Authors: Charlotte Boyett Compo
Tears of the Reaper
Owen Tohre screamed as he was propelled from his nightmare. He shot up to a sitting position, his amber eyes wide, sweat glistening on his pale face, his black silk shirt plastered to his back. He was trembling so violently, panting so heavily, he thought his heart would burst from the strain. For a long moment he sat there staring unseeingly into the darkness before he found the strength to plow a shaky hand through his wet black hair. Swallowing convulsively, he tugged brutally at the thick strands in an effort to pull his mind from the horror that had invaded it. When the savage vision remained, he groaned with frustration. He knew there would be no more rest for him that night so he pushed to his feet and just stood there with his head bowed, his hands on his hips, his eyes closed, listening to his heart pounding brutally.
It had been this way for three weeks now and every night’s rest had been disturbed by the same horrific dream. No matter how much rotgut he guzzled during the daylight hours, no matter how long he forced himself to stay awake each night, as soon as he went to sleep, the nightmare came galloping full speed out of the murky recesses of his memories and ran him to ground, pounding him into the depths of a despair so dark, he doubted he would ever be able to pull himself out.
And then there was the headache. He’d had it without letup for as long as he’d been having the debilitating dream and the pain was starting to get to him. Extra doses of tenerse hadn’t helped. If anything, the highly addictive neuroleptic drug his kind had to have in order to exist in even a halfway human manner was starting to make him sick. He was beginning to see things he knew gods-be-damned well weren’t there, hear strange voices whispering to him, and was starting to lose feeling in his hands and feet. Adding to that, he had—on at least two occasions—experienced what he was fairly sure were convulsions. Since he was alone at the time these episodes occurred, he couldn’t be one hundred percent sure they actually had. As if all that wasn’t enough, he had become so nervous, so confused much of the time, he felt as though he were about to jump out of his skin. The least unrecognizable sound would slap his hand to the holster at his hip, his gun would be out and tracking right to left though nothing was ever there at which he needed to shoot. The phantoms were locked in his ever-increasing spooked mind.
Aye, he thought as he began pacing, reason told him it was the drug causing most of his current problems and he knew he had to cut back on the amount of tenerse with which he was dosing himself. He also knew that was easier said than done. Tenerse was an insidious drug that whispered its siren song to those unwise enough to listen and it took those fools into realms no sane man should ever visit.
Involuntarily, his gaze went to his saddlebags where the vials of tenerse and the vac-syringe lay. He licked his lips, thinking of the calming effect the drug had on his system, and more than anything he believed he needed that right now.
“Just one more injection,” he mumbled, wiping his sweaty palms down the leather of his pants. “Just one more to make the dream go away.”
Wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve, ignoring the tremor in his hand, he leaned over and picked up the saddlebag. The pain between his temples flared to white-hot agony and he staggered, his handsome face creasing into a mask of suffering. He went back to his blanket and plopped down on the rough wool and fumbled the tie open on the saddlebag. Taking out the kit that contained the vac-syringe and the last vial of tenerse, he filled the chamber and without giving himself time to think about it, plunged the needle into his neck.
The drug stung like a hive of enraged wasps attacking his veins. It spread rapidly through his system as though it were acid but almost instantly the dream faded into the background and he began to feel a modicum of relief from the crushing pounding in his head.
Sitting there on the blanket with the saddlebag in his lap, his fingers still clutching the vac-syringe as he watched the sun come up, he knew he should get on his horse and head back to the Citadel. He needed help and he knew it. The sooner he got back to his own kind, the better off he’d be. The trouble was getting there. The increased dosages of the tenerse had thrown his Transition cycle off and prevented him from shifting at will though he wished he could. If he could take on his blackbird form, he could wing his way back within a few hours. Going by horseback would take nearly a week and that was a week he wasn’t so sure he had.
“Every journey begins with a single step, Tohre,” he muttered to himself. “You won’t get home just by wishing it.”
Wearily, his head throbbing so violently he was getting nauseous, he forced his aching body to its feet, the saddlebag still in his hand. He stood there wavering for a moment, looking down at the blanket and saddle, his gun belt, and knew there was no way in hell he had either the strength or the energy to saddle his stallion. The gun belt he needed for it holstered his six-shooter and his laser whip and knife. Those were three things a Reaper had to have. Gritting his teeth, he walked over and bent down to retrieve his weapons, groaning as pain lanced all the way down his back. He staggered back and turned quickly to throw up, nothing but dry heaves increasing the agony between his temples and the burning pain in his gut.
“Sustenance,” he thought as he stumbled toward his horse. He needed that more than anything else right then and the only source he had was the hobbled animal waiting for him. The beast’s blood wasn’t as strong as a human’s or as nourishing but it was the best he had out there in the harsh far northern wilderness of the Wismin Territory. It wasn’t the first time he’d been forced to take the horse’s blood—he just didn’t like doing so.
He walked over to his mount and patted the beast’s muscular black neck, rubbing his hand down its withers. He laid his forehead on the sleek neck.
“I’m sorry, Céierseach,” he said as his horse watched him. He slung the saddlebag over his mount’s back. “I’ll find something else, I promise you.”
The horse whinnied and nodded its head up and down as though it understood the necessity but craned its neck around to give the Reaper a slight nudge as though asking him to hurry up with it. It barely flinched when the sharp fangs pierced flesh where a heavy vein traveled to the beast’s great heart.
Over the years, Owen Tohre had learned to embrace what he had become though he had never truly accepted that he was more creature than man. His Transition from human to Reaper had come to him only months shy of his thirtieth birthday and he would never grow any older. He no longer knew just how old he was and really didn’t care. The Triune Goddess Morrigunia had swept down from the skies on copper wings to snatch him up where he lay dying and She had carried him to a place he could never have imagined. There She did the unthinkable to him—She had brought him back to life—and in the doing had condemned him to centuries of Reaperhood. He would never know why She chose him except that he had been young and handsome and muscular with the skills of a warrior in his blood. He had fit the mold She had chosen for Her soldiers, Her intergalactic assassins who could shift into animal form, had the strength of ten men and the ability to track their targets through a single drop of their target’s blood on the tongue.
“You are Mine, boy,” She had cooed to him as She’d lain him on his belly and cut an opening into his back. “And you always will be!”
The pain had been horrendous as the revenant worm—that insidious parasite who now controlled him—burrowed down into the cut and sank its fangs into his kidney. Not even the first Transition from human to beast had been as excruciating as that initial bite of the hellion, though many years later Owen would endure an even worse pain.
Grabbing a handful of mane, the Reaper swung himself onto the beast, landing with a wince as the jarring reverberated through his aching head. He cast one last longing look at the saddle then shrugged. He hoped someone who could use it would find it. Kicking his heels against Céierseach’s ribs, he set the beast into movement.
With every yard the horse trotted, Owen felt the punishment. Every bounce, every step that landed in a small indention in the earth sent fiery stabs of agony between his temples. Although the November day was much warmer than it should have been, he was cold and the bright sunlight created a discomfort of its own as he squinted to avoid the piercing glare. Nausea returned and with it the hot bile that kept gurgling up his gullet.
“Think of something save the pain, you stupid shit,” he muttered to himself.
He thought of his fellow Reapers and wondered what they were doing at that moment. He supposed Cynyr and Aingeal would be back in Haines City. Arawn and Danielle would no doubt have returned with them to see Danni’s family. Bevyn and Lea? Who knew where those two battling lovebirds would be at that moment. Glyn, Phelan and Iden? Most likely back in their territories keeping the peace and making sure no rogues had survived the purging.
The thought of rogues took him back to his first day on Terra. He had been the fourth to arrive on this alien world. Ahead of him had come Arawn Gehdrin then Bevyn Coure and after him Cynyr Cree. The next youngest was Phelan Keil and he’d come a year later. The last two to arrive—Glyn Kullen and Iden Belial—had shown up within a week of one another. They were seven Reapers brought to a world in a galaxy far from their own to kill rogue Reapers being created by scientists called the Ceannus who wanted nothing more than to destroy humankind on Terra.
A month earlier they had all been together in the Calizonia Territory along with an eighth Reaper—Kasid Jaborn, a former balgair, or rogue Reaper, created by the Ceannus—who now worked for the Shadowlords. Bevyn had come late to the party, having been brought on the dragon-demon back of the goddess, but he’d been there in time to see the horrific damage done to Owen.
Shuddering, Owen jerked his mind away from that hideous time and gagged, bending over, but there was nothing to come up. Struggling through the nightmares every night of his life was bad enough. He didn’t need to think about it during the light of day or add to the misery he was already enduring with the damned headache.
“Think of home,” he said. “Think of the green, green hills of Draíoct and the fairy folk prancing on the shamrocks, and the smell of corned beef cooking in Ma’s pot and Da playing his fiddle while Siobhan danced the jig and,” the Reaper’s face twisted with grief as his voice cracked, “and your brother Eanan coming up behind you and dragging a blade across your fucking throat.”
It had been many a year since he’d thought of Eanan, longer still since he’d said his brother’s name. Because they had been mirror images of one another, whom no one could tell apart, there had been no love lost between them. Each always wanted what the other had and it was Eanan’s want of his brother’s betrothed that had led to Owen’s murder.
Had they been happy together? Owen wondered. Morrigunia had told him Eanan had taken on his twin’s identity, claiming Eanan had left to go a’pirating—a fanciful dream of his since childhood. Did anyone ever find out the truth of it? Did someone suspect Eanan was not Owen? Surely Siobhan had guessed that the man she married was not the man to whom she’d given her love. To think otherwise crippled the very heart inside Owen’s chest. On his deathbed, had Eanan at last confessed to his crime in order to go to Neamh—to heaven? Did anyone mourn the loss of the real Owen Tohre? Was there a grave marker somewhere on Draíoct with his name chiseled upon it? Did Siobhan lie beside Eanan in death, believing him her beloved Owen?
So many questions to which he would never have an answer, he thought as he reached up to rub at the pain over his right eye. Perhaps that was a good thing. Perhaps it wasn’t. Who knew for sure? Morrigunia knew but She refused to tell him. Some things, She’d insisted, were best left alone.
Riding close to the international border between the Wismin Territory of Serenia and the Manontaque Province of the Northmen Cadre, Owen tugged on his horse’s mane. He had skirted the larger settlement of Saint Marie, eschewing the company of those he was assigned to protect in the territory. He stared out across the shoreline of the fierce lake that separated the two countries.