Neither Rada Ni Drako nor the Azdhagi believe in ghosts. Rada, perhaps, should know better . . .
Ghost Story?: A Cat Among Dragons Short Story
The Lord-Defender’s chamber looked pitch black. After a moment Sergeant Shoi could barely see enough by the light of the stars and the courtyard lamps to determine where the entrance to the noble’s sleeping chamber was. The lithe, slender reptile eased towards the blacker area, unhappy with what was going on and only slightly less unhappy with the prospect of waking his commanding officer. “Lord Defender?” He inquired quietly.
In the silent darkness, the sound of a blade clearing its sheath seemed unnaturally loud. “What?” Fabric rustled and footsteps moved towards the reptile, who retreated slightly. The mammal loomed over the noncom, blade held in a defensive stance, blast pistol also at the ready.
“Forgive me for intruding, Lord Defender, but you must come to the Defender’s worship area at once. Two of the officers have a priest who claims he can bring the Great Shi-dan back and that the Great One is offended by the changes you suggest.”
Lord Ni Drako stalked past the male and stared out the large window, shaking his head. “Let them try. If they succeed, they will have more trouble in their forefeet than the chapel can contain.” He exhaled loudly and rested the tip of the sword blade on the floor. “Thank you for the warning, Sergeant Shoi. You are dismissed.”
<<What’s up?>> A sleepy voice inquired into Rada’s mind. <<War, revolution, or just a really good party?>>
The mammal snorted, then padded back into her quarters. “A religious idiot with delusions of grandeur. Thinks Shi-dan’s mad at me and wants to bring him back from the grave to prove it.” Rada slid the sword into its sheath, put away her hold-out blaster, and started getting dressed.
Zabet, Rada’s business partner, boss and (supposed) concubine rolled onto her belly and yawned, then blinked. The True-dragon watched the mammal fastening her body armor before pulling on a shirt and breeches. <<Um, Azdhagi don’t do that. Come back from the dead at someone’s call, do they?>>
Rada pulled a skirt on over her head and settled it at her waist, then sat on the edge of the sleeping platform and reached for her boots. “Nope, not that I’ve ever read or heard. No necromancy in Azdhag religion, no exorcisms either. They do believe in ghosts, but Shi-dan wouldn’t come back as a ghost.” She tugged the leather up, locked the boots’ straps and then reached under the bolster and pulled out a dagger, which she slid into the pocket in the side of one boot. “Ghosts show up immediately after death, or so I’ve read.”
Zabet yawned again, her whiskers floating and waving gracefully, and blinked sleepy blue eyes. <<So go back to sleep and let the “priest” make a fool of himself,>> she suggested.
“He’s probably got some kind of effects set-up to make it look as if he can summon a spirit, boss. But I’m the only one who knows what Shi-dan really looked like, so I can spot the fake, shoot the priest in the ass for making my chief of staff wake me up at midnight, then go back to sleep.” She put on her weapons belt and selected a sword cane. “That and I need to know who’s backing him.”
<<Well, shoot him twice, once for me. And don’t wake me up when you get back,>> Zabet snorted before composing herself for more beauty sleep. Rada shook her head at the show and limped out of the Lord Defender’s quarters. She cut through the courtyard separating the military wing of the Palace/ Capitol complex from where her quarters were, taking a deep breath of early winter air. It smelled like snow and Rada grinned to herself, ears twitching at the prospect of cold weather.
Lord Ni Drako entered a passcode on a pad beside an old door and let herself into the military wing, just past where the Defenders officers’ wardroom was. She rarely visited the chapel, in part because it was on the next floor up, in with the Palace Guard’s quarters. She limped into a small passage and up the treaded ramp, ducking her head at the top. The low lintel gave a hint as to the age of this part of the stone complex and Rada paused to get her bearings. The chapel lay to her right and seemed dark and deserted. However, beyond it she sensed movement. The Wanderer-hybrid squinted a little, looking and listening carefully. Yes, she could see flickering light coming out from under a door. Target acquired, target in sight, mammal in motion she snorted to herself, easing down the passage towards what should have been a locked storage room.
Rada sniffed the air and frowned. She did not recognize the incense being burned, and after this long even she knew all the various seasonal and occasional blends by heart. It smelled dark, somehow, and left a metallic tang in her throat that she liked not at all. Inside the room the mammal heard an Azdhag chanting in an unfamiliar dialect. The fur on her tail began bristling and her ears went flat against her skull. Whatever was going on, it called up every negative emotion held by whoever was in the storage room and Rada slammed her mental defenses full up. If she could sense Azdhagi emotions from this distance, something very serious was going on. Lord, I don’t know what’s up but I think I need Your help on this one, she half prayed, half reported. She also flipped the safety switch on her blast pistol to “off.” The woman eased silently along the wall until she was beside the metal door and listened. As soon as she heard steps moving away from the entrance, she took a deep breath and shifted her grip on her sword cane.
One, two, THREE, and she slammed the unlocked door open, hard. Someone bellowed as she caught his tail between the heavy door and the stones of the wall. “Just what the fuck is going on here?” She demanded, single eye blazing fury as she took in the gathered reptiles and the makeshift worship space.
“Get the defiler!” a green Azdhag in pink and deep gray robes ordered. Two males in robes with Lord Shu’s House markings on them charged for Rada, who ducked them and slid forward into the room as she drew her blaster. But a soldier struck her from behind, smashing his fisted, gauntleted forefoot onto her skull. The mammal dropped to the floor. The soldier disarmed Rada, then backed up as the priest came over and inspected the unconscious noble. “Secure it,” the smaller reptile ordered and one of the servants pulled the female’s forelegs behind her back and chained them together, then dragged her body off to the side of the room.
As the gathered Azdhagi returned to their places, a newcomer peered around the still-open door and frowned. The Defenders’ priest didn’t try to enter the room but studied it instead. He’d noticed the lack of light from the chapel and that someone had put out the ever-burning lamps of memory and guidance, which was a grave insult to both the Ancestors and to the spirits of the dead Defenders and Palace Guards. As he re-lit them, he noticed the Lord Defender sneaking past the doorway, then followed the mammal. The makeshift worship area and the ritual repelled the chaplain. The incense did not rise as it should have but gathered low like fog and made him feel greasy. The “priest’s” chants twisted the traditional words of rest and praise and invoked things no Azdhagi in their sane mind dared to contemplate.
The Defenders’ priest was not the only one growing concerned. One of the two officers, not the one who had attacked the Lord Defender, shifted in place uneasily, his neck spines starting to rise a little and his tail twitching as if he were bothered by hide-nippers. The other, larger, officer noted his discomposure. “Problem?” he growled quietly.
“No, just, well, what if the Great One doesn’t come? Or if he is not alone? He guards the Gates, and if he is gone, then something might come out and follow him.”
The stranger priest made a gesture of negation, then stalked over to the unconscious mammal and pushed up the fabric covering his foreleg. The reptile’s talon slashed down and cut the Lord Defender’s arm. As soon as blood began dripping from the wound, the priest resumed chanting and caught the crimson flow in a small bowl. When he had enough he returned to the temporary altar that had been prepared, dipped a talon in the liquid and inscribed a large half-circle on the floor. “Nothing from the cold realm can cross this barrier. And if it tries, it will be drawn to the one who so generously gave of himself to make the defense,” and the priest and larger officer smiled. The Defender’s priest and one of Lord Shu’s servants shuddered and the servant made a warding sign with his hindfoot.
Someone moved behind the chaplain and he glanced back to see Lord Heersi, the King-Emperor’s sire’s brother, trailed by one of the Defender N.C.O.s. Both reptiles looked very concerned and Heersi gestured a question. The observer signed for silence and eased forward around the door and into the room, using the shadows as partial cover while the new comers peered inside but did not enter.
The pink and grey robed priest rose onto his hind legs and hissed an incantation and summons. As he did, the smoke from the strange incense grew thicker and seemed to gather itself into a long cylinder. Nine stunned Azdhagi stared as two pair of legs and a tail emerged from the cylinder, followed by a vaguely head-shaped appendage. The smoke grew more solid as the priest hissed more words and the shape enlarged until it loomed almost three meters from “nose” to “tail-tip.” The head grew more distinct and suddenly two yellow, flame-like shapes appeared where an Azdhag’s eyes would be.
“Welcome, O Great One,” the false priest said, carefully backing over the blood circle so as not to smear the darkening red line. Off to the side, Rada winced and stirred a little as the Defenders’ chaplain, who had crept into the room unnoticed, carefully nudged her. She blinked and tried to turn her head so that she could see what was going on. “We apologize for disturbing you, oh Great King-Emperor, but your creature had broken its oath to you and we plead with your greatness for justice,” and the reptile pointed towards Rada with his tail and hindleg.
Oh what a crock of, ow, and Rada winced at the stab of pain from her head and the sting in her arm. That’s not Shi-dan, you hair-covered rejects from the reptile kingdom. She opened her mouth to give the traitors a piece of her mind, then stopped. The Azdhagi saw the mammal’s black ears swivel as if she were listening to something.
The mammal twisted, got her legs beneath her and rose to her feet. The dark, smoky form seemed to turn its attention upon the crippled warrior, the vague slivers of light marking its eyes growing brighter. Ni Drako took a step forward, then another, slowly walking towards the being, her expression changing from furious to one of curiosity. She stopped five paces from the darkness and dropped awkwardly onto one knee, her bound hands affecting her balance. The watching reptiles held their breaths and for a long moment nothing in the chamber moved. Then the “ghost” raised its forefoot, the gaseous material seeming to solidify into the razor-taloned gauntlet of the Imperial Guard. Ni Drako dipped her head in understanding, shifted so that she knelt on both knees, then bent at the waist and leaned forward. The gauntleted forefoot rose over the kneeling mammal, hesitated, and struck as if to behead the Lord Defender. With perfect control the creature instead stopped, its talons resting on the extended bare neck. Then the being lifted the “forefoot” and moved forward, enveloping the motionless mammal in darkness and shadow.
Rada’s foes and their priest watched with growing fear. This was not supposed to happen! Shi-dan should have killed the mammal for breaking her oaths to him, should have appeared in his mortal form. Instead the smoke-creature with glowing, flame-like eyes seemed to reach into itself. The Azdhagi backed away as the form turned and stared around the chamber, its attention stopping on the false priest. Again the forefoot solidified and this time it swung back, then forwards, hurling something at the pink-robed oath-breaker. Then the smoky form vanished, leaving the Lord Defender behind.
The Azdhagi saw the Lord Defender laying on his flank. One foreleg was bent under his head, cushioning it from the cold stone floor. The other rested on his other flank and his hind legs were stretched out full length. No chains bound him any longer and his expression was one of profound peace and contentment.
The same could not be said of the false priest. The chains that had held the Lord Defender now crushed his throat. He tried to claw them away but could not. No one would help him— not with that sign of Shi-dan’s wrath. Nothing mortal could have closed the cuff that held the mammal’s foreleg around the much larger throat of an Azdhag. The false priest’s eyes bulged and his tongue thrust forward as he collapsed and died.
The Defenders’ priest gathered his courage and approached Ni Drako’s body. The mammal’s chest moved, showing that he still lived.
Rada awoke in a dimly lit, unfamiliar room. Instead of her uniform she wore something soft and slippers had replaced the combat boots she’d been wearing. She smelled a hint of incense and flowers and opened her eye slowly. An ornately carved and painted ceiling seemed to float above her and for an instant she wondered if she had finally died. The pain from her leg and wrists suggested otherwise and she closed her eye again, reluctant to return to the world. What had happened? She remembered . . . very little. There was an impression of irritation, as if someone had been disturbed for no reason. She though she recalled a sense of disappointment, not with her but about her, as if someone were unhappy at someone else for her sake. But that made no sense and Rada let the memory fade away as awareness slid into sleep.
“You say that he did not hesitate or show any fear?” the King-Emperor inquired quietly of his uncle.
“None,” the old reptile affirmed. “I would not have believed it, Imperial Majesty, if I had not been there to witness.” The two Azdhagi looked toward the sleeping Lord Defender. He had been brought into the Imperial chambers for examination by the King-Emperor’s own Healer. She pronounced Reh-dakh sound aside from a thin cut across the back of his neck but suggested that he remain under observation until he woke of his own accord. The Defenders’ priest had agreed, pointing out that it was very bad fortune to disturb one who had been god-touched. The King-Emperor worried more about a belated assassination attempt but gestured his agreement.
“Why no fear? From your words, he should have been as terrified as the others, if the stories about his knowing Great Shi-dan are true.”
Lord Heersi considered Lord Ni Drako and his brother’s son in turn, running a talon under his muzzle as he thought about the night’s strange events. “I think the reason is two-fold, Imperial Majesty. First, his religion is very different from ours. Second,” he paused, looking for the best words, “Ni Drako signed a contract with Shi-dan, and it is said that there was Talon Oath between them. It may be that the Lord Defender was so certain that he was fulfilling that contract that he was content to let Shi-dan judge, accepting whatever the Great King decided: release, discipline, or death.”
Ten hours later, Rada sat in the window seat, staring out at the early stars. A few wisps of cloud, precursors of the promised first snow, blew across the silvery stream of the Royal Highway. Soon the stars would vanish, hidden by the lowering overcast, but for now twinkling silver and blue stretched overhead above the Palace. Rada had listened to the others’ tale of the false priest and “Shi-dan” and did not know what to think. She greatly doubted that anyone could force Shi-dan’s spirit to do anything it did not care to any more than they could have coerced the living reptile. Rada played with the tip of her braid, twirling it between her fingers and combing the small tail below the holdfast band. She had no memory of anything after waking up in the summoning chamber, her hands chained behind her back.
Could it have really been Shi-dan’s spirit that everyone else described? Perhaps it had been and he’d returned to punish those who tried to defy the Ancestors. The mammal highly doubted that her god had sent a guardian spirit in ghostly form to protect her, and the most likely and logical explanations all fell apart when she examined the chamber herself after the fact. Rada shrugged: it was another mystery and not one she was going to worry about. If Shi-dan had returned, as he supposedly had in the attack on Burnt Mountain during the Mercenaries’ War, then he had returned. If not, then he had not. The Wanderer said her evening prayers and went to her sleeping chamber, smiling at the whistling snore of her very live business partner.
Seven moons later, Commander Rada Lord Ni Drako wondered yet again why the Imperial reception chambers and the Defenders’ offices were so far apart. Overly optimistic, she’d left her walking cane in her office and the weakness in her leg warned that she’d best not do that again any time soon. Since she’d planed on going into the field to observe amphibious exercises in a few days, Rada kicked herself (mentally) yet again as she navigated the various corridors and courtyards between her and her destination.
The weather, at least, made up for some of her irritation. A sweet-scented little breeze found its way between the wings of the Palace-Capitol complex and tickled the mammal’s nose with scents of warming soil and early blooming plants. The sunlight felt warm, but not overwhelming as it would be come full summer, and for the moment the humidity had declined to “pleasant.” The combination tempted Rada to imagine slipping away from her duties to go strolling in the forest on the north side of the plateau, or meandering through the public gardens. She swished her tail with pleasure at the thought, then brought her wandering mind back where it belonged. At least if she had to work so did her subordinates, the mammal mused, a faintly evil grin flickering in her eye before she schooled her expression back where it should be.
The Lord Defender opted to cut back into the building, slipping along through a very dusty concealed passage inside the wall. Once it had been the main corridor, but had been lost in the centuries of construction until only Rada, her “concubine” Zabet, and a handful of others knew that it existed, part of a network of back passages and tunnels in the Palace. This one extended almost all the way to the Defender’s section of the military wing, but Rada eased out of a panel behind a tapestry, emerging into the open among the disused officers’ quarters between the Imperials’ and Defenders’ spaces. No need to reveal everything, she thought, nor to ambush anyone on a day when she wasn’t wearing body armor.
Armed Azdhagi filled the corridor almost to bursting. She didn’t recognize most of the troopers, and her mental alarms began sounding as she threaded her way between the large reptiles. There wasn’t even enough room for them to salute or bow, and Rada wondered if it would be easier for her to climb on top of them and go from back to back until she reached the door to her office. Probably not.
Sergeant Shoi greeted her with a look of combined agitation and resignation. “Good morning, lord mammal. The personnel department is descended from tree-rats.”
“All of them or just the officer in charge?”
Shoi considered for a moment, sidestepping to get out of the doorway a touch more. “All of them, my lord.” He pointed to the overflowing wardroom with his tail. “Seems no one thought to tell either the Minister of War’s secondary staff or us that they’d moved the transfer dates up by two sixts.”
Rada pointed to the hall with her tail tip. “Thus the military surplus piling up outside our door.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Rada eased past him to her office, relieved to find it empty. “Is there space in the practice area or are you stacking them there until we can get the storage rooms unlocked?”
He blinked as he tried to decide if she was serious. “It’s open, my lord, although that is a distinct possibility. Hmm . . .” Shoi turned to look over his shoulder and she could all but see the gears turning over his head.
Rada just wanted to stretch and run a few simple moves, not engage in full combat practice, so she shed her jacket, picked up a practice blade, and threaded her way between the soldiers cramming the Defenders’ offices. She darted into the practice area and screeched to a halt, eye bulging.
Dear holy Lord God! Her heart seemed to stop as a large Azdhag in the uniform of an Imperial officer turned towards her. Dark green eyes studied her with curiosity from within a head so dark brown that it might have been black. No. It’s not possible! He’s been dead for centuries! It was Shi-dan! Commander Ni Drako almost began dropping to her knee before the rest of her mind registered the Lieutenant’s insignia and spine-tips, marking him as a member of the Imperial Special Forces, and his pale brown tail.
Rada recovered enough to ask, “Are you planning a practice bout, Lieutenant? If not, move clear of the warm-up ring.”
He bowed and moved clear. Rada took his place and began stretching and twisting, working every joint and muscle. She ran through a basic defense pattern and decided to quit before anything new started hurting. All the time she sensed the lieutenant’s eyes on her. Well, she usually had witnesses. After she finished Rada bowed in the direction of the Imperial wing and announced in her parade ground voice, “The practice area is clear.”
Back in her office, she turned around and studied the statue of Shi-dan on the small alter at the back of the cramped space. “One of your grand-get gave me a heart attack,” she told it in Trader under her breath. “Quit scaring me, please, Imperial Majesty.”
As she rotated her seat back to face the door, she could have sworn that the tiny obsidian and gold eye winked. Stop that! She told her imagination. And Shi-dan.
© 2014 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without express permission is prohibited.