clearing.
Whatever it is, I can catch it.
Though starvation had blunted his natural agility, he knew he was close enough.
From here, I can catch anything.
He froze, as patient as death, waiting for the moonlight to come again and reveal his victim.
One sprint and it's mine…
* * *
The rumble of distant thunder pulled Neilin from his dream. He lay on the ground by the dead fire, looking up into the glowering night sky. The moon was veiled by patchy clouds. A cold, wet breeze stirred the creaking branches overhead.
Wow, that was the most vivid dream.
His sleeping mind often entertained itself with far-flung oddities and nonsense. That felt almost...
His skin prickled as he finished the thought. Real
“Oh, gods,” he croaked through the clench of terror around his throat. Neilin rummaged through the darkness with his outstretched mind, hunting for thoughts that were not his own. And, he found them. Hunger and desperation crouched at the south edge of the clearing.
The damp wind blew away the moon’s black shroud. In the scant argent light, he saw nothing but shadows, though his mind told him something lurked in their cast. Hot fear boiled up into his throat as he stared into the silver-trimmed darkness at something that surely stared back.
Running was futile. His knife and his bow were hidden under the drape of night. He was helpless. I’m done for.
Death waited for him on four legs. And, death, he could sense, was done waiting.
Leaping to his feet, Neilin screamed towards the south, hurling sticks and rocks and whatever else lay within his flailing grasp. Gods, help me!
Fear cracked his voice as he bellowed at the invisible threat in the shadows, jumping and screaming like a madman
The distant malevolence transformed. Hunger and desperation melted into confusion and fear. Death on four legs fled into the valley.
Neilin’s heart kicked at his ribcage as though begging for freedom.
Thank you thank you thank you…
Parched and panting, he scoured the clearing for other dangers in the night. He sensed nothing.
Another boom announced the imminent storm. Heavy raindrops pelted trees in the distance, extinguishing his hopes of building a fire to stave off other predators. Neilin fumbled in moonlight for the tree and scrambled up the trunk. He reached his hunting perch as the applause of rain on the forest canopy swelled to a roar.
A hot white streak stabbed through the inky sky, followed by a shuddering retort. Embracing the tree trunk like a lost friend, Neilin hoped that the Storm God, having his pick of so many trees, would choose an unoccupied one. He cowered under the thick cover of leaves until dawn eased through the retreating clouds, glowing red on the horizon.
"I’m bloody finished with this," he announced to the trees as he climbed to the ground. He fished his knife out of the wet carpet of dead leaves. "I’ll take my chances with the two-legged predators," he said as he trudged northward through the leaf-strewn scrub. "And, may I never climb another tree as long as I bloody live."
An hour later, his soaking feet touched the packed gravel of the road to Kinea. At the end loomed the massive tan stone walls of the Imperial capitol. I hope Brother Marrick's offer is still good,
he thought, wringing a shred of order from of his chaotic appearance.
He stretched his mind to the guard houses flanking the gate in the impenetrable southern wall of the city. The stoic wooden buildings exuded the abject boredom of their occupants. Predictable. And perfect for me.
Neilin donned his own mask of disinterest as he passed, unmolested, through the gates and into the very heart of the Empire.
* * *
The smoldering summer sunlight weighed on Neilin's shoulders as he scrabbled up a flimsy wooden ladder. Waves of blistering heat wafted up at him from the expanse of timber that was the roof of the Eastern Temple.
I’d be safer climbing a tree,
A weak voice full of gravel floated up to him from the ground. "Be careful, Neilin."
"I will, Brother," he replied to the frail priest below, whose short-cropped hair matched his dingy white robes.
While Neilin was grateful to Brother Marrick for taking him in, he suspected that the chore ahead of him was some form of penance. He lurched up the gentle slope to the peak of the roof, trailing a thick rope behind. Neilin looped it around the key piece in the center of the roof, and then threw the free end to the ground.
"Okay! Start pulling!" he yelled.
The rope groaned in dissent under the weight of an oak beam as Five Ovates in green pulled it up the side of the temple. When the plank reached the top, Neilin hauled it over the lip of the roof and dragged to a gaping hole.
He untied the rope and tossed the end back to the ground for the next burden. Taking a wooden mallet from his waistband, he hammered the board over the fissure using iron nails as long as a finger. One finished,
he thought, Gods know how many to go.
After his encounter in the forest, Neilin had marched through Kinea and straight into the Eastern Temple, prepared to beg. Despite his fear of the contrary, he was welcomed with an embrace and Brother Marrick had offered sanctuary without hesitation. He spent the better part of a week eating and sleeping in recompense of his month of privation. In exchange, Neilin agreed to aid the Druids with their temporal works, such as repairing the recent storm damage to the roof. As he helped lift another piece of a tree into place, he was sure that he would pay for his arrangement.
Much of the Eastern Borough was visible from his vantage. Through the summer haze, he could make out the docks at the far eastern cusp of the city, jutting like wooden tongues into the mouth of the bay. His cheeks pinched into a bittersweet smile at the memories. I wonder when it will be safe to go back.
His smile sagged as he wondered how much of the borough could see him. I ought to be safe from Mum and Dad here,
he thought with a snicker. The nearest holy day is months away and we’re not close to any pubs
The repair had finished in the afternoon and Neilin’s back and arms screamed for relief. He slid down the ladder and lurched into the temple, the darkness within glowing green until his eyes righted themselves.
The temple was a wide rotunda of hefty oak, punctuated with narrow slit-like windows all around. Concentric rings of backless wooden benches made up the seating, in the middle of which sat a symbolic representation of a Druidic stone circle, though smaller and more ornate than the one in the forest. The polished granite obelisks were Neilin’s height, less than half as tall as the one he had called home for a month. On the surface of the stones was a relief of cryptic runes. In the epicenter, a round, flat altar of polished gray stone reflected the streaks of sunlight back to the ceiling.
No blood had ever stained the altar, as the Druids had long since done away with the messy practices of the past. Instead, ritual herbs and foodstuffs were burned over fires fueled with oak and holly branches as offerings. How convenient,
he thought. Brother Marrick had once told him that the smoke purified the spirit, while the ashes, which were then scattered over the temple grounds, sanctified the earth below.
Out of respect for the priest, Neilin followed along during the weekly moots, performing all the motions. By his reckoning, however, the moots drew deluded, but well-meaning people to thank the faceless Gods for everything good and nothing bad. And, while he could not fault the Druids for their sincerity, he thought it was all quite ludicrous.
Still, he was at peace there. At one time, the temple had been his source of comfort. It had also been the very place where Neilin had divined the real nature of his "problem" with voices, half his lifetime ago. A moment in time which changed his life forever.
* * *
Over the weeks preceding Samhain, the annual feast of the dead, Neilin’s voices had grown torturous inside his young mind. His parents had grown exhausted with his fitful behavior and his frequent absences from home.
The arrival of the most Holy day in the Druidic calendar had meant that his parents would deign to bless the temple with their appearance. That their only child had been eager to attend the moot had been enough to illicit their consternation.
However, the Temple had offered little sanctuary from his “demons.” His sole haven had been invaded. Angry voices warred with the plaintive ones for Neilin’s attention and his sanity.
Through the maddening commotion, one of the voices rang like a bell in his head. It had seemed familiar. Recognition had hit him like lightning. The voice was that of his mother.
How can it be?
he had wondered, watching his mother kneel beside him in silent prayer. When a familiar older couple had passed in front of them, the voice in his head had shifted from a prayerful plea to something much less pious.
...nice of you to grace us with your presence...
Neilin had known that such hypocrisy was well within his mother’s aptitude. Neilin smiled despite the solemnity of the moot. What he had thought were demonic voices were impulses of anger coming from his parents, in voiceless hatred of one another.
He had known better than to inform his parents. Such would have earned him a trip to the sanitarium faster than claiming either madness or possession.
For the remainder of the moot, Neilin had entertained himself by swimming through the sea of voices, trying to figure out to whom each belonged. A deluge of potential uses for his newfound talents had flooded his juvenile brain, very few of them of a constructive nature.
* * *
That's what got you in this bloody mess,
he reminded himself as he walked through a small set of doors in the rear of the Temple. He stomped down the dark staircase and into a circular earth-hewn cavern lit by dim lanterns. Numerous narrow tunnels branched out from the central chamber. There sat a long table that cradled a black iron pot and a stack of earthenware dishes.
He walked to the end of a short hallway and plunged his reddened face into the cool water of the cistern before returning to the table. Still dripping, Neilin scooped several ladles-full of brown stew into a cracked bowl and began shoveling it into his mouth with neither manner nor ceremony.
The pottage had long-since congealed, but tasted well-seasoned, thanks to the Druid’s fastidious garden at the rear entrance to the catacombs. Neilin was unsure what meat was in the pot. Nor did he care. It’s not venison, anyway. Thank the gods.
Tearing off a chunk of coarse flatbread with his teeth, he craved a fat pipe-full of the sweet black leaf that he had last smoked when the weather had still been cool. Sadly, his prized pipe had met an early end under the heel of his father’s boot.
"Bastard." he muttered past a mouthful of stew.
Neilin washed back the cold meal with a mug of sharp wine that had also come from the Ovates’ garden bounty. He slouched in his seat, sapped of vigor by the dense meal. Up at dawn to prune the garden. Again. Then, more repairs.
He sighed, resting his forehead on the table. Better than being eaten in my sleep. Right?
He did not relish the thought of cadging handouts from Brother Marrick, knowing first-hand the poverty under which the priests lived. The encroaching holy season threatened to make temple-life hectic. He had to find something else.
After some well-earned lounging, Neilin fought to keep his eyes open during the evening prayer ceremony. He bade the Druids an early goodnight before descending into his cell.
His room was just wide enough that he could touch both sides simultaneously; it held nothing but a shabby cot. According to the Elder Priest, the catacombs had once served as the burial place for generations of his forebears and many of the old graves still remained. Sleeping among the dead was only a little bit disturbing if Neilin let himself think about it.
Though damp and musty, the atmosphere below was delightful compared to the stifling summer night outside. Soon, I'll find something for me,
he thought as he drifted on the sounds of echoing Druid chants into slumber.