Sema cover art by Joseph Carrabis
felt the pulse before I saw her. The next thing I knew, she was obvious in the crowded concert hall, walking up to me, the same wide mouthed, full lipped smile she had when I'd roll out of bed and she knew she only had to throw off the covers to get me back beside her. There was some guy walking with her who didn't mean much.
"Jeremiah!" she called.
What's going on now? I wondered. She's using my true name.
Cathy glanced at me immediately. "Who's she that she knows your real name?"
Sema's use of my true name, Jeremiah, put me on guard. Most people know me as "Jim." Most people know Sema as "Sandy."
"Sema," I whispered. Cathy nodded. I could feel her trying to remember when I'd said the name before.
"Jeremiah," Sema said, closer now, her hand on my arm. She leaned forward and gave me a friendly kiss on the cheek. That was for the world to see. I felt her body rush forward and try to get into mine. But I am the Shield, and there was no entry. Still, she pushed her body over my shield, hoping the feel of her thighs and breasts would weaken me, perhaps force me to rut. Among our kind, those who are younger, it is common. Around us, people saw two friends greeting.
"Sandy." I gave her a hug. "I'd like to introduce my wife, Cathy."
Cathy smiled and extended her hand. Sema extended hers and I felt her scan Cathy quickly, neatly, sharing Cathy's memories of standing by a mirror, naked. Not bad
, Sema pathed. Buxom and full hipped. She's got strong thighs.
She rides horses.
She does if she married you.
I don't know if I blushed, but I extended my hand to Sema's date. "Hi. I'm Jim Risman. You're?"
She has an hourglass figure, Jeremiah.
I know. She's also intelligent.
Sema smiled at that.
"Tony Newfields. Nice to meet you." Sema's date shook my hand. He had a good grip, but I knew he wasn't for Sema. He would never understand. Sema knew this, as well, I'm sure, but I could feel Tony's needs within him. That explained Sema’s spending time with him. The four of us chatted for a few minutes as Sema and I conversed on our own.
Is she a good wife for you?
Yes, I couldn't have found better.
She seems happy. Does she know? Does she understand?
She doesn't know everything, but she knows enough not to be frightened by me. She asks me where I go at night, sometimes. She knows when I leave and keeps my body covered until I return. Does she understand? I don't think any of them do. They can guess, but they can't know unless they can
Sema nodded at something Cathy said. She nodded at me, too.
Have you seen any of the others since the last Calling?
, she replied. I felt Jedediah and Ezekiel pass over one night, scanning for remnants. I don't know if they found any.
It was my turn to nod, this time at something Tony said. Sema smiled.
I guess we did a good job, then.
Sema nodded, but only for me. I felt a tear inside her, released my Shield and held her close.
You saved my life that time.
, I pathed. I did. It was true.
It was a little over twenty years ago, during the time from January to February when the real cold of winter hits New England. Each night, Cathy and I would walk my dog, Maschaak, a hundred and eighty-three pound Newfoundland. The pup and I love the cold, but Cathy doesn't quite take to it as we do. We'd be almost through walking before she'd start to warm up. She used to be jealous of the dog. Eventually she realized how much he meant to me, although she could never understand what he was for me. All she would ever see was a big, black, drooly dog.
As we walked, she'd ask questions; "What are you listening to?" or "What's out there?" or "Who you talking to tonight?"
"Nothing," I'd say, as I did that night.
In truth, there was a lot of activity up in the ether, the overhead where we communicate. Everyone was jumpy, although none of us knew why. I don't know if I was the first one to figure it out, but I was the first one to path it openly.
The Earth was warming. To your children, a respite from the cold. A welcome thaw and lower heating bills. Not so to ours.
I pushed the message so hard I almost fell down. The dog was with me and I drew from him. Cathy held my arm. Normally a signal wouldn't go out so vibrantly, but I am the Shield. Often I have no choice how these things happen. As soon as I caught my balance I began tracking to find their access points. The dog started growling, sensing my activity, and I welcomed his additional energy.
Jedediah, who is the Lifter of the Northern Clan, was the first to respond. I could feel him coming up as if from heavy slumber. Jeremiah?
Where are they?
Ezekiel joined in then, How can you tell?
The Earth warms
, I pathed.
Ariel, who Sees, answered for me, There are no temperature aberrations elsewhere.
All this occurred while Cathy, Maschaak, and I took a single step. Then there was silence until we finished our walk. Occasionally I would see the dog looking intently or sniffing the wind, and I would listen for anything he might find.
We got back to our house and started taking off our coats. The dog stayed beside me. Normally he either goes over to his bed and lies down or goes to his water bowl for a drink. Cathy told him to go lie down and he just looked at her. She turned to me; the look on her face showed the resignation in her soul. "You're going out tonight, aren't you."
"Do you mind?"
"No," she lied. "You'll be okay?"
"Aren't I always?"
She didn't answer and we headed for bed. The dog, who usually sleeps at the foot of our bed, begged to sleep on top, beside me.
I fell asleep quickly, pushing my body down through the levels of rest until it reached a stasis that would keep it active until I returned.
About sixty miles up I felt Jedediah, Ezekiel, and Ariel waiting. Aaron and Malachi awoke from the south, Rhode Island and the Connecticut shores respectively, and joined us. Aaron Talks to all that is and Malachi Moves through things.
, Aaron pathed, what can you tell us?
There wasn't much. Central New England seems to be the locus of the heat.
And your shielding?
Ariel now. What do your shields tell you?
I've felt a surging along my shoulders and spine
, I mumbled the path.
Ezekiel's healing flooded me, making the words come easier. Too long. A week, perhaps. I didn't want to respond until I was sure.
Ariel, who Sees, stated it non-judgmentally. You have a human wife.
I pulsed. I threw my shield up so fiercely it hazed visibly for a moment. I haven't denied my first love for her. She knows this and accepts it.
Under the cloudless sky, under the light of the stars, my shielding forced them back. Without thinking, Jedediah, who has helped stars pass when their time is near, engulfed me in his strength, fearing I might harm myself as well as them.
Far below us, the moon, a cap of orange on the horizon, framed Ezekiel's thought, Peace, brother. It was a question we had to ask.
Malachi tried to change the subject, Are any of us ready?
Unfortunately, his question threw attention back on me. None of us would be fool enough to force a challenge without a Shield. This was a Venting. They would be legion. There were only six of us.
I've been doing some ranging with the dog. I can be ready in two days.
Jedediah again, Do we have that much time?
We don't have much choice
, pathed Malachi.
I won't be able to find where they come from, but I can lay down a gentle shield and see where it waffles
, I offered. They all thought that was good. In two days then.
Cathy was half sleeping when I came back. The alarm went off after I'd been in bed for thirty minutes. I shut the alarm off and let her get an extra half hour of rest before I said, "Babe, time to get up."
She put her arm around me and buried her head in my chest. "Not yet." Her free hand tugged on my shorts. I told the dog to get off the bed.
Two nights later I had my answers. There was a mild disturbance in the Berlin, NH, area, and a tremor in Marlboro, Mass, pushing the Assabet river from I-495 to Rt 9, forcing the heat track of Rt 85 to take a wide curve around Browns Corner.
Ezekiel, Jedediah, Ariel, Aaron, Malachi!
They each answered. A Calling.
I placed a spoor where we were to meet and when.
Not much later Ezekiel, Jedediah, Ariel, Aaron, Malachi and I stood beside a snow-covered field off Rt 85. The moon was strong and bright in a cloudless sky. There was a ring of pines and birches encircling the field that started about fifty feet to our right, went straight back as far as you could see — which was pretty far, it was near a full moon — and around then back to the road, ending the semi-circle about 350—400 yards down the road from us. The field was huge and hot.
"Well, brothers. Time's a' wasting," I said. I wasn't in a hurry, but I was anxious. I wanted things over, done with. We moved into the field and alarms went off. I threw a shield up in front of us and pathed for them not to walk through. My senses told me something else had entered the field.
I let my brothers share what I was feeling. "Mortal?" Ariel asked.
"Barely," I replied. Whatever I was picking up was human, but not in the sense that yours are human. "Hold on, I'm checking."
I was having trouble because what I was picking up had the shape of yours but the feel of mine. Your shape and my feel doesn't normally throw me. It was the female form — a very female form — that threw me.
Something came towards us from the line of trees. Ezekiel said, "It's a woman."
Ariel asked, "What's she doing here?"
It was indeed a woman. Fair skinned, dark-haired and brown-eyed. Her eyes were wide and almost tear shaped, almost Asian, and her nose was slight, but was shaped either for a southern Italian or for a middle European Jew. Full-lipped and wide-mouthed, and even before she was close enough for me to make out facial features, I could taste her build. This woman is made for the night, I thought.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Who are you?" she demanded in return. Her voice told me she was used to being answered.
I could feel Ezekiel put a calming on her, although I didn't feel she needed one. That was strange and should have warned me. She was overly confident in what most women could consider a potentially dangerous situation. She looked at him as he put her to sleep.
He asked Ariel. "Are you looking?"
"Yes." We waited. Then, "A candle surrounded by gusting winds. Some kind of hybrid? More human than we are? No, she has abilities. She's sensitive," he directed this comment at me, "but no more so than she needs for her own protection."
"Can you tell what her abilities are?" I asked.
"I'm getting there, be patient."
I wondered if that was just something he said, or did he feel what I was feeling--looking at her, watching her lying there on the snow, standing near her, almost over her, drawing her spoor deep into me, I wanted to join her on the ground. I was ashamed at my urge and hoped the others didn't know.
"She's of the earth, some kind of Linker. I'd say her talent has to do with earthquakes."
Jedediah pathed for all of us, Earthquakes? What do you mean 'earthquakes'?
Ariel relaxed his Sight. "That I can't say. All I can tell you is that her talent has to do with earthquakes. Something strongly and intimately tied to the earth, anyway. Also that she has some human in her. Either that or she's something I've never seen before. Almost looks like she's one of us but can remain hidden, but not like Jeremiah can. It's as if hiding, but not shielding, were one of her talents. I'd say she's more like us than not, but she has strong human ties."
"What shall we do with her?" Ariel asked. I had some ideas.
Ezekiel, the oldest and wisest, decided for us. "Tonight's a wash, at least until we know why an unknown near-one entered the field we chose for gathering." He looked at me, then, and said what he had to, "We need to know more about her."
"Shall I wake her before we go?" he asked.
"No, thanks. I'd rather be the only one here when she comes to."
They'd been gone about five minutes. I kept scanning for things either leaving or entering the earth, some kind of activity to alert me to danger, but there wasn't a thing. Suddenly I sensed her gaze upon me.
"No," she said. "I'm half left."
I laughed. "You came over to us and fell. You took a nasty bump on the head, I think."
"Help me up."
As Shield, I am suspicious of many things. Because I am suspicious, I tied myself to the earth before offering my hand. She grabbed it and tugged, trying to make me fall. Instead I picked her up without strain. She focused on where I was standing but kept quiet about it, saying, "You're a strong one, aren't you?"
I smiled again. "Can I offer you a ride home?"
"No, thanks. I don't live far and can walk from here. Where did your friends go?"
"They went home. We didn't expect to find anybody here. You kind of threw us."
"So what were you doing out in a field in the middle of the night?"
"We're astronomers. Amateurs. I saw this field and thought it would be a good spot to bring our telescopes."
She wasn't buying any of this and probed me. I kept a tight, quiet watch and let her mind run its hands over my body, partially because I wanted her to think I was a human male, partially because I enjoyed the feel of this woman's touch. Her mind ran its hands over my thighs and buttocks several times. At first she did this to see if my musculature would allow me to link to the earth as she did, but soon I realized she enjoyed what she felt.
"I have to go," I said. "If you don't need a ride and you'll be okay, I'm going to take off."
"Good night, then," she said, and left.
I was halfway home when Ezekiel called, Jeremiah?
I closed myself and didn't answer.
I heard her calling over the next few nights, feeling her wanting me at the edge of my mind, trying to find me. That would be impossible for her to do, of course, because no matter what happens to me I can't stop being a Shield. But being a Shield didn't stop me from contacting her. I never asked her name, nor could I reveal any knowledge of her. Instead I gave her the idea I'd be at a specific place at a specific time, a public place, a shopping mall close to where she lived. The dog came with me.
She was waiting for me. "I knew I'd find you here," she said. We made small talk.
When I felt it was right, I said, "I have a lot of questions to ask."
"This is as good a place as any," I said.
"Follow me." She grabbed my hand and led me back to the parking lot. "You drove, right?"
"Where's your car?" A couple of minutes later I was following her. The dog was jumpy. So was I. She was leading me towards her apartment. "Have you eaten?" she asked once we arrived.
"No, but I'm not hungry."
"How about him?" she nodded at the dog.
"He's fine. A bowl of water, perhaps."
"Then sit down in the living room and you can ask all the questions you want." She went in the kitchen and I heard the faucet run.
She came back and chose an overstuffed, green chair in a corner of the room. The room was homey, but sparse. The TV had lots of dust on it, but the radio — and I do mean radio, not a stereo or even a boom-box — was neat. There were large, green-leaved, flowering plants everywhere, especially behind and around her chair. A knitting bag lay next to her chair. Lots of needles stuck out of it with lots of balls of yarn strewn around it. She picked up something in the process of being knitted. It was flat as it came out of the bag but assumed a fluid, undulating shape as she placed it on her lap. I thought it was alive, that maybe it was a kitten or something that'd played in the yarns. But it wasn't a kitten, just something she was making. It took four needles of various sizes, and yarns trailed from it to the floor. She picked up several of the balls of yarn and placed them around her on the floor. I noticed that each of the balls — I counted eight different colors and thicknesses - had a thread leading to the thing on her lap.
She sat there, relaxed but waiting, her legs crossed underneath her, her wide, brown eyes always on me, her tongue running her lips as if it were a hot August night and her lips oozed lemonade, her breasts filling her shirt, moving slowly with her breathing, light dancing off the needles, the thing in her lap writhing as her needles passed through it, trapped in her lap by the webbing that surrounded it.
"What do you want to know?"
"Your name would be a good place to start."
"Sandy. Sandy Fuller."
"What name do you call yourself when you don't speak it?"
She looked at me, more intently than before and with fear. I was glad for that. She showed no fear when she met us on the field. Now she did. The needles drew tighter, the knitting writhed less. "What do you mean?"
"When you're with other people, you can look at them and know what they're thinking, right? Maybe not the exact words of their thoughts, but you know what they'll do, how far you can go, when to be afraid, when to stay away from people and not go places, right?"
She didn't move.
"And there's more than just knowing what people will or won't do, isn't there? You can do things that you've had to keep secret, things you couldn't tell anyone." I did some looking myself. Surface looking. Like viewing the surface of a lake. You don't know how deep it is or what's under the surface. You only know there's water there. "Things you've never even told your sister, Trisha. Isn't that right? Things to do with the ground?"
She was definitely frightened at this point. I was glad. This Sandy Fuller was too used to being in control of situations, or at least being able to steer them.
"You're like me, aren't you?" she asked.
My name is Sema.
I didn't respond. As a matter of fact, I talked through her path.
, she pathed a second time. I continued to ignore it. I felt her push herself around me, but kept my shields in a tight ordering, filtering things around me, giving the scent of a common man.
Sema, and you are a fool, and I will no longer be afraid of you.
I brought my shields up, shaping their energies into probing and grasping fingers and hands, crushing the parts of her brain that she used for pathing. I wanted her immobilized, unmaneuverable, motionless and optionless. True, I am the Shield, but much of Shielding is offense.
Sema rocked back into her chair. Her knitting fell as she grasped the sides of her head, the needles dropped, the threads of yarn limp, the thing in her lap part of a sweater once again.
I stood up as she sat there, her mind still recoiling from my thought. She wasn't as strong as I surmised and passed out as my projection reverberated in her mind.
I was sitting on the couch when she awoke, groggy. "I need some water," she said. As she passed in front of me her legs gave out. I caught her before she'd fallen far and pushed some strength into her. She looked at me, then, her eyes clear and the pupils wide, her irises almost not showing, so that her eyes appeared as black and deep as fissures in the earth. She pushed me back onto the couch and straddled me. Her left hand grabbed my hair and pulled my head back so that my neck was exposed. No vampire could have looked more frightening. Nor more seductive. She sank her teeth into my shoulder, deep into the muscle, burying her teeth slowly, gently, until blood erupted from my skin. I didn't make a sound, but the dog, quiet and sullen until now, growled at her. She hissed at him and I laughed.
"He is mated to me in ways you couldn't understand. Your threats mean nothing to him." As if to prove my point, the dog growled and bared his teeth. Good puppy. It's okay. Go lie down.
The dog looked from me to her and back. If a dog could shrug, he did, then went back into the kitchen and slept on the floor.
She rubbed herself against me and I could tell the rut beginning. But there are codes by which we live, ethics which none of us will pass. Originally the codes were to keep your kind safe from us, now they're used in all things, even in communicating among ourselves.
She was kissing me, arousing me, moving things in me that my dear Cathy did not know I had, but I kept my arms at my sides, my hands limp, using all my mind to keep my body unresponsive.
"I want you," she said. I smiled. She pulled back from me then, the enormity of the thought clouding her face. "You don't want me?"
"I will not do what I am not asked to do. I will not go where I am not invited."
She breathed deeply, as if pulling my words into her body and making them hers. Before I knew it, her shirt was off and her hands were behind her back, unfastening her bra. "You're invited, lover." She pulled my face into her breasts, forcing a nipple into my mouth. You are invited.
I've always been gentle with human lovers, but not so with my own. She drew blood from me, and now it was time for return.
I reached for my clothes two hours later, not wanting to see the look of triumph in her eyes. She lay on the floor where I left her, modesty neither a question nor a concern. She wore her bruises, where I'd bitten and scratched, like badges of honor. "You're getting dressed?" she asked. I nodded. She stood on her knees before me and grabbed my buttocks in her hands. "Not yet, lover. Not yet." I had only my shirt on. Nothing else, and it was unbuttoned. She wrapped her mouth around me. I closed my eyes, listened to the dog's breathing in the kitchen, felt the outer cold on my chest and thighs, filled myself with her musk, and guided her head until her tongue made me weep.
Eventually she was satisfied she'd taken everything I could give. I remember thinking then that Ariel voiced truth, this woman was more like us than not.
"What is your talent?" I finally asked, when she sat back from me, her own needs sated.
"I don't know. What do you mean?"
"What can you do that no one you know can?"
"I think I can read minds."
"So can we all. But to each of us is given a uniqueness, a singularity, a gift that is at best mimicked by others. What is yours?" She knew what I meant and tried to hide the information from me. "You will not tell me?" I asked.
"I don't know what it is."
"Your body gives you away, don't you know? Each of our talents belie themselves in our shape. Your thighs and calves are the only thing about you obviously out of proportion to the rest." She opened her mouth to protest but I kept on. "I know, you weightlift and exercise to balance yourself, but it won't help. Your talent is earth-bound. You can either tell me or I'll find out for myself."
She looked at me then, and I could feel her determining strategies, trying to determine from my morphology exactly what my talent might be. I wanted her mind focused on my question, but gave her an answer I felt she needed. "When I spoke my name, it was an unspoken whisper."
She drew back and didn't hesitate her answer, "I can make earthquakes."
"We thought as much. Can you control them? How intense can you make them? Do you have to make earthquakes? Every once in a while, perhaps?"
"I can control them, to a degree, yes. I don't know how strong I can make them. One time, when I was a child, I got angry at someone and destroyed their house."
"Then you are directional?"
"You can control the path the earthquake takes as well as the intensity?"
She nodded. "You wanted to know if I have to make earthquakes. I'm not sure what you mean, but I know I get sick if I don't make them for a while. Sometimes I go down to Connecticut, there's a place where the earth rumbles. They call the rumblings 'Moodus noises'. Sometimes it's the earth. Sometimes it's me."
There was nothing else I needed. "I have to go."
"Will you come back?"
I had no choice. I nodded, but didn't say anything.
Cathy had left for work when I returned.
There was a note, "Call me when you get in. Love you," on the kitchen table. Still slick from Sema, I showered instead of calling. I called later, told her I loved her, hung up and cried, enraged at my choices.
Halfway through the day, Ezekiel called, Well?
She can control and direct earthquakes. She is also quite like us, more so than she is human, I think.
A talent like that could be useful right now.
I noted that he didn't comment on my second statement, but I pathed agreement.
Would she help us?
I'll find out.
We gathered at the field that night. Sema was there. She wasn't used to so many voices inside her head and it fatigued her. Ezekiel was concerned. Are you well, child?
This is new.
I'm a Healer. I can help.
His eyes closed and you could see the confusion leave Sema.
What did you do to her?
Nothing to her. I made the rest of you talk tighter.
That was Ezekiel's "I will not go where I'm not invited." Sema didn't say, "Okay, come into my head and help," so he wouldn't.
, I pathed, can you detect any earth activity?
I'd already explained the situation to her. It also answered a question I'd forgotten to ask; how did she end up in the field where they were moving? My brothers were listening, and it made them feel better, too. So that's why you were here that other night?
She stopped thinking for a moment, as if the question were so foolish that it shouldn't be asked. Yes, of course.
Can you lead us to their Vent?
She started trudging through the snow. Jedediah pathed me, She can't even lift herself?
Malachi cut in, She's not completely like us. More like them than us in some ways. What can you expect?
How would she feel about being lifted?
Then to Sema, Sema, can you move objects?
I felt a "no." Can you move yourself, I mean up into the air, kind of like flying?
There was a laugh, then, Give me a break, will you? You going to tell me you guys can do that, too?
My brothers must have thought I'd already started lifting Sema because as soon as her thought finished they floated past her. She looked at them, pathed, Hey, wait,
and noticed their feet weren't on the snow. "Oh shit!" she said.
I don't know if that was a response to seeing my brothers lifting themselves or suddenly feeling herself weightless. I could tell by the way she began spinning that she couldn't bend gravity the way we could, so I gave her enough mass to keep her food down, lifted myself beside her, and went after the others. Is there anything you can't do?
Still have trouble pissing into the wind.
Can you still tell where they're coming from?
She pointed to the far edge of the field, behind a small knoll that hid the beginning of the forest from the road.
Suddenly my senses flared: Link to me!
My brothers threw themselves, their energies, into me, absorbing my gift to strengthen themselves. Forming!
We became a thing of six arms. Sema was next to me, looking at me, and didn't need a separate linking. I hit the ground, taking her with me, and pushed my armor like a sunburst past my brothers.
The field was alive with them. The creatures we had sensed these past few nights. Creatures with the shapes of men, but men enlivened by a wounded god. Small, round, twisted cherub-like things. Large-eyed and fanged, with horns the same color as their bodies, coming out directly over holes that served as ears. Monopods with hooves the reverse of horses', and of many colors. There couldn't have been this many if they had been waiting for us.
The waves of aggression were incredible. I could feel myself being hammered as they sought to enter us.
, Ezekiel pathed. Can you take this?
None of my brothers had ever asked me that question before. The strain must have showed. It is said among our kind that nothing can pass a Shield unless the Shield so wills it, but I came upon my talent early and am still young in its use.
Presently, my youth was leading us to downfall. Superior strength often falls prey to superior experience. My shields have absorbed the power of tidal waves before they could claim a coast, but so many skilled foes I was not used to. Jedediah was powerless to go beyond my shields, and to drop them left us open to the enemy's attack.
Ariel Saw me and cried out, Jeremiah
. My body started phasing between your world and ours as I cannibalized myself to strengthen my shield. I felt Ezekiel's arms lift me and listened to his body dissolving to replace the parts I lost. He wailed as he assumed my pain, pain he could endure because it is the Healer's gift, the near ultimate sacrifice. The agony was for his own, as parts of him died to renew me and were replaced, I feared even faster than his body could stand.
Jedediah thrust his hands into my head, phasing and linking to me. Use me
, he demanded, and I was too weak to resist. His massive form began to collapse as he moved towards all life's destiny. Crying with pain and rage and my own weakness, I channeled the strength of this starquaker through me.
Our minds claimed the thought together. Starquaker
Ariel called. There!
His mind pointed to a planetless star so far away you will not know of it for millennia yet. I opened a pipe where my shield had grown weakest and Jedediah, Aaron, and Malachi rushed out. Aaron told the star of our need and, with its agreement and acceptance, Jedediah clutched and crushed it until friend star raged anew. As the star quaked its last, Malachi raced through its heat gathering the energies of its furnace into himself. A new mystery for your philosophers to ponder. An average, sun-like star, in less than a second collapsing to a hole in the sky, yet no radiation given off.
The evil, the insanity, of the creatures before us was draining me of what little life I had left.
As my body baked itself into a final form one shield was breached. Suddenly Ezekiel was there, his body arcing as the Terrors raced through him, his body replicating with each strike as he used his talents to fortify my wall.
Then our brothers returned with a Sacrifice of Innocence, a power no evil can face. It was this willing sacrifice that saved us, as it always has been and, we fear, always shall be. This is how wars will always be won or lost. Not with tanks and bombs, but with hearts, and minds, and the Sacrifice of Innocence.
I started to fold my shields around our attackers. I gathered them, Jedediah grouped them.
Ariel, can you See a place to put them?
Jedediah asked, tightening his lifted grip until it seemed these small ones would burst like fleas between his unseen fingers.
Sema cut in, Let me.
She lifted her right leg, as if to step over something in the snow. Instead of stepping forward, however, she stamped it down, tucking her arms and bending her knees when her foot hit the snow. She looked like a petulant child stamping her foot, about to pout, defying a parent when it is time for bed, but the quake forced all save Jedediah and I to lift ourselves from the ground.
There was a clean rift in the world, starting at Sema's foot and extending some thirty feet into the woods. At its widest it was ten feet. Jedediah released his grip and the creatures plummeted into it. Sema faced the rent sideways, raised her left foot and pushed it slowly into the snow. The earth sealed and covered itself over as if it had never opened at all.
We fell, exhausted. All save Sema, who watched us and waited, and Malachi, who retained enough starstrength to feed us. My body started re-energizing, reshaping and reforming so that I could again walk among men. Sema watched us, stood over us, and smiled. She probed me then, abruptly and viciously. My secrets would remain hid, as they must, but I was too weak for anything else and let her look.
Eventually, one by one, the rest of us regained our sense of self.
Any more for tonight?
Ezekiel asked. None of us could find anything. One by one, we left.
Cathy wasn't up when I got home, but she woke up as I got into bed. I got beside her, held her close and played spoons. She held my arm in hers and placed my hand on her breast. I lay beside her, and I wished with all my heart that I, and not friend star, had died.
There were fewer of them the next night. So few, in fact, we were suspicious. They do not come and go so easily, especially not when it's our time, the deep winter. It was a time for Aaron, Ariel, and Malachi to use their crafts. These three went high into the air, Aaron asking, Ariel looking, Malachi to go where they told him. Ezekiel, Jedediah, Sema, and I stayed in the field. Ezekiel and Jedediah were describing their talents to her, joking and kidding about things in their past, acknowledging things in hers. Finally she turned to me. "But what is it you do?"
I said nothing.
"Tell her, Jeremiah," said Jedediah. I think Ezekiel realized then that something about Sema unsettled me. It might have been nothing more than her power to seduce me. I wasn't sure.
Don't be ashamed, brother
, pathed Ezekiel. We've each had the blood burn and ache within us. You're fortunate there is someone to satisfy your need.
Sema asked again, "Jeremiah, what is your gift?"
"It is nothing."
"Nothing!" howled Jedediah, his mind echoing the word into the cosmos. I suddenly felt myself lifted in his hands and tossed, a paper doll in a hurricane, high above the clouds. Baby brother, tell the little one your gift!
, started Ezekiel, but too late. Jedediah so loves me, and my shielding makes me invulnerable to his play, so he does not fear to delight in what I can do. Do you not know, Sema? Jeremiah is the greatest of us all!
He tossed me into the Great Winds, the atmospheric Rivers encircling the earth. He is the Watcher, the Guardian, the Keeper, The Watchman in The Tower, He Who Stands and Never Sleeps, Lord of the Swift Warning.
Jedediah's joy was sending me to the edge of the atmosphere as he continued the litany of names both your kind and mine have given Shields throughout time. He is the Singer in the Woods, the One Who Speaks in Silence. He is the Runner, the Hunter, the Shield Against Which Nothing Can Stand!
Jedediah was hurling me like a comet, whipping me around the sun. I enjoyed his delight, but had had enough. When my feet touched the ground, I drove them deep into the earth, drawing strength from the old and deep things there, things your kind have forgotten. Jedediah wasn't prepared for the shift and cantilevered himself, like a toy airplane from a child's elastic, racing through the sky. His laughter surrounded us like warm spring rain.
Sema looked at me. "You need the earth," she said.
Where the earth is, I am.
She smiled then. I should have explored, but Aaron, Ariel, and Malachi came back. Behind them we felt Jedediah creating gravity wells to hasten his return.
Aaron started, I asked the Old Ones what they could tell. There is a place, not far, perhaps a mile or so, along the river. The earth pitches down there, not much but enough. They said the quaking most often comes from there.
Ezekiel, Did you go look?
Ariel, I did, yes. I couldn't find anything there. There was nothing to See except a cave, a natural cave. If they use that as a Vent, it would take Jeremiah to know it.
Malachi cut in, I could go there, if all agree.
They all looked at me, surprised. But all knew not to deny me.
All except Sema. Why not?
Jedediah, who had returned, pathed, Little one, none of us violate baby brother's warning.
She didn't understand, but kept silent as we went our separate ways.
I was back home walking the dog when Ariel's voice, an agony in my head, rocked me, Jeremiah! I can't See Malachi. And he is the least of us.
I called you first. Shall I call the others?
Ezekiel, for sure. Aaron, to Ask the earth and stars where our brother's gone. And Jedediah, to help Lift him if the need arises.
The dog came up beside me. Very well, pup. You can come, too.
Thus my clan gathered again, far up among the stars, and called to our lost brother. There wasn't even an echo of his mind to be found. But this is also where older men can teach the young. Jeremiah
, pathed Ezekiel, you can shift his shield matrix, can't you?
Of course, why didn't I think of that?
Can you do it now?
I gauged my remaining strength. I would need to draw from you
, I explained. Even then it would leave me weak.
The sun was coming soon. We'd have to be about our lives among men. I pathed to Ezekiel, Do you ache for him?
He is alive. There is no sense of passing. There is fear, and pain, but no direction for me.
Tomorrow then, unless you feel him fading sooner. I will alter his shield, then follow your mind to him.
We all thought that was best and parted for the morning.
The night didn't come too quickly. I told Cathy the situation and she knew she might not see me for a day or two. The dog came with me, for which I was glad. I left word for my brothers that I would meet them later, I wanted to explore some things myself.
There was no one and no thing in the field when I got there, so I went to Sema's. She was gone also. Aaron and Ariel said there was a scar in the earth somewhere close by. Malachi had offered to go there. He wouldn't go against my words, but I thought to look anyway.
It was easy to find, close to the highway and rising slightly by the roadside. There was no snow anywhere around it, but scrub brush, a vertical earthen opening, barely wide enough for a man to fit through, deep with blackness and something cloying inside. Directly in front was a hollow in the earth. To either side rills ran at angles, like giant's legs gently covered by earth. Here was their true Vent, totally hidden by not being hidden at all. The earth pulsed, rhythmically, under my feet. The Vent quivered, as if giving birth to something moving deep in the earth.
Nothing. I told the dog to wait up on the hill and went inside.
I'd walked about five feet when I was forced to squeeze through a narrow. Something moved against my leg, ran up the side of my thigh and was gone. I clenched my fists on the other side of the narrow, turned, and put my hands on the walls of the cave. The narrow twitched. I pulled my hands back and lifted them to my face. They held Sema's scent.
Something moved further in the cave and I followed. There was a reek of fear and nausea now. I was about to leave when I felt Malachi's scent in front of me.
Are you here, my brother?
Of course he is.
Sema pathed, behind me. I turned and she was there, smiling. Here is your brother. I've kept him all neatly wrapped for you.
She tapped her foot on the ground and part of the cave wall fell, exposing luminescent ore. Malachi was twenty feet in front of me, trapped in something that could have only been made by a spider, but no spiders could grow so large. I looked closer and he saw me.
Help me, please.
His scent ached out, almost too weak to touch me.
I energized, locking on the webbing that held him. Something moved behind him, revealing itself as it came around to face me. Something heavy, something old. A spider's body, to be sure, but only to the thorax. From the abdomen a human form sprang, as black and bristly haired as any spider's body could be. The arms were shaped like a man's, but ended in a spider's scapula and claws. The head was also shaped like a man's, but had a spider's eight eye array, and the chelicera and fangs of all Arachne's children. I could tell it didn't fear me as much as I feared it.
The dog shaped before me, first a pup, then my dog, then a lion, finally emerging as a manticore, the body of a great lion, the head of a man with a lion's mane, a mouth of razor and needle-like teeth, and a tail ending in a mace of poisonous darts, the shape this angel most often uses to protect me. The old thing backed away from Malachi, going deeper into the cave. My guardian followed.
That leaves you and me, lover.
These things ...
her mind wavered, unfocused. Something small and colored ran around her, laughing, and left. There was a greater coldness now, something untouchable in her. I can open the earth for them, even in this cold. They protect me from others like you.
That was what Ariel saw as "hidden." They had found and seduced her. I was saddened, having come close to that path myself, but pity wasn't something I could presently afford.
I don't know about your friend,
she nodded after the dog, but you I do know.
She raised her foot, preparing to drive it down and rock the earth around me. You must be in touch with the earth to be all that you are,
she smiled as she brought her foot down, and I control the earth.
I lifted myself off the ground, as if surfing on a sea of air. Her quake opened a fissure, but it passed harmlessly beneath.
You did not hear, nor understand.
I pathed, softly, sad for what I would do. I am not where the earth is. Where the earth is, I am.
I do not link to the earth, the earth links to me. It reaches out to me, not I to it.
She was not prepared for the shock I sent through her. It caught her like a lightning bolt, going up through her legs and imploding her mind. She was thrown back through the cave, tumbling and unconscious, finally stopping outside, near-dead in the snow. I faced Malachi. He was weak. I freed him and he fell in my arms.
I pathed, sending some energy into him.
When I left, I felt her moving into the earth. No others among us share my gift, so I thought to explore.
Then, Jedediah, Ezekiel.
I felt Jedediah around me as Malachi was lifted from the cave. Ezekiel's pain passed through me, briefly, as he healed our brother. The dog trotted past me, the old thing's blood dripping and a bone hanging from the puppy's mouth. Good boy, puppy.
He growled in return.
I met them all in the field, Sema in my arms. What shall we do?
Ezekiel, always the wisest, said, Ariel, now that their wrath is broken, can you See more clearly?
he answered. She was bent to them, but only because she knew none like us. Thinking there were no others, she was seduced by those she thought could guide her.
Ezekiel turned to me. How come you didn't kill her back there?
She could be one of us, couldn't she?
Ezekiel nodded, turned to her, and healed what I had done.
And that is how I saved Sema's life. Cathy tapped my shoulder. My eyes cleared and I was back in the concert hall, the lights dimming to let the audience know it was time to return. Sema was looking with me and at me, sharing the memory. Now, Sema?
She kissed me, my mind, then. I let her, and returned it. It wasn't a passionate kiss, just one of memories shared. You were a good lover, Jeremiah. You are a good friend.
As are you.
"Earth to Jim. Hello, Jim?" Cathy said. Everybody laughed.
"He does that, too?" asked Tony. "Sandy always seems to go away for a while. Especially when she's asleep."
Sema blushed and I turned away.
"Nice meeting you," I said.
"Can I ask you a question?" he said. I nodded. "How come you use 'Jeremiah' as a nickname? Nicknames are usually shorter than proper names."
Sema shrugged an apology. Like I said, he'd never understand.