Onja discreetly controlled Halor and avoided arousing the suspicion of the other tabre. She kept to her quarters and wore the black sack dress that she disliked. The Nebakarz only glanced at her when they passed in the halls. She always stood aside and lowered her eyes while sensing their smug satisfaction for her punishment.
In the month since claiming Halor, she had secretly studied many of the written works available in the tower. The philosophies and spells of the tabre had been stimulating, but she could tell that the reference collection in Jingten was incomplete. Some texts hinted at greater possibilities or flirted with darker notions, but they never elaborated. Clearly the tabre had not wanted to risk exposing their greatest knowledge to the despised rys.
Even so, this cursory Nebakarz education improved her mental discipline. Her enormous capacity to see so much of the relationship between matter and energy tended to drag her inspirations toward chaos, but basic Nebakarz techniques were helping her gain a better command of her vast vision.
With her confidence rising, Onja reasoned that she would only discover the most profound expressions of her magic through experimentation. Unable to discuss her thoughts with any of the tabre or rys available to her, Onja had been pleased to discover that her crow, Clatta, was a remarkable being with which to converse. His mind was sharp. He understood both kindness and evil and when each was appropriate.
Clatta visited her chamber daily. He was currently strutting along the stone window sill as Onja reclined on her narrow bed. The window was open and a light breeze was scooting a dusting of snow into the room. Clatta’s feathers were fluffed up against the cold, and he would pause in his strutting to preen himself every few steps.
Onja was lost in her examination of how the sunlight reflected off his black feathers with an iridescent sheen. The beauty of it was a magic in itself. His coloring shifted subtly as he moved, and Onja admired how his blackness could yield every color of light.
Clatta hopped to the floor. Onja reached down and he climbed up her arm with his wings open and then alighted onto her bed.
Onja opened her mind to his thoughts. On the mental level, Clatta had picked up on language quite easily although his rough throat was capable of only scratching out a few barely recognizable words, and Onja had asked him to stop trying. Clatta’s thoughts would suffice now that she had tuned her mind to hear them.
“You want to help Dacian,” she heard Clatta think.
Onja sighed. She longed to cleanse Jingten of the hateful tabre and then go all the way to Kwellstan and help Dacian escape, but her next steps could not falter. She plotted against the full might of an ancient and powerful civilization. A child did not replace its parents in a day. The success of her bold assault on Halor encouraged her, but she was still debating how to expand upon this initial victory.
She could not delay action much longer. The other tabre would not remain oblivious to Halor’s altered state forever. Once her aggression was discovered, the other tabre would attack her. Onja expected that she could defend herself against a combined assault of tabre magic users, but she needed to be mindful of how she might kill them. Her hate and contempt for her oppressors certainly justified violence, but she wanted to make sure that the other rys perceived her correctly. She wanted them to see her as the bringer of their justice and not just a rogue. She would have to engineer the circumstances of her takeover of Jingten carefully.
Clatta squawked and then shared his thoughts. “Kill the tabre and I will eat of their flesh and become magic too,” he said.
Onja laughed lightly. “I do not think that will work,” she said.
“What would make me magic, Onja?” Clatta asked, and his seriousness surprised her.
“Is that why you have stayed near me? You think I can give you powers like mine?” she asked.
“Ever since I saw you and realized what you were, I wanted to be like you. I can fly, but you can do everything else,” Clatta said and his envy was easy to feel.
“Flying is a power to be proud of,” Onja said. She could control many things and create and destroy. She even possessed the ability to levitate, but to physically take off across the sky was beyond her, and she suddenly envied Clatta his one power.
“I will give thought on how to make you magic,” Onja decided as possibilities germinated in her mind. Some ambitious experimentation with a willing Clatta might allow her to attain even greater power. Perhaps undertaking something bold would hone her skills before devoting all her energy to freeing Jingten of the tabre.
“Make me magic!” Clatta declared happily.
Onja enjoyed having Clatta as a confidant, but now that he had revealed his secret ambition to her, she had to wonder how trustworthy he really was.
“Clatta, if I can make you magic, you’ll have to swear to serve me and only me always,” she said.
Clatta scrutinized her with his intelligent black eyes. “I will think on it,” he said now that he realized his dream of greatness would require a high price.
For the next two days Onja sequestered herself in her quarters. Clatta’s request stimulated her mind more than she had expected. The crow’s desire was an enormously intriguing problem. Onja even considered returning to the tower library and attempting to research the question, but she did not want to risk arousing suspicion.
Sometimes she paced her small chamber as ideas rushed through her mind like bats pouring from a cave at dusk. Other times she remained still, sitting on her bed and staring at the wall lost in thought.
Clatta would come and go through the window as he pleased. Upon each return, he would ask about her progress. Onja would smile and tell her pet that he must be patient.
After yet another inquiry she stood at the window and watched him fly away. Clatta certainly wants the power, she observed.
Clatta sought out some favored perch in the forest, and his dark flapping form withdrew in the distance. Onja allowed herself to reach a conclusion that she had been avoiding. She simply could not make Clatta magic. She could do many things to his form and even his mind, but rys, or tabre for that matter, did not know what made them so powerful. They were born with gifts, just as a bird was hatched with wings.
Yet this conclusion did not mean that Onja was defeated. Options remained. The results might not be entirely what Clatta envisioned, but Onja knew that she could suit her purposes.
Onja sensed that the weather would turn soon. The docile winds would give way to the blizzard she felt gathering in the north mountains. But right now icicles dripped in the sunshine as the heavenly light of the inferno sun touched the cold snow. She wished she could be outside. Inspiration was filling her mind and she wanted to be free upon the open land and set it loose when the storm struck.
But the tabre knew that she was confined to the tower as Halor’s ward, and her departure would be noticed. She did not want Halor bothered with questions. Onja encouraged Halor to stay in his study, which was not really that unusual for him, but she still knew that her silent coup could be noticed at any time. She needed a way to leave seemingly with Halor’s blessing.
Pondering this problem, Onja decided that her game with Halor was growing wearisome. He needed to serve a new purpose. Quickened by a sudden decision, Onja grabbed her plain brown cloak and swung it around her shoulders. When she left her quarters she could barely conceal the surging confidence inside her. She was envisioning a great spell unlike anything a rys had done before, and the excitement of it was the sweetest pleasure she had known so far in her life. She could not wait for the full experience. She wanted to swagger through the tower like she owned the place because soon she would, but the time for stealth had not expired. With her eyes lowered, she forced her feet to keep the cautious pace of a shy outcast. On her way to the levitation shaft, she passed two tabre acolytes and one priest. They did not speak to her, but Onja felt how their eyes flickered toward her body because they could not resist. They might think her low, but deep down they acknowledged her fine rys body. They’ll soon see more than that, Onja told herself and reveled privately in her careful planning.
She entered Halor’s study without knocking and barred the door behind her. She reinforced the lock with a spell. As her magic reacted with the deep tabre spells that had gone into the construction of the tower, she enjoyed how their foreign power yielded beneath her native touch.
Halor looked up from the wafer he was reading. For a second, he appeared confused by her entry, but then his mind snapped into the place where she had trained it to go.
“What do you need, Onja?” he asked. Halor started to get to his feet, but Onja gestured generously for him to stay in his chair. She sat down on his desk, seductively close.
“Have you heard from Dacian?” she asked.
Genuine sadness seeped across Halor’s expression. He shook his head and reported that Dacian had not contacted him since the Grand Lumin had judged him.
“Now that I think about it, Onja. No one from Kwellstan has contacted me. That is a bit unusual,” Halor said.
“It’s probably for the best,” Onja said and rewarded him with a soothing smile. She was glad that he had not been mentally contacted via a spirit projection from a powerful Nebakarz in Kwellstan. During such a magical communication, a smart tabre might have noticed how she had spun Halor’s mixed emotions into a net of servitude.
“I think you should contact Kwellstan,” Onja suggested.
“You do?” Halor said, surprised.
“Yes, and in person. But first you must leave a note for your colleagues here explaining your departure,” Onja said and moved his writing stylus and a blank stone wafer across his desk and parked the instruments under his nose.
“You want me to travel to Kwellstan in the winter,” Halor said, clearly resisting the notion.
“You’ve been coddled as a priest too long. Cold and snow are nothing for us to fear,” Onja said. “Now start your letter and explain that you urgently had to take me to Kwellstan. I was becoming rebellious and needed firm control, like Dacian. You deemed it necessary to get me away from Jingten immediately before I polluted the peace that you work so hard to maintain.”
Halor was fidgeting with his pinkies by the time she finished explaining what he was to write. Radiating true sympathy, he sought to counsel Onja because it was his natural way of interacting with rys. He said, “Onja, if you are thinking that we can rescue Dacian, I don’t think you understand just how many tabre there are and what they are capable of.”
“Don’t tell me what I understand,” she snapped. Tabre arrogance knew no bounds even when it was trapped in her cage.
Halor persisted but with a weaker tone, “We can’t just dash off to Kwellstan and make the Grand Lumin release him.”
“We will do as I say. Do not concern yourself with the details. Now write,” she commanded. She got off his desk and stood over his shoulder as he dutifully etched into the stone disc why he would be leaving with Onja.
Onja took it from him once he was done and read it over carefully. “Good. Now get your cloak. We shall go quietly,” Onja said.
“Right now?” Halor said, but her sharp look told him to get moving. He marveled at how she could switch from beautiful to terrifying as if the states were actually no different.
Halor left the note on his desk and went to an adjoining room. When he returned with a black cloak, he said, “It would not make sense that I would leave for such a trip and not pack or take an entourage.”
“It does not have to make sense,” Onja said tersely and pulled up her hood.
If Halor was thinking of resisting her, the blue flash of her eyes within the dark cowl made him abandon the possibility. He knew he could not resist her. She had bested him once and he knew she could do it again. It was better to serve in defeat than let her shove his face in the cesspool of his guilt where he could only surrender.
When they left Halor’s study, no one was in the hall. Dinner was being served in the dining hall and the lifeforces of those who occupied the tower were concentrated there. Halor and Onja descended the levitation shaft together.
The circular receiving chamber of the tower was empty. Its cavernous heights reached to the observatory and crystals glowed along the walls in every direction.
Halor cast the spell that opened the main doors. He suspected that Onja was hustling him outside so abruptly because she wanted him as a hostage during her escape. He supposed it was the least he could do for her. The ignominy of being controlled by a rys and then kidnapped would ruin his career, but he did not even mind that outcome. After so many years of responsibility over the accursed rys, he was ready to be free of it. He could even describe his time under Onja’s dominion as a relief. She left him mostly to do what he preferred. To study and reflect in peace without having to think about how to execute the bidding of his Kwellstan Sect masters. His lifelong loyalty to the Nebakarz had become remote under Onja’s influence, and the freedom from it was not unpleasant.
Outside, the rising wind came out of the glacial peaks like a nightmare of meat cleavers. The snow rode the brittle gusts like tiny unstoppable marauders. Onja took Halor’s hand and led him into the stormy darkness along the lake shore.
The raw blast of the elements invigorated Onja and she drew energy from the cutting storm. More would change during this blizzard than just the depth of the snow.
Onja looked back. The window lights of the tower could still be seen. Clatta flew a jagged line in the rough wind and landed on her shoulder. His talons gripped her thick cloak and the crow tucked his head into her hood beneath her chin.
Onja had known that Clatta would not be late to meet his destiny.
“Will you swear to serve me always?” she whispered.
He squawked his agreement.
Onja swerved away from Lake Nin and hiked north into the forest. Among the pines the wind was somewhat lessened, but the treetops groaned in the wind and the branches clattered and creaked, like protesting prisoners rattling their cages.
All through the night they hiked. The valley floor began its inexorably incline into the mighty mountains. The snows deepened and swirled around their bodies, but Onja had her rys senses to guide her so she did not falter from her course. She began to cast a cloaking spell around herself and Halor to block any tabre who might now be scanning the land in search of them.
Concealed by her spell, Onja led Halor toward the rocky heights. Gradually the trees became shorter and bent and the elemental force of the blizzard hit them full in their faces as it charged hungrily down the face of the mountain.
Just as they passed the tree line, Onja found the place that she had located beforehand. A wind-sculpted snow bank concealed a cave. The flash of her magic briefly illuminated her surroundings, and the snowflakes on the wind sparkled like a misty rainbow. A chunk of snow blew outward from the cave and crumbled at her feet. She led Halor through the shattered pieces of hard packed snow into the dark hole in the mountain.
They were protected now from the vindictive wind that howled outside. Already snow was drifting over the entrance in an angry scramble to repair what had been broken. Onja counted on it covering the cave again by morning.
“Halor, make us crystals for light,” Onja commanded.
The tabre coughed. The physical exertion of struggling across the land in the snow storm had battered his body that was not hardened for such activity.
“Why are we here?” he demanded, a little testily.
“To sort out your future,” Onja snapped, and by her tone, Halor knew that he best attend to the task that she had just given him.
It was a trifle for a Nebakarz priest to produce glow crystals. Promptly he produced three crystals and set them along the back of the cave. Minerals sparkled in the stone walls and a slender vein of silver shone from the rock.
Along the back of the cave, Onja saw some crude drawings, probably done with charcoal from a fire long gone cold. She examined them with interest. A male figure with the antlers of a deer or elk danced over a female figure giving birth. A sun radiated from the belly of the infant that was springing forth from the squatting loins of the female.
Onja knew that the images had been made by humans as they attempted to grapple with the forces of creation that besieged their puny minds.
Clatta let go of her shoulder and flapped around the cave before settling down. Onja heard his thoughts. He wanted to know if she would make him magic now.
“Soon, sweet one,” she said, and Halor looked at her suspiciously.
Tired, Halor hunkered against the wall beneath the human drawings of which he took no note. “Onja, do you really think that you can hide in this cave?” he asked.
“Do you really think you can keep me locked up in your tower?” she spat back. She cast a warding spell throughout the cave to block the minds of prying tabre.
Halor folded his arms. He was cold. He disliked being in the open weather. He greatly preferred the cozy and magically sealed tower. Although Onja controlled him, he still persisted in his habitual course of keeping the peace.
“Onja, let me go. I’ll say you escaped,” Halor proposed. “But know that the Kwellstan Nebakarz will hunt you down. I know that you want us gone from Jingten, but how will kidnapping me help you? It will only draw more tabre to Jingten to punish you.”
Onja was standing over him now and looking down on him. “Enough of your useless prattle. It’s time for you to give me your best,” she said.
Clatta crowed excitedly and flew up to her shoulder.
“What do you mean? What can I do?” Halor wondered. “If you want me dead, do it. I won’t fight you. Strike me down. You have just cause.”
Onja bent down and grabbed him by his cloak and pulled him to his feet. With her lips almost touching his, she whispered, “It’s not your death I want. It’s your life.”
Her deft hands untied his cloak and let it fall to the ground. Then she began to undo his robe. Halor trembled. Her eyes had disappeared within blazing blue light as her fierce mind stoked her magic.
She took off his outer clothes and the cold air pressed against his dark skin like the hands of a strangler. Onja bade him to remove the rest of his clothes and his shoes. Despite his fear, Halor complied. Naked before her, he understood true vulnerability. The last of his free will screamed a warning. She had brought him here to commit some awful deed. Her magic was coming from a dark place of disorder and malice. The trumpets of war were sounding from the gates of some netherworld of the damned, and he was caught in its crushing maw.
Halor began to fight. He was a scholar, a teacher, a priest, and an administrator. He was not a warrior, trained in the Bozee or fighting magics, but he had magic and he used it now.
Onja absorbed his attack as if he had only thrown a raindrop at a thunderstorm. Her magic consumed him utterly until she could see the minute workings of every cell of his body, but she went deeper. She seized Halor’s very soul and dragged his essence toward her own. He felt his lifeforce ripped from its foundation and sucked into her voracious will like the scent of a rose traveling into nostrils.
“Give it to me,” she commanded mentally. Halor resisted. She had no right to devour his immortal soul.
She continued, “Give yourself to me and you’ll know no worry or care. You’ll know only freedom even as you accept my commands. Live in peace and give up your soiled existence as my corrupt oppressor.”
Halor never actually consented. Her demand was too dear to him, but she preyed on his weakness. He was guilty of oppressing her and the rys and he felt bad about it. His secret wish to be free of such shameful deeds made him vulnerable and denied him the strength to retain his soul. Halor, in his last moment of awareness as himself, felt his will evaporate into Onja’s will.
Onja reached up to Clatta and seized the bird by his neck. With Halor subdued and crumbled against the stone wall, she absorbed the crow’s lifeforce with her magic as she had done to Halor. Clatta did not resist her. He gave up his soul to his powerful mistress along with his pledge to serve.
“Your mind shall be the one to endure,” Onja promised and thrust Clatta’s beak against Halor’s neck. “Take of his flesh,” she commanded, and the crow pecked greedily into the tabre’s skin and ripped a piece of flesh away. As the crow swallowed the meat, Onja cast her spell.
The blue light of her unleashed powers swirled brightly within the cave. The crystals that Halor had made cracked into fine dust. Onja took the flesh and the souls in her possession and recast them according to her vision.
When it was done, Onja collapsed. She was shaking and she could feel that her body was thinner. With spots dancing across her vision, Onja looked upon the creature that the world had not birthed.
Halor and Clatta had been replaced by another thing. The size of Halor had been maintained and now a splendid pair of giant wings was folded along his back. His feet were transformed to bird feet but his hands remained, except with claws. Clatta’s fine bird head had replaced the tabre head and glorious blue-black feathers covered the creature’s whole body. Its eyes were closed and a sublime unthinking peace clung to its face as if it still slumbered in the egg.
Gray cool light was coming through the snow drifted over the cave. Dawn had come, but the storm still blew and scraped upon the land without any mercy. The scouring snow outside reshaped the drifts and bent the trees and ground away at the very peaks.
Onja felt as heavy as the mountain. She could not lift her head. An inescapable weariness assailed her. She had suspected that this spell in which her thoughts conceived upon the flesh of others would leave her spent. Afflicted by crushing oppressive exhaustion, she had been wise to select this hidden location because she would need time to rest. Her creation apparently required time to sleep as well. Onja was not sure how long that she would need to recuperate but she was content to let the snow build up and bury her.