NaNoWriMo 2016 Words and Update

I'll preface this with -- I failed, and that's OK. I'm a college student with a day job(ish), a legitimate business owner. I am not made of time or discipline. And considering that revision is one of the hardest tasks for me, personally, maybe NaNoWriMo isn't the best option for me. I'm a perfectionist, or at least--I like to do a first "good" pass on my writing, not have to wade back through and remember: what the hell was I doing here? And that's what NaNoWriMo has felt for me these past two and a half years. A real mess. And my limited college experience has made me realize: I don't do messes. I make them, then I walk away (wait, is this a metaphor for my relationships too?). For the sake of posterity and to prove I did something this November, I'm sharing the words I did manage for NaNoWriMo: a whopping 6,339! However, I also wrote a 1,172 word experimental essay and a 3,170 word immersion essay for my Non Fiction writing class, helped write two obituaries (a friend's brother and another for my grand father), somewhere around 3,000 words for combined Anthropology papers and made an architectural power point presentation. I'm also working on a third video game for a History Teacher over in Georgia (yes, it's a video game to help students review their test questions). It's very time consuming but incredibly rewarding. What does that look like, you  may ask? Well, I'm glad you asked -- because it's a lot of fun and a lot of work.


So I was busy--busy for me--damn it. And while it kills me that I didn't do it, it isn't the end of the world.

So here: the beginning of a story called "All That Plus A Cat" a dive into a tribal world of magic. Highly inspired by my Anthropology class.

And for you visual people--here is a link to the Pinterest board I created for visual aides.

2016-11-24-10-07-40bOn the road to Montana November 24th, 2016

This story is copyrighted by me, since I wrote it, and has not be edited in any ways except briefly for spelling (and again only with spell check software, so there are bound to be some human errors). I did no outlining for this project (and I can tell), but I had some broad-sweeping ideas that I started to touch upon. I did write down a few preliminary ideas here. It is loosely connected to my other world of blood magic. To be fair, and I've already made enough excuses: life is hard at it's best for me, I can't realistically handle "much," and then I had a death in the family and it just broke my last fragment of will to continue. Better luck next time. Also, video games. Final Fantasy XV, I Am Setsuna, Everybody's Gone To The Rapture. We all cope in different ways. I lean on my favorite (gaming) console to console (!) me. English is weird.


I'm listening to "Goldenhand" by Garth Nix at the moment (that counts as reading), and "Welcome to Night Vale" while we make these multiple trips to Montana for said loss-of-life. Once "Goldenhand" is finished, I imagine we'll return to Jennifer Roberson's "Sword Breaker," audio book and continue on with Del and Tiger's story -- since I have the feeling that "Goldenhand" is going to end on a cliffhanger and I'll have to wait 2-3 years for a conclusion... (no spoilers, but if you've read it, let's talk!). The point is: I blame the cat influence on my own cat (who is a tuxedo), and listening to a story that usually involves a magical cat. The rest of the story mostly comes from my research in my Anthropology class--the Nuer, the Hmong and the Ojibwa.

This is the most significant amount of fiction writing I've managed lately. I like some things about it, and dislike others. I'll let it rest for a bit and see if I can return to it and pick up the pieces later.



Lightning flared, illuminating a figure standing in the doorway of the Leopard Chief's hut. Thunder crashed down outside, pulling with it angry sheets of rain that would soon flood the valley. The Spirits of the Sky were angry. The storm was loud and swift, screaming for blood. Something was wrong. The darkened figure wavered, stumbled then collapsed to the ground in a limp pile.

“Hanha!” The Chief yelled, her voice struggling to be heard over the sound of the rain. A young man shuffled sleepily from somewhere deeper inside the hut, wiping tired eyes that widened at the sight of the fallen stranger.

“Help me carry them inside--” The Chief said with a motion towards the doorway. Lightning crashed again, lighting up the figure. Blood spread in a bright pool across the woven grass beneath them, staining pale yellow to deep crimson. The Chief paused and turned to face a carved wooden totem pole that was the spine of her hut. She inclined her head to the wooden figures—carved snakes, coiling around the pole in a dizzying pattern—and whispered a prayer for forgiveness for what she was about to bring beneath her roof.

Hanha suppressed a shiver at the sight of blood, dipped his hands into a bowl of cleansing water and reached down to grab the stranger. The stranger—a man—grunted in pain, his parched lips began to move silently but his eyes remained closed. If he spoke, the rain worked hard to drown out his words. Blood streamed down the stranger's arms. He was covered in lacerations and blood pooled from somewhere near his middle. Blood smeared across the grass-thatched floor as Hanha struggled to pull the man in and out of the rain.

The Chief began to light incense and yellow-tallow candles, placing them in a circle around the totem pole and the two men. She was careful to avoid places where water leaked through the roof, arranging clay and metal candle holders in a precise pattern for healing. Once the last candle was in place—the flickering yellow flames steadied and became a soft emerald green like the skin of a grass snake. Hanha knew to watch for the change that indicated the spirit's presence within the hut. As the Chief's apprentice, Hanha had to pay attention to everything that he could The Chief could not instruct him; that was not her role. Hanha had to learn for himself.

“Will he live?” Hanha asked once the Chief had lifted grass-skirts and stepped inside the circle of candles. Bells and beads chimed as she moved, as silent as the snake that represented her House Spirit. Thunder rumbled in answer, but the Chief did not. A gust of wind burst in to the hut and nearly extinguished the flames at his question. Hanha rushed to the door and unraveled the woven mat to seal the door shut. The sound of the wind and rain diminished and the green candle light breathed easier and brightened. The man's breath rattled in his lungs. Blood continued to seep from beneath him, oozing across the grass floor, rolling close to the candles. It shied away, slowing to a halt when confronted with the green light.

The man began to thrash, arms reaching, fingers hooked like claws. He reached out and grabbed the Chief by her shoulders. Recognition flashed briefly in her eyes like lightning. She lifted one trembling hand to touch the stranger's and placed the other on his chest, forcing him to lay back against the grass. He flinched in pain but obeyed the Chiefs—no, her—touch.

Then the man was still again, sucking in raspy breaths. The Chief lit another candle and ran the light along the man's body, letting the green light wash over him. Shadows danced across his strange flesh like snakes slithering through the sand. Hanha knelt beside the man with a clay bowl and a damp cloth. He rested the cloth over the man's closed eyes and forehead. Sweat ran down the stranger's neck.

The Chief set down the candle and began to strip off the man's wet clothing. He did not wear the intricate woven leather of the warriors nor the beaded ornamentation of the hunters. He wore no whistle or whip to show he was a herdsman. His arms and shoulders were bare of jewelry or scarification—not even the traditional spiral patterns that even Hanha wore upon his flesh. This man, by Hanha's standards, was no man at all. His dark skin bore only fresh lacerations and deep cuts, temporarily washed clean by the rain, now beginning to seep blood and yellowish fluid. The wounds were poisoned—the only mercy was, the poison had been weak or the man would have been dead already.

A strip of red cloth bound the man's shoulder in a poor attempt to slow the bleeding. The strip came from the long skirt the man wore—now ripped and bloodied from his travels. His feet were bare and covered in mud and more wounds. He had walked a long way without rest. The Chief stripped away the layers wrapped around the man's chest and finally revealed the puncture wound near his heart. The wound had been stitched closed—again, poorly—and had become infected. The skin around it was puffy and scabbed with dried blood and puss.

“Is he a Leopard Chief, too?” Hanha asked, face contorted in focus as he tried to understand the man's strange appearance. The man was a stranger to Hanha—but the Chief had recognized him, that much he was certain. The Chief only stared and continued to strip off the man's clothing. A single necklace hung from the man's throat on a leather cord. A smooth orange-brown crystal wrapped in gold wire. The Chief reached out and stroked the crystal gently. The man's eyes opened again. He caught her wrist and pulled her close. She did not struggle. The stranger whispered, his words drowned by the sound of falling rain.

Hanha did not recognize the man's language—except for one word, one the man made sure to speak loud enough for the witness to overhear.


The stranger was a murderer.

Hanha watched as the Leopard Chief worked into the night, as the storm blew itself out and and the candles slowly melted away. The dark green light wavered only once more, and the Leopard Chief was quick to rekindle any extinguished flames. The stranger's life depended on the circle of candles and the skillful handiwork of the Chief. Hanha had watched the Chief work for many nights in his twenty-one years—but never quite as hard at this night. No more words were exchanged, the stranger and the Chief were silent and tight-lipped.

At some point during the night—Hanha had fallen asleep, watching the stranger as instructed. Golden sunlight spilled across the dirt floor and filtered through the gaps in the grass-woven roof. The candles had all burned and left faint outlines of dark green against the earth. The incense burners were cold, no smoke rose fragrantly into the air. Outside—oxen shook their heads restlessly, bells jingling around fat necks and chickens squawked indigently. Children giggled and splashed through the mud from the night's rainfall.

Hanha was leaning against the wall of the hut with his head propped against his knees. A blanket of scratchy ox-fur(?) rested around his shoulders and a bowl of milk sat on the floor beside him. A cat's face was shamelessly stuffed inside the bowl. The cat's loud lapping—and eventually overturn—of the bowl had woken him.

Hanha began to rise, to scare the animal away from his breakfast—when he froze in place. He knew every cat in the village. Every single cat. The spirit animal of his mother's family was a cat. Not the fierce tiger that occasionally stalked the cattle of their tribe, not the lumbering bears in the high mountains, not even the lithe, poisonous snake of the Chief. No, his family had long honored the common hut cat, the scavengers, the flea-bitten, milk-stealing, hut cat.

This cat was different—it was not one from the village and was too large to be a kitten from a litter. It was not quite full grown, with a face and body that suggested only two or three years old.

The Spirits of the Sky were all white when they ascended and touched the earth. The Spirits of Below were black, and when they took the form of an animal—so, too, was it black. When a black cow was born to the village it was sacrificed so the village would be saved. When a white cow was born, it was exempt from all labor and her milk was the sweetest of all. This cat was neither black nor white, nor any of the colors in between. It was not a Spirit of the Sky or Below.

It was both. A cat of black and white fur—and one white eye, the other was missing. Only a patch of scarred flesh remained, overgrown with matted white fur. Now one, perfectly white eye peered up at him lazily as it licked the remaining milk from the edge of the overturned bowl—but was careful not to lick the actual dirt.

Hanha tried to breathe; he had an obligation, both as his mother's son and the Chief's apprentice, to honor the spirits of his family—no matter how they tormented him or how much laughter the village muffled around him. The cat had ate his breakfast but he could do nothing to punish it. He could barely make himself breathe.

“Would you like more?” Hanha asked, choosing his words carefully. He spoke in the Old Tongue, the language of the Spirits of the Sky, the language the Chief had taught him. He wanted to appeal to the Sky Spirit within the cat in the hopes that the Spirit of Below did not answer. The cat ignored him, moving from licking the bowl to licking a slender black paw.

“Who are you talking to?” The Chief's voice sounded behind him. Hanha startled and turned to face the Chief as she stood in the doorway. She held a bowl of milk in one hand and a basket of fish in the other. Hanha turned back to explain the cat had stolen his breakfast—but the cat was gone. His bowl, however, was still empty and spilled upon the dirt. The Chief lifted her eyebrows as she peered down at the bowl. Hanha looked back at the Chief and began to speak but changed his mind. He was not, after all, a Chief and could not explain the Spirits yet. He would be out of place to claim he had seen a spirit, and therefore, he had seen nothing.

“I must have kicked over my bowl in my sleep,” he suggested, shrugging towards the mess near his feet. The Chief nodded.

“Did you have a bad dream?” The Chief asked, kneeling down and placing her bowl of milk in his hand and bowing her head. She whispered words in a language unknown to Hanha.

He did not remember if he dreamed—but he also did not remember when he had fallen asleep. He had watched the Chief work and assisted when she asked, rinsing cloth for bandages, lighting incense and directing the smoke, even holding the Chief's basket as she reached in for her favorite snake. That part always made him uneasy; he trusted the Chief and her connection with her family's Spirit Animal—but it was still a snake and the spirits did not obey anyone—not even the Leopard Chief. If the snake had thought it acceptable to take his life, the Chief could do nothing to stop it. Hanha always trembled as he held the basket, and the Chief was kind to steady his arms so he did not scare the snakes. She was kind and always waited for his shaking to stop before she continued. It only meant that Hanha was forced to hold the basket longer, listening to their silken scales slide and roll across each other, weight shifting the basket from side to side. He was thankful, during those times, that his family's Spirit Animal was just the hut cat and nothing was dangerous as a snake.

The stranger had needed the poison in his wound removed—and the Chief's snakes were poison-eaters. She had picked her favorite—an orange and black striped Coral snake from the Lost Beaches, the Chief's home village. The poison-eaters were a gift from the Spirits of the Sky to the Chief upon her Naming Day. The poison-eaters could eat any poison, pull the poison from the body, and take it upon themselves. Then, if needed, they saved the poison for the next bite. The poison that ran in the stranger's veins was a common and weak strand from a garden snake, often used to coat weapons in neighboring villages. Favored by the [name], if Hanha remembered correctly. He was not always the best student.

Hanha had watched as the Chief prepared and inspected the stranger's body, carefully cleansing and stitching up wounds and re-wrapping the man's arm. Then she picked a spot that was the most infected—a gash near the man's heart—and released her snake. Orange and black slid across the stranger's stomach, tongue flicking the air, searching. Black eyes glittered as it caught the scent of the poison and lunged, bright white fangs sinking deep into flesh. The stranger had long been unconscious and did not notice—but Hanha had flinched on his behalf. He turned his head as the snake began to pull the poison out, throat expanding and contracting as it injected a healing poison of it's own. He remembered now, he had become light headed and leaned against the wall—he must have fallen asleep then. That meant that the Chief had been left to finish healing the stranger alone for the rest of the night.

“Where is the stranger?” Hanha asked suddenly, looking around the circle of melted candles and incense ash. “Did he survive the night?”

The Chief nodded, shifting the basket of fish to one hip. She did not give another answer, simply thrust the basket towards him. The day would begin as usual, then, with no more answers now than he had the night before.

Hanha stood up, drank his bowl of sun-warmed milk and accepted the basket of fish from the Chief. He stood, smoothed the wrinkled leather of his skirt and stretched sore muscles. Sleeping on the floor was not as easy as a full grown man. He pushed aside the woven door flap and tied it securely. As he walked down the steps of the hut—a woman was approaching from the village. She ignored him and stomped straight into the hut. He heard the Chief's soft voice become stern, and the yelling became more muffled. Hanha knew better than to interfere with the Chief's business and began the short walk to the village's cooking fires. He was no sooner at the base of the packed dirt stairs than a hut cat—a fat, yellow-orange male with long hair—padded up to him and began to yowl. The cat believed that Hanha was bringing him breakfast.

Hanha sighed and, looking both ways to make sure no one was looking, dropped the smallest of the fish into the dirt. The cat sniffed it suspiciously. Soon another hut cat appeared—a slender black thing—and moved a little closer. Hanha knew both cats and whose hut they frequented, and knew the youngest children would not be far behind. He did not wish to be seen and so he decided to take another route to the cooking fires.

The most direct path would have sent him past the Warrior's huts and the sharpening of spears. This late in the morning their sparring would have ended and so they would have dispersed—leaving many of them with nothing but time to play jokes on those they considered weaker—like the Chief's apprentice, who was neither Warrior nor Herdsman, nor woman nor Chief. Hanha did not, therefore, mind the detour that carrying fish would require.

He would usually pass the Herder's huts and be forced to breathe in the smell of leather and meat and blood. Although the cattle—and the chickens—were not raised for their meat, it was not uncommon to sacrifice an animal that had become barren or weak. Last week the Chief had overseen the sacrifice of an old cow who no longer produced milk. The Leopard Chief said she had been in the village for longer than Hanha had been alive. The cow herself would be ritualistically taken apart—her blood used to seal building materials, her meat used to feed the village, her hide used for clothing, her bones for tools and weapons. The blood is what bothered him the most, and the buzzing flies.

No, he had no problem avoiding the Warriors or the Herding huts on his path towards the cooking fire. The path he walked this morning would bring him very near to his own former hut, where his mother still lived, that he could not enter. Sometimes he could walk by and hear her voice—but he could not see her. The Spirits of the Sky had forbidden it once he became the son of the Chief and therefore her apprentice—they had not forbidden him from hearing her voice, however.

[need a scene where the stranger and Hanha's blood mixes—or does the Chief make them do it?]

Hanha caught a fleeting echo of conversation from beyond the hut door. A newborn's fierce wail cut through his thoughts. His baby brother, a boy Hanha would never be allowed to meet unless by accident. And no one had “accidents” beneath the watchful eye of the Leopard Chief or the spirits. Hanha glanced wearily to the small carved cat that was woven into the grass of the hut walls. One crystal quartz eye glittered back. The other had fallen out long ago. Hanha forced himself to pass by the hut and not listen again. This was no longer his family; no longer his home. His home was with the Leopard Chief now and had been for the last seven years.

Hanha expected the village fires to be empty—but as he rounded his former home, he stumbled into a gathering crowd. And in the middle of it—the stranger. They had the stranger surrounded while tending one of the dying fires and were beginning to hurl small stones and calling out names. Hanha gripped the basket of fish tighter and pushed his way through the crowd. The stranger had fallen upon the Leopard Chief's floor and asked for sanctuary—and had been granted it when the Leopard Chief did not turn him away. Whatever the stranger had done, it was not for the villagers to decide punishment. That was now between the Leopard Chief and the Spirits. Some of the villagers seemed to have forgotten, and Hahna did not need to look to know who had thrown the first stone.

“This stranger belongs to the Leopard Chief!” Hanha yelled as he broke through the last line of villagers. The stranger had his bare back pressed dangerously close to the fire, arms up to shield his face. His shoulder was bloodied where a sharp stone had landed hard. Hanha caught tears in the stranger's eyes but he did not speak. The stranger wore a knife at his belt—a long, sharp blade of polished black bone. Hanha recognized it: it belonged to the Leopard Chief, but it remained at the stranger's belt.

An older man spat into the dirt, shifting dark brown eyes between Hanha and the stranger. Hanha was correct, and the villagers knew it, and so the man dropped the stone he was ready to throw. Children shouted and pointed and Hanha clapped his hands and motioned for the villagers to disperse. In a few moments, stones dropped to the ground and the crowd disappeared back to their daily tasks. One man remained, as Hanha had anticipated.

“Banwa, do not make me repeat myself,” Hanha warned, steadying the tremor in his voice. Hanha still carried the scars from his last encounter with Banwa. The younger man smirked, shifting his remaining stone from one hand to the other.

“I cannot hear you because I do not speak hut cat,” Banwa said and raised his hand to throw the stone—but a white streak darted out from beneath him and ran between his legs. Banwa startled, stumbled and fell face-first into the dirt. The white streak turned around and stopped near Banwa's sputtering, cursing form—and sat down in the dirt beside him. The long, slinky white cat licked one paw and looked up at Hanha expectantly. Hanha sighed, looked at his basket of fish and dropped a big, fat one in to the dirt. The cat snatched it up in greedy teeth and dragged it deeper beneath the fire braziers.

Banwa was on his feet quicker than Hanha had expected, wheeling around furiously to swing his fist. Hanha didn't move fast enough and Banwa's fist connected with his shoulder. Banwa wore the traditional spiked bracelets of the Young Warriors, meant only for sparring. Except he wore them all the time—and Hanha had forgotten. The sharpened metal sliced through flesh, causing Hanha's vision to flash white from intense pain. He sucked in a breath as fear overwhelmed him. Banwa said something but Hanha could not hear him. The sight of his own blood made him want to vomit. The world seemed to slow and when Banwa turned to strike again, Hanha moved to the side and let Banwa fly past him.

“That is enough.” The Leopard Chief's voice bellowed. Banwa dropped his fist and fell to the dirt, pressing his forehead to the ground. The white cat licked its lips, staring from beneath one of the fire pits. Sweat slid down Banwa's forehead. Hanha froze in place. The stranger stepped slowly away from the fire.

The Leopard Chief approached—bangled anklets sounding like a song. An angry song. She stepped beside Banwa and reached out, grabbing the young man by the ear and pulled him to his feet. He hissed in pain but did not attempt to stop her. She pulled his face close to her own and spoke very softly.

“This stranger has asked for sanctuary. Sanctuary. Protection from both Spirits and men. Or have you forgotten what it means to be a man, Banwa?”

The young man's lip curled, sending wrinkles across his scarred face. His cheek already bore the symbol of the lion, a streak of claw marks eternally pressed into his skin. He was too young for the scarfication—but had friends who were not. It was not a perfect scar, being a little crooked and it would never carry the same respect, as it was not done by the Leopard Chief. Hanha's own spiral hut-cat pattern across his shoulder and chest was done by the Leopard Chief's steady hand. Silently, Hanha hoped that this new wound would not ruin his own scarification—a result that Banwa had expected.

Banha opened his mouth to speak and then closed it. His own mother was the Leopard Chief's sister, although few in the village knew the truth. Banha could stand up to the Leopard Chief; there was no real leader among their people, and Banha frequently pushed the boundaries of what the village considered acceptable behavior. Hanha held his breath, waiting for Banwa to encourage the Leopard Chief to wield her considerable influence. He began to feel a little weak as blood dripped down his shoulder and chest sluggishly.

But Banwa did not, and the Leopard Chief motioned for the young man to be dismissed. Hanha let out a sigh of relief. The stranger chose that moment to sink down beside the fire pit, collapsing into the fire-warmed dirt. The sound of a squelching fish bones echoed from beneath the brazier. The Leopard Chief turned to look to the stranger, then back to Hanha. Her mouth was a firm line.

“I should have come with you,” she said, moving to kneel beside the stranger. “I knew Banwa would cause trouble.” She moved toward the stranger, first, Hanha noted. Not towards her wounded apprentice.

“Banwa always causes trouble,” Hanha replied with a slight smile, pretending he wasn't in pain. Only for a moment did his breath stop when he considered that Banwa's bracelet may have been poisoned—but even Banwa was not quite so reckless as to try and murder someone in front of the Leopard Chief.

He was thankful she had intervened. Simply being the apprentice to the Leopard Chief was often not enough reason to stop Banwa from drawing blood. What had this stranger done to draw the attention of half the village? And what trouble could Banwa possibly have with this strange not-man? And whose cat was that, anyway? Hahna reminded himself to clean beneath the fire pit in case the cat left anything behind. [need a scene where the stranger and Hanha's blood mixes—or does the Chief make them do it?]

It was then that Hanha noticed the stranger's arm was bleeding from trying to fend off the propelled rocks from earlier. His blood was bright red against his pale flesh—lighter than anyone else in the village, or any village that Hanha had ever seen. In the darkness of the hut it had not been so noticeable. Now, with fresh blood and sunlight, the stranger looked more like a Spirit than a Man. Hanha forced himself to ignore his own wound and approach the stranger and the Leopard Chief. The Chief spoke very quietly to the stranger, asking him questions in an unknown language. The stranger seemed hesitant to speak in front of Hanha, and glanced up at him several times.

Hanha was accustomed to skepticism and hostility—most of the villagers did not accept him as the Leopard Chief's apprentice. And while Hanha himself had witnessed the power of the Spirits within the Leopard Chief, he himself had never shown any signs of the Spirit within him. Many of the villagers—often led by Banwa—often accused Hanha of being a Spirit of No; a kind of wandering spirit with no real home that lurked in graveyards and swamps. Hanha didn't mind being accused of being a spirit, and was accustomed to people not wanting his help but accepting it grudgingly at the Leopard Chief's insistence. This stranger, it seemed, was also afraid of him.

“Give me your arm,” Hanha said as he knelt on the other side of the stranger. The stranger's gaze flickered from the Leopard Chief to Hanha. When the Chief nodded—and not before—the stranger held out his arm for Hanha to inspect. Hahna gripped the stranger's skin and inspected it. The rock had been sharp and had sliced the skin but did not cut very deep.

As Hanha inspected the wound, the Leopard Chief approached them. She pressed her bare palm against the wound on the stranger's shoulder, forcing blood to the surface. The stranger winced, clear blue eyes wide with pain and confusion—but not, Hanha noticed, distrust. He trusted the Leopard Chief, like any of the other villagers, even if it was a bit hesitantly. This stranger, too, had seen the power of the Spirits within the Leopard Chief.

Once blood seeped between her fingers, the Leopard Chief moved and pressed her hand against Hanha's chest, hard. As her hand touched his skin—his shoulder felt ablaze. Hanha tried to jump back, but knew better than to defy the Leopard Chief. He gritted his teeth together and felt tears rush to the corners of his eyes. The stranger's blood felt like hot coals against his skin, and then he felt it as it began to flow through his own body.

“What..?” Hanha began to ask, but his words drifted off. Staring down at the Leopard Chief's hand pressed against his shoulder, he watched as a white light began to drift beneath his skin—like a small water snake. The stranger's blood was wriggling beneath his skin, twisting and writhing like a creature alive. And then the pain stopped, and so did the light. The Leopard Chief pressed hard one last time, then raised her doubly-bloodied palm to her own chest. She slapped her hand hard against the center of her chest and left a red hand-print that burst into flames. Fire and smoke flashed—and was gone. They were left alone with the smell of acrid smoke. The stranger fell to his knees again.

“This man is going to die,” the Leopard Chief spoke softly. She did not move to help him up. In the eyes of the Leopard Chief, this stranger was a man. To Hanha, he was not so convinced. He was still a stranger without a name, without a title or purpose. Even Banwa, as terrible as he was most of the time, was a prized Young Warrior in the village. Hanha, as ridiculed and shunned as he often felt as an Apprentice, still had a place here. This stranger was not a man until he had a place. The Leopard Chief had given him a place now—a death. His place would be with the dead.

“What did this man do?” Hanha asked. “Why did he come to your hut half-dead and ask for sanctuary? Only men who kill other men do that.”

“This man is a murderer—but he did not kill just anyone. The Spirits will cleanse him before his death, and you, Hanha, will walk his Spirit to the Below.”

Me?” Hanha's voice squeaked. “But only an Ascended can do that—I'm not—“

“You are. You are ready. Did you not see the Spirits that had been beside you today?”

Hanha nodded, slowly. He had seen them, tormented by various strange hut cats all morning. But to be an Ascended? To move from being just the Leopard Chief's apprentice to an Ascended, a step below her? It would mean the respect of the entire village—untouchable by Banwa and his blades, able to see his mother and brother again—Hanha felt light-headed. Whether it was blood loss or elation, he could not be sure.

“Wait,” Hanha tried to catch his breath. His chest felt tight. “Why? Why now?” His world began to spin. He was falling. He was laying on his back in the dirt, looking up at the morning sky. Clouds drifted by. The world was silent. He felt the stranger's presence on the ground beside him. The Leopard Chief's face filled his vision.

“Like this stranger, you, too, are dying.” Hanha's vision began to darken. His hand felt wet—beside him, a fluffy white cat was licking fish scales from his finger tips. His basket of fish had been overturned in to the dirt. The sound of the stranger's unsteady breaths lulled him into darkness.


The black-and-white cat watched from beneath the opposite fire brazier.

Nehnagi was the name most villagers would recognize—the Spirit of the Lost River. A place long ago forgotten since Hanha's village had moved, seeking higher lands protected from the rains. The Lost River was flooded now, joining with the Lost Sea, swallowing up entire villages that did not move fast enough.

The Leopard Chief recognized the presence of Nehnagi and bowed her head in acknowledgment. The black-and-white cat snapped one last fish bone from its mouth and stepped forward. Nehnagi did not actually need to eat, being a Spirit, but it did enjoy the sound of crunching bones. A side-effect of being a former Spirit of Below. Being a Spirit of the Lost River meant Nehnagi's place now was to walk the spirits of the dead to the Below.

The black-and-white cat watched from beneath the opposite fire brazier.

Nehnagi was the name most villagers would recognize—the Spirit of the Lost River. A place long ago forgotten since Hanha's village had moved, seeking higher lands protected from the rains. The Lost River was flooded now, joining with the Lost Sea, swallowing up entire villages that did not move fast enough.

The Leopard Chief recognized the presence of Nehnagi and bowed her head in acknowledgment. The black-and-white cat snapped one last fish bone from its mouth and stepped forward. Nehnagi did not actually need to eat, being a Spirit, but it did enjoy the sound of crunching bones. A side-effect of being a former Spirit of Below. Being a Spirit of the Lost River meant Nehnagi's place now was to walk the spirits of the dead to the Below.

The cat's white eye drifted lazily between the young man who had passed out—and the man whose spirit drifted dangerously close to death. The Leopard Chief lowered herself to her knees in the dirt and pressed her forehead against the ground. Nehnagi sighed and rolled one eye downward toward the woman.

“You know me, blood of my blood,” Nehnagi purred, licking one paw. The Leopard Chief's head shot up at the sound. Her eyes were wide with fear. No animal—not even those of the Spirits—could speak.

Or could they? All this time? Nehnagi was proud of the woman, she was no fool; the Leopard Chief recovered herself quickly and did not look away. Instead, she caught the cat's blank gaze and held it.

“Blood of my blood,” the woman repeated, although she was not sure what the cat meant.

“The Leopard, whose skin you wear. A cat. Blood of my blood, and so, too, are you. And--” the cat licked a paw slowly, turning a milky white gaze to Hanha. “so is the boy.”

“What do you want with the boy?” The Leopard Chief's voice was strained. So, she was not perfect after all. The cat finished cleaning one paw and stood a little straighter.

“Leopard Chief, do not overstep your bounds. It is not your place to question the Spirits.” Nehnagi smiled and added, “Although I've never been one to follow the rules.” The Leopard Chief fel the black patch of scarred skin staring back at her, although there was no eye left. The feeling sent a chill up her spine.

“The boy is dying.” Nehnagi said at last, watching as the young man's chest rose and fell slower and slower.

“Yes,” the Leopard Chief croaked, beginning to lose her voice from fear. Her throat felt dry.

“And you are the reason the boy is dying,” Nehnagi added. The Leopard Chief closed her eyes and nodded.

“The boy is an acceptable sacrifice, and the Spirits you wanted were called. Now, what it so important to the Spirit of a Leopard that she would risk the life of her child?” Nehnagi asked.

The Leopard Chief began to rise slowly, never taking her eye off the mysterious Spirit.

“This man whose soul you would take to the Below, this is a man I love.” The Leopard Chief raised her chin defiantly. A single tear rolled down her cheek.

“Spirits do not grant favors--”

“This is not a favor. This is a debt.” Her voice was a low growl.

Nehnagi paused thoughtfully. It was not unheard of for some Spirits to make promises to influential humans. The Leopard Chief certainly was that, being one of the strongest shamans of her generation. She had saved—and ended—the lives of countless villagers and beasts, cleansed the souls of nameless spirits and buried the dead without a complaint. Her connection to the spirits was strong—and her trust was stronger still. Foolish, but loyal, traits that Nehnagi admired.

But if a promise had been made--it had not been to the Spirit of the Lost River. It was not Nehnagi's debt to fulfill.

“A debt, you say. And one that you call due with blood. Tell me, blood of my blood, what debt do you claim?”

“This man must live—as must the boy. He is my son; they share the same blood. Your blood. And it is poisoned.”

Nehnagi studied the young man for a long time. White eyes closed to slitted lids, looking beyond the world of the living, to see the world of the Spirits. The bodies became nothing more than shells, a bright white light nestled faintly inside each of their chests. The man's light was dimmer then the boy's but they were the same light, Nehnagi was certain. Nehnagi had watched over the Leopard Chief and her village for a long time. Nehnagi did not recognize the man who the Leopard Cheif claimed to love, but the light could not lie. The blood did not lie. The poison ran through their blood: they had magic, and it would kill them if Nehnagi did not intervene.

“You are a magic-eater,” Nehnagi said suddenly, watching as the faint light danced from the chest of the man towards the woman. It settled brightly within her own chest. The Leopard Chief was killing them without meaning to; her mere presence was draining their lives away. How long had she weakened the young man before she realized she was the problem?

“It is true, there is little magic left that blossoms in the blood of humans. You were right to bring me to them. They will live—but they will be lost to you.”

The Leopard Chief let out a long breath and finally fell to her knees, as if a heavy burden had been suddenly lifted from her shoulders and she had no strength left. She nodded, tears running down her face. Whomever the proud Leopard Chief had been—now, she was merely a woman, grieving the loss of those she loved. The dead rested beside her; although still living, she would never see them again. She had lost them to the only faith worse than death—to the service of the Spirits. The only way she would see either of them now would be in the time between life and death, when she asked for the guidance of the Spirits themselves, or when cleansing the souls of the dying.

At least she could be thankful for the greater good—magic was within their blood. Magic their village had not known for generations. Like her own magic-eating, their magic was rare.

Nehnagi waited until the woman stopped crying.