He was keeping his shields tight, not allowing Ninah even a glimpse of his expectations. Very well, she thought; no expectations.
For his part, Severance wondered what she'd make of the place; her reaction would tell him a great deal of where her own talents lay.
There was that strange thing that happened, sometimes, when two people met; you are instantly aware that you and that person will be walking a close path for a while, trusting each other to great depths, and feeling as though you had known that person all your life. Ninah was positive she knew Severance down to his very soul. She knew his fears, his hopes and dreams, she knew his anger and she knew his loving touch. She knew how he tasted. She knew he'd fall on his sword for her.
Sword? Ninah shook her head at the strange mental image of Severance dressed in an old warrior's kilt, bared legs and chest covered with dirt and sweat from battle. What was it with swords, lately? Maybe it was time to consult her cards. Sometimes swords represented something else. Strife? The battle scenes were certainly strife, but fighting wasn't necessarily physical.
They drove through the center of town and turned onto a dirt road that was old and overgrown with weeds. The pleasant farmlands were growing darker and darker, and not so pleasant. Gnarled tree roots strangled new growth, vines smothered the ground. Not even the birds were pecking at the wild berries that grew everywhere.
Severance slowed his speed as the dirt road became rough to drive on. Nature had begun to take over; potholes and roots crisscrossed the road.
"Where are we?" Ninah asked, hanging onto the JC bar for support.
"About a mile behind your store," he told her. Ninah pictured the back of her block and the wide meadow where sometimes deer could be seen. There was a forest line far beyond the open field. The dirt road they had turned onto had wound its way back, creating a side-road parallel to Main Street.
"This is the forest that we can see from the store?" Was the house he spoke of the old one she had seen from the store? She had a feeling it was.
Ninah shivered. "Dark." She knew why the deer seemed to avoid the forest. A forest was expected to smell moist, rich with fertile soil and decomposing leaves. This forest had an underlying smell that reminded her more of rotting, fuzz-covered vegetables, than healthy land.
Severance didn't respond.
A roar came out of nowhere. Ninah looked behind them to see three motorcycles coming up on their tail. The riders were in black leather and black helmets.
"Those are my guys," Severance said, not disturbed by the commotion. The motorcycles weaved around them until they were leading the way.
"Okay… which one is your Shara?" she asked. If it were anyone else, she would never have gotten into the Jeep to go to a strange house where she'd be met by three men she didn't know. Her instincts were calm, though, and she had a sense of trust about Severance.
The backs of the jackets each had a distinctive logo which looked ancient. Celtic and Middle Eastern, she guessed. So Severance and his group were mixed, she surmised. That was certainly different. She wondered how they managed getting a ritual together.
Ninah found the Middle Eastern pantheons to be more to her liking, although she could work with others. At least she didn't have to bargain with the Middle Eastern gods, unlike the European gods who seemed to love a good barter. And if one of the men were on a Middle Eastern path, Severance more than likely knew of Nanna.
"On the left," Sev told her. "With the Assyrian tree of life on his jacket."
Yes, he would know the moon god, if his partner was on that path. The rider on the right had a dragon and the rider in the middle had the glyph of a wheel. She was sure the man in the middle was the same man who had picked up Karrin Cooper at her store.
All the men were shimmering. Why was she seeing the strange auras with these men? She had never seen such a thing before, and had no recollection of reading about the effect in others. Swords were coming up again. Was it a past life? Did she share something in the past with Severance?
They all had a focus in their auras, too; they were all magicians.
There was an underlying danger emanating from one of them but it wasn't directed at her.
"Who belongs to Taranis?" she asked, taking note of the solar wheel on the back of one jacket. Her voice was slightly shrill to her ears. At least the glyphs were distracting her from the terrain.
"That's Terry. The dragon is Irra and he belongs to Ereshkigal." Two from the Middle East, one Celt…. The names were ringing a loud bell in her, and a rush of wind swept through her ears. It was Irra, Ereshkigal's child, who was ringing the warning bell. Still, the warning wasn't directed at her. He would be her judge, however, and the others her jury. Who were they to judge her and why?
"Who is your patron?" she asked, hiding her irritation at the presumption. No expectations, she reminded herself; let the scene play out, see where it goes.
There was an old house up ahead, maybe turn of the century, 1900. It used to be white, and the porch that wrapped around the entire house would have been enjoyable for a child to play on, if not for the black cloud covering the house and property. Grass and weeds were over-grown, windows were broken, and there were rusted hunks of metal, cars, tractors, an old refrigerator, in the fields surrounding the house.
"I belong to Ninurta. My jacket has a thunderbird on it. I have a bike, but I don't ride very often. A doctor with broken hands doesn't go very far." Clash and clang of metal striking metal rang in her ears. Blue sparks…
There was another shift in Ninah's universe and her stomach hit her throat. The shimmering from all four men became overpowering. They were all in her head, fighting, sitting around and talking, including her in their lives. The back of her neck cramped, tightening, making her feel the need to tear her head off to give it some relief.
"Stop," she ordered, her head and stomach swimming. "I need to get out."
Severance immediately stopped, frowning in concern. The motorcycles paused about four yards ahead of them.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
Ninah stepped out of the car and walked off the road. She bent forward, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. There was a loud wind stirring her mind, drowning out all sound from her ears.
"What's wrong?" one of the men asked, pulling off black, leather gloves. His dark brown hair was cut short, almost a military cut, and his glittering green eyes had curious gold flecks. Another man had dark red hair and it flew around his head as he lifted his helmet off; his blue eyes were almost crystal clear. She knew his face -he was the rider that had picked up Karrin Cooper when her car had broken down outside her store. Was Karrin also pagan? She didn't identify herself as such while at the store. The third man came up, taking his helmet off; his long black hair framed forest green eyes, and black hair circled his mouth and chin in a neatly trimmed cat.
"Not sure," Severance said. He put a hand on Ninah's back. "Ninah, what is it? Car-sick? It's alright, it was a rough ride."
She shook her head and pushed his hand away, humiliated that the men were seeing her like that. At least none of them were snickering at her. She hated being sick, and here she was, in front of these strange men, being weak over a rough car ride.
"She had a vision, dadu," one of the men said. "It hovers still."
"Can you see it?" Sev asked the man. It was the man with the forest green eyes and the Assyrian Tree on his jacket. Severance's partner. He stared at Ninah for a moment.
"You know the vision," the man said. "We all know it."
"Ah." Severance squatted in front of Ninah so he could see her pale face, looking a little green around the gills. Yes, they had all had the odd dreams of fighting with swords that glowed. He'd blame it on too much of Shara's science fiction, but even Wolf told them of the predictions from his reindeer bones.
"Ninah, link to the earth," he told her. "Grab the connecting threads, and center." Those strange visions of battle and kilts had been bothering all of them for a few years. They were all too busy for SCA tourneys, so why would they be in kilts and battling with swords?
"I know!" she snapped, shaking him off again. "It…. So dark here….." The darkness was suffocating her, tightening in her chest and at the base of her skull.
"Then shed some light on it," the first man told her, the one with the glittering green eyes. He watched her closely as he held out his hand, palm up, and made a tossing motion. Ninah felt a shiver of fear of the man, and yet knew, in that place deep inside, he wouldn't harm her. Severance wasn't exaggerating - the guys were all Talented. Four? In one small town??
Ninah caught the astral ball of light he threw and let it drop at her feet. The energy ball grew outward and over until it encompassed their small group within the ball of light. The sense of sea-sickness left her and she stood straighter as her stomach settled and her brain stopped spinning. The shimmering around all the men began to subside.
"I'm alright," she said. He hadn't even thought about it; like Severance, he had gathered the energy as quickly as turning on a faucet and filling a glass with water.
All the magicians she had encountered before had made a big to-do about gathering energy and directing it toward a purpose. She had never understood why they didn't just reach out and pluck it from the ether like she did. They usually sneered at her, calling her a child and that she wasn't doing it correctly. As long as it worked, who cared how it was done? She left those magicians with their ritual dramas.
The pressure within was receding. Beneath her feet, a glowing line of white was drawn leading into the forest instead of the house.
"That's interesting," Terry said. All the men were looking at the line in the earth. They all could see it without going into some long, drawn out trance. Ninah had never met others who could do what these men did as easy as breathing. "Why not lead to the house?" They should have thought of dropping an egg onto the ground before.
"That energy line goes to the cause," Severance said, trying to see into the distant woods where the energy line traveled, "and the house is the affect." All this time, and they were assuming that the house was the center of the disturbance.
"Well, Doc, how about we deal with the cause?" Irra suggested. "Then we can work on healing the affect."
Irra walked ahead of them into the forest, following the earth-line. He had taken a knife from his belt and used it to cut away vines and branches that seemed to reach out for them. A couple of times, he uttered a harsh word in a language Ninah hadn't heard before; it had a slight Slavic feel to it. Whatever it was, the power emanating from it forced a whine of fear from a nearby animal that ran away with the shaking of the brush.
Berry vines were prevalent as were small streams of water; no one dared partake, though, not until whatever that line led to was dealt with. If the berries and water were good, the animals would have been making use of them. A few small skeletons stuck out of the ground, testifying to the poison. Did someone poison the land out here?
"This way," Irra said, seeing Ninah head off on another path.
"This way," she corrected, pointing at the line in the ground.
The group stopped and looked. The line had split into a forked trail. Whatever was in the ground was trying to trick them.
Severance held a hand over the fork. "Reveal," he ordered it. A sweat broke out on his brow as his hand wavered over the spot. A blast of energy from his hand into the ground ricocheted back. Anyone without the talent to sense magic wouldn't have sensed the ricochet; all they would see was a man standing with his hands open over the ground and think him nothing much more than strange.
He swore under his breath as he shook his hand, and then put his left hand on top of his right hand, his legs spread to balance his body.
"Reveal!" he called out again. The white-hot blast of energy left his hands and burrowed into the ground. A snarl reached their ears and one of the lines disappeared. Severance took a breath and shook off the residual energy.
The line Ninah had started to follow remained. Irra once more took the lead and chopped a tangle of vines out of the way. From the way the men followed, she got the idea that it was normal for Irra to be the first into the fray. Was that how he got that nasty cut over his eye? Both he and Terry had a military feel about them, although, looking at their hair, she doubted either one were on active duty.
Irra halted abruptly and held up a closed fist. Ninah had seen enough television to know what that meant. They all stopped exactly where they were. He motioned for Terry to circle right, and Shara to circle left. Another motion kept Severance on their path while Irra made a noiseless entry into the brush.
"Stay with me," Severance whispered to her. They continued walking carefully on the path.
Another couple hundred yards ahead and they came to a slight depression in the ground. Severance squatted and put his hand on the rim of the sloping ground. He motioned for Ninah to get down next to him and put her hand next to his.
"Feel the earth," he whispered. "Feel the gravity, feel the earth breathing. What do you see?"
Although a little annoyed at him for the presumption which she knew she'd have to correct, Ninah sank awareness into the ground. She was a shaman; she knew how to work with the earth. The heaviness of gravity was always the first thing anyone felt. She found it hard to breathe, which wasn't normal during her previous groundings. Ninah reached out with her awareness, reaching into a dark, mucky void, and found that it was the surrounding earth itself which was having a breathing problem.
Breathe, she told herself, as she swam deeper and deeper into the darkness of the earth; it isn't you, so don't let it overcome you.
Breathe, she told herself, as she swam deeper and deeper into the darkness of the earth; it isn't you, so don't let it overcome you.
"Illuminate," she said. The picture in front of her eyes changed from blinding darkness to infrared. A pulsing signal came from up ahead, silently warning her to stay away. Ninah stood.
"There," she said, pointing the way. She jogged carefully around the clinging branches and vines.
"Ninah, be careful," Severance warned her from behind. "We don't know if there are hidden…."
Ninah disappeared from his sight with a crash of breaking branches and a yelp of surprise.
An old depression in the ground gave way under a blanket of scrub and forest litter. Ninah crashed through, roots of nearby trees scraping her face and arms, grabbing at her hair as she fell. Her hands were cut trying to find something to grab onto and slow her fall; dirt fell on her, threatening to suffocate her.
Pain and fear gave way to blackness.