“I will not find the answer sitting here staring at the fire!” That was when Kalona spotted the rock. It was a flat, heart-shaped sandstone. With two hands he hefted it, deciding it would do. With a hasty incantation, Kalona summoned Spirit, mixed it with magick and creation, and funneled it into the lifeless stone.
The rock had broken open, spewing sand and forming grotesque lumps of coagulating energy. Kalona had hurled it away from him in disgust. “Why is it some things can be filled with spirit and life, and others cannot? Humans were once just earth and water. Look at them now!” he’d shouted to the sky.
Some of the grasses surrounding his campsite rustled. Kalona clenched his jaw in irritation. It was probably that damned Shaman again. The human seemed to have devoted the winter years of his life to spying on Kalona.
Three ravens croaked reprovingly at him. Kalona rubbed his aching forehead.
“More in a long list of excellent reasons why I need to complete this test and depart this realm permanently,” Kalona grumbled. He had decided days ago that, once he joined Nyx in the Otherworld, he would be able to provide amusements enough for the Goddess there, ensuring that she would want to spend less and less time here.
As if to lend support to Kalona’s plan, the Shaman chose that moment to begin another of his repetitive, unending chants. Kalona sighed and glanced in the direction he’d thrown the misshapen rock. Unsurprisingly, the grasses there were waving, and smudge smoke drifted up, gray against the starry night sky.
“He found the rock.” Kalona shook his head. “I should have buried it. Now he’ll chant all night, and I will find no peace here.”
Kalona spread his wings and prepared to take to the sky. He’d return to Nyx’s falls. Perhaps she’d grace him with her presence at dawn, and he could find solace in her arms.
But the immortal hesitated. His instincts told him the answer to the puzzle of the Spirit test was here. This was the prairie Nyx liked so much, peopled by her favorite breed of humans. Surely there was something here that could inspire him to create that which would please Nyx far beyond any colorful show Erebus could concoct.
Kalona began to walk in the opposite direction from where the Shaman’s voice lifted and fell in annoying regularity. The night was clear, the moon almost full. Even without his preternatural sight, Kalona would have had no problem finding his way. His father’s light shined silver, turning the prairie into a sea of grass. As he walked, Kalona unfurled his wings and lifted his face upward, basking in the soothing light. It calmed him and focused him, so that before long Kalona’s frustration had almost completely subsided, replaced by renewed confidence and sense of purpose.
“I will complete this final task and then take my place at her side for eternity. This separation is but a small drop in the sea of time awaiting us,” he said.
The grasses a short way behind and to his right rustled. Sighing, Kalona stopped, turned, and strode purposefully back. “Shaman, this must end. Leave me in peace!” And, conjuring his spear from the magick that drifted in the night sky, Kalona rammed the flat end of it into the ground, creating a clap of thunder.
Not Shaman! L’ota! cried the little Fey as she scurried back from his spear.
“L’ota, do you bring word from Nyx? Does my Goddess summon me?”
Not from Nyx. I watch.
Kalona stifled another sigh. Would nothing go right this night? “Little skeeaed, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. There is nothing here to watch except my frustration. Return to the Otherworld. You will fare much better there.”
I watch. I help winged one.
“Help me? You mean with the last test?” He chuckled. “Little one, what could you possibly know about Spirit and creation magick?”
The creature’s body became more fluid, and her whispery voice took on a cunning lilt. L’ota know many, many things. L’ota see many, many things.
“No doubt you do, being so close to Nyx,” he said, humoring the creature. “Tell me, L’ota, what should I create for the Goddess?”
Goddess likes jewels—headdress, necklace of crystal, ropes of shells and stones.
Kalona’s eyes widened in surprise. “If I could string a necklace made of living jewels for her, I believe Nyx would be well pleased.” He bent and patted the creature. “Thank you, L’ota.”
The skeeaed’s skin rippled and turned a bright, flushing scarlet. L’ota know many, many things, the creature whispered, sounding self-satisfied.
“You do, indeed. Perhaps you can also tell me where I could find some jewels,” Kalona said.
“Of course not,” he said, looking up to the sky as if to find patience there.
Not tell. Show.
With that, the skeeaed skittered away, motioning with one long arm for Kalona to follow her. What do I have to lose? With a shrug of his shoulders, the immortal hurried after the Fey.
L’ota wound her way through the prairie in a serpentine pattern that very quickly convinced Kalona she had no idea where she was leading him.
“L’ota, where exactly are these jewels?”
“And where is the cave?”
Follow bull tracks. Find cave.
Kalona had seen the mighty beasts that the Prairie People called bison. They roamed the land in enormous herds. Sometimes there were so many of them they covered the grassland from horizon to horizon. He’d seen a few solitary old bulls, though he had never observed any of the bison, be it bull, cow, or calf, going into a cave.
“L’ota, you are mistaken. Bison do not live in caves.”
She paused in her serpentine hunt, looking up at him with a strange light in her almond-shaped eyes. Not bison. Bull.
“You are making no sense. I think it is past time that I—”
Tracks of bull! the Fey interrupted him, pointing at the ground where, as she had said, cloven hooves had torn huge indentations into the earth. Kalona was studying the tracks and thinking they had to belong to a beast far larger than any he had seen thus far when L’ota’s triumphant shouts of Cave! Cave! had him following her again.
The Fey had stopped before the mouth of what appeared to be a rocky split in the earth. It wasn’t far from another line of cross-timbers, and it was small enough that it could easily have been overlooked. As Kalona studied it and the enormous tracks that led to it and then disappeared, he realized that it was entirely too small for the bull who made the tracks to have entered.
“L’ota, where did the bull go? He is far too big to fit within the entrance there.”
Bull there. The Fey gestured stubbornly to the cave. I see him. I talk to him.
Kalona decided the little creature’s mind was completely muddled. Perhaps she didn’t have the intelligence to truly understand what she was saying. Not that Kalona cared. He only cared that she had the intelligence to lead him to jewels.
“The bull is unimportant. What is important is that there are precious stones within that cave—stones Nyx will find pleasing,” he said.
Bull important. White like frost. He not call me servant.
Kalona ran his hand through his hair. Did Nyx know L’ota was mad? If not, how was he to tell her without giving away the fact that he’d used her help to complete the last of the tests?
Above the cave a raven came to ground, croaking at the Fey. The little creature shot it angry looks and seemed ready to bolt.
“Yes, the bull is important,” Kalona said, hoping to placate her. “But the jewels are important, too. Are they within?”
Yesssss! L’ota hissed the word.
Deciding that he probably should find a way to tell Nyx that her servant was delusional—after he completed the test and joined her in the Otherworld—Kalona dismissed the Fey with a quick smile, saying, “Thank you, little one. The rest of the task I must complete on my own.” He had begun to move to the entrance to the cave when the Shaman, as if materializing from the night, appeared before him, holding a turtle rattle in one hand and an eagle-feather-decorated smudge stick in the other.
“Halt, Kalona of the Silver Wings! Do not enter the cave of Darkness. Evil will steal your spirit, and you will wander the earth empty and hopeless, having lost what you value most.”
L’ota raised up from the grass that had been concealing her, elongating her body and surprising Kalona by baring sharp, white teeth at the Shaman. You not a god! You not command him!
The Shaman whirled to face the Fey, shaking his rattle at her. “Leave this place, demon, friend of an enemy of the People. You do not belong here.” He shifted the rattle to the hand that held the smoking stick, reached into a leather pouch that was tied to a shell belt around his waist, and from it flung a handful of blue dust at the skeeaed.
L’ota shrieked and clawed at her face, tearing her flesh. The flesh that she tore writhed, as if it had life of its own. It changed, turning black and serpentine, until finally her entire body exploded, raining the ground with tendrils that continued to slither and writhe and tear at themselves until the Shaman threw another handful of blue dust at the seething nest. There was a terrible shriek that pierced the air, and the tendrils dissolved in a stinking cloud of black smoke.
“You should not traffic with demons, Winged One,” the Shaman told him.
Kalona waved a hand in front of his face, trying to dissipate the fetid smoke. “L’ota was one of the Goddess’s Fey. What did you do to her, old man?”
“I revealed her true nature, the one she has been hiding with whispers and cunning. She is demon, seduced by Darkness.”
“Shaman, none of this makes any sense to me. Have you nothing better to do than to shadow me and to cause Fey to explode?”
“I caused only the truth to be revealed. And I shadow you because you are the Kalona of the Silver Wings. You have great medicine.”
“Yes, I do. And that is why neither talking with a mad Fey, nor going into that cave will cause me harm. No one can steal my spirit.”
“Winged One, I have seen you in power dreams given to me by the Great Mother.”
“The Great Mother isn’t fond of me,” Kalona said.
“The Great Mother’s wisdom is beyond petty likes and dislikes,” retorted the Shaman.
“We may have to agree to disagree about that.”
“Kalona of the Silver Wings! You must hear me. In my dreams you are changed. You are filled with anger and despair. You know only violence and hatred. You have lost your way.”
“I know my way. It lies there.” He pointed at the cave. “And then there.” He gestured up, in the direction L’ota had disappeared.
The Shaman’s lined face looked sad. His voice lost its strength, and Kalona realized that the man must be very old indeed. “If Darkness follows you from that pit, I am bound by my power dreams and the oath I have sworn to my people to sacrifice to stop it.”
“Nothing is following me except you, a mad Fey, and some misguided black birds. Go home, Shaman. Take your woman to your bed. She will help clear your dreams.”
The old man began to shuffle his feet in a rhythm that had become familiar to Kalona. “Choose wisely, Winged One. The destiny of many changes with your fate.” Chanting in time with his dance, the Shaman finally moved off into the prairie.
Kalona shook his head and waved away more smoke, sending it wafting toward where the birds perched above the cave, making them croak at him in irritation. “At least we are in agreement about this noxious smudging,” he muttered at the birds. “The Shaman is a pest.” Silently he thought about recent events. How was he going to explain what had happened to L’ota to Nyx? And how would he not get blamed for it?
“Why do I feel Erebus doesn’t have these kinds of problems?” Ducking his head, Kalona entered the cave.
The inside of the cave opened so that Kalona could stand easily. There was no light within, and though the immortal could see through darkness, the pit made him shiver. He paused, studying the high, rocky sides, looking for evidence of crystals. Seeing none, Kalona turned his attention to the depths of the cave.
Something glittered just beyond the reach of his vision.
Though he did not like the feeling of confinement the cave gave him, Kalona moved forward. “Just get the Shaman-be-damned jewels and get out.” His voice echoed eerily around him, giving him pause.
Into that pause words coursed powerfully through his mind.
Welcome, Kalona, son of the moon, warrior and lover of Nyx. I wondered how long it would take you to come to me.
“Who is there?” Kalona called, reaching up to conjure his spear.
But Kalona’s hand remained empty. His spear did not appear.
A rumble of mocking laughter battered through his mind. You will find there is no magick of the Divine here. Here there is a different kind of power.
“What are you?” Kalona asked, bracing himself for an attack.
I have been called by many names, and will be called countless more throughout eternity. I am feeling magnanimous today, Kalona. Call me whatever you will. From the depths of the cave, an enormous bull emerged. Its head was so huge that its horns grazed the far-off ceiling, causing a rain of stalactites. The creature’s breath was putrid; its coat was the color of a corpse.
Kalona gagged and backed away from it. “Are you the evil of which the Shaman spoke?”
Yes and no. The Shaman’s viewpoint is so limiting.
“I will leave you now, but I warn you, if you follow me I will battle you,” Kalona said.
Oh, I do hope you and I will battle often, but not today, Kalona. Today I offer you two gifts and ask only one thing in return.
“I want nothing from you.”
You do not want your final test to be victorious? You do not want to spend eternity as Nyx’s valued warrior, her true and only love?