I was dead. There could be no other option for what I was experiencing. In a mindless black swirl, a void with a tempest destroying what little peace could be achieved, I simply floated, with little pain or consciousness. I seemed to just drift about, thinking and feeling nothing.
Until something tweaked my spirit, and I was no longer alone. A blurred presence in the vague shape of an eagle appeared at the edge of my vision, and I turned to face it. It pulsed with suffocated anger and hatred, but didn’t seem keen on attacking, so I simply let it be.
“Hello, eagle spirit,” I said, hating the hollow echo of my words in the oblivion. There was something familiar about this eagle—and I knew from past experience that it was the visible spirit of another mage, one who was connecting to my own—but I couldn’t quite place who it was. “How did you get here? Are you lost? I most certainly am. Where do you suppose this is? No god will allow me into heaven; I have been far too sinful. But this isn’t so bad, either. Definitely no hell. Purgatory?”
The eagle cocked its head to the side and clacked its beak. Unsatisfied with its reply, I went back to my mindless musing.
“Purgatory is the closest,” it said, startling me with its low barbarian burr. Its head was to the side so it could peer at me with one dark eye. “But you aren’t dead. Not yet.”
I started. “I’m not?”
“But I was…” I faltered, thinking back to my last conscious memory. Pulling Alistair aside after the skirmish in the woods. The scrape of bark against my back, his hands on my hips. A funeral pyre. A feast and bonfire. Dancing with Morwenna. Flashes of memory, mingling together in a whirling mess.
Sitting in the forest, a reprieve before the month’s new moon. I would be unconscious, unable to wake or be woken until sunup. But…
“I was stabbed,” I said, suddenly remembering. The animals had been too quiet, even for a field of war. It should have marked the approach of another, but I hadn’t noticed until a knife had slid effortlessly into my back and I lost consciousness. “I should be dead.”
The eagle shifted on its talons. “Well, yes. You were stabbed. But it was not a fatal strike. It was only to incapacitate you so we could keep you under control. You are far too feisty and free-willed for my companions’ tastes.”
I grimaced, thinking that this eagle was very polite. I could think of many worse names I had been called in the past. “That does make sense. But if I am not dead, why am I here?” I gestured to the expanse of nothing around us and shrugged. “I feel like I’ve been here forever.”
“There is no time here, which would account for that. In reality you have only been here for a few days.” The eagle lifted its wings in semblance of a shrug. “Stabbing you was rather pointless. We should have known by the new moon that you would be unconscious within minutes. We should have just waited in the trees until your queer magic overtook you. However, we must let bygones be bygones. Nothing we can do about it now.”
I stared at it. There was something about its shape and voice that were uncomfortably familiar, like a fruitless tugging at my memory. “Ah. I see. So if not dead, where am I?”
“Your unconscious mind,” it said with a rather know-it-all air about it. A small well of anger rose up in me. Pompous bird. “Once you were asleep, we froze time around you to keep you that way. It worked rather well. Who knew a barbarian could be so clever? How are you feeling?”
“A little stunned, now that I know what’s going on. I’m all right otherwise. Does Alistair know where I am?”
“The redheaded prince?”
“He’s blonde,” I corrected blandly, knowing from hearing Hession call him redheaded that he hated it. “He just happens to have red highlights.”
The eagle snorted. “He sounds like a dandy. But no, he does not know where you are, both mentally and physically. None of your allies know.”
I frowned. “He is probably worried.”
Shuffling on its feet and flicking its tail so it could get more comfortable, the eagle lifted its beak and surveyed me. “Then he ought not to have bedded you, eh?”
Bottled anger shot through me, threatening to overwhelm, but I managed to smother it in a glare. “Bitch.”
“So he did? That was just a guess.”
Something in the way it teased me. By the Druid, whose spirit was this?
I squinted at it, wondering only briefly what form it saw me in. “You seem to know me rather well,” I pointed out.
I was certain I imagined the eagle’s smirk. “Well, I have known you a very long time, Aisling,” it drawled.
Eagle. Flying. Airborne. Mimic? One who knew I fall into a comatose sleep every new moon. But no. That was entirely impossible.
My fragmented thoughts gave me a headache, so instead I stared at it as it preened its feathers and said, “You sound like her and feel like her, and she knew I fall asleep during new moons and she rather liked birds. But Lacramioara is dead.”
The eagle pulled free a glossy brown feather and let it flutter into the expanse of nothing. “Is she? Did you watch her die?”
“I cut her neck myself.”
It ruffled its feathers once more, then settled down more comfortably. “That wasn’t what I asked. Did you see her die?”
I gritted my teeth. “No.”
This time I was certain the eagle smiled. “Well. I think you’re all better. Time to wake up, Aisling. And do try to play nice. I’ve missed you a great deal.”