Fiction Friday: Burning Bones [M20 Gods & Monsters]

Mage: The Ascension

“Big Owl spreads his wings. He brings down shadows, y’know, and our shadows respond to him.”

“Who’s Big Owl?”

Napayshni nods his head in the direction of his window. We both know what he means. Outside, the city rumbles discontent. At night, it just gets worse. TV voices filter in from surrounding apartments, cutting through the sound of wind outside and the murmur of voices — often talking, sometimes raised — from those busy lives around us.

In my head, I still hear the roaring, icy wind of the camp we left behind. The crackle of flames, our whispering tears. The men beyond the fire, dressed in black, suited up for war. Crouched in the shadow of their black machines, flames reflecting off their visors and eyes. When did this war come home, lurch out of the secret dream and slash itself across the eyes of the world? Better yet, when did it become so goddamned normal? Thirty years back, that would be inconceivable. Now, it’s just a Facebook refresh away.

Years compress, unwind, embrace. Napayshni’s apartment feels too old, too fresh, too raw for me. Across the decades, I still feel needles push through skin, bringing surges of forgetfulness and the timeless ache of need. And so, I escape past and present to a time in between, when thick snow muffled our footsteps and wind bit through layers of our clothing, too heavy to move freely in, too light to save us from the winter’s cold.

He catches me drifting through time in my head. “He’s fear,” Napayshni says, pulling me back to our present conversation. “An old story that never gets old enough to stop mattering, y’know?”

“Big Owl?”

“Yes.”

He’s not like me, Napayshni. He does what he does without magick — only courage, like his name says. His memories don’t pull him back and forth across temporal tides. He remembers where we’ve been, what we’ve done, but though it haunts him — and I know it does — he doesn’t seem to drown in it the way I sometimes do. He’s braver than I am, too. I could have killed them all. He knows what would have happened if I had, and he’s strong enough to have stopped me from doing it.

The ache of power strong enough to tear steel cries in my bones and screams to be unleashed.

Shake my head clear. “Big Owl,” I repeat. “Who is he?”

Napayshni laughs. “I don’t know if I should tell you that, Lee Ann. It’s pretty sacred stuff.”

I laugh, then stop myself. It’s not my place to laugh at this. “You’re teasing me again.”

“Yeah, I am.” His smile reveals uneven teeth, a lifetime of dental issues too costly to fix and too painful to ignore. I’d offered to fix that for him, shortly after we’d first met, but he didn’t want that kind of help. “It’s part of who I am, Lee Ann,” he tells me in that long-ago. “It wouldn’t be fair to get my magic friend to fix it when so many other people have to go without it.” He smiled at me then, too. He smiles a lot for someone who’s seen what he’s seen. I could learn a lot from him. “I carry my past in my teeth. It tastes better that way.”

I smile at the joke he made so long ago and at his admission of teasing me now. I love his smile, crooked as it is.

“So what’s so sacred,” I ask, “about Big Owl?”

Napayshni leans in closer, the shower he took earlier today still ghosting soap across his scent. I inhale bitter winter wind and the wood smoke of our fires. His nearness drowns the echoes of my past. I could get lost in him if I was more his type. “In the old days, when night would spread its blanket out and let the stars have their turn at our sky, Old Man Big Owl walked freely under the clouds. His hairy head brushed up against the moon, and his feet made the ground shake as he walked.”

“Are we talking about an owl or a guy?”

“Lee Ann,” he says, tilting his chin down so his eyes roll up at me, “you of all people should know not to ask such literal questions. Especially not when someone else is talking.”

I grimace. “You’re right. Sorry. Go on.”

“When he’d catch somebody out where they shouldn’t be, Big Owl would reach down and scoop them up and eat them the way we might eat a chicken leg. Y’know, stripping off the flesh bit by bit, pulling muscles off with his teeth, sucking all the juices off the bones…”

I laugh. “I get the picture.”

“I’m sure you do. So, even when he wasn’t eating people, all the people — the four-footed ones as well as the two-footed ones — learned to fear Big Owl. Mothers would tell their kids, ‘Behave, or else Big Owl will come here at night and take you away from us and chew your skin like an old chicken bone.’ Big Owl invaded their dreams. His feathered wings flapped thunder inside their heads. When his little cousins hooted in the dark, the people curled up inside their homes and prayed that Big Owl would go on by and go eat someone else instead. Big Owl was fear. Big Owl ate fear. Big Owl became fear. And so, wherever fear was, Big Owl was there, too.”

Night ruffles its feathers at us outside the walls. Long-dead needles push against my skin, hungry for release, to release me, to devour me. Around us, gathered at their keyboards and their plasma TV screens, voices rise and weave past and present into one. Black feathers brush against my soul. A weeping man shivers against my lips. Happy lovers share my sweat. And underneath it all, the fist of hate rises, aching for a face to smash.

Anger is the fist of fear.

My friend goes on, his voice rising past sensations in my soul: “When the hero Killer-of-Enemies heard about the terrors of Big Owl, he came out of the east to take Big Owl down. In one hand, he held the club he had made from the bones of a three-legged giant, and in the other he held the seven arrows that hit every time he aimed his bow. Killer-of-Enemies walked around at night for many nights. Fear pecked at his muscles and tore at his flesh, but he refused to run away. Finally, after the moon had grown thin and then full again, Killer-of-Enemies felt the ground shake and heard the rustle of Big Owl’s wings on the wind.”

I consider asking him whether Big Owl was walking or flying, but keep my mouth shut. He’s right — I’m the last person who should be taking things literally.

“Big Owl was as big as the night sky. The moon hid behind his head. The stars ran from the feathers of his wings. Killer-of-Enemies felt the crushing winds that beat down and sent up dust storms to blind the hunter’s eyes. He set down his club and he aimed his bow, and he fired six of his seven arrows into the Big Owl’s chest. Big Owl didn’t even slow down. As he dove in to snatch Killer-of-Enemies up, the hero thought, ‘This might be it, y’know? This might be the last fight I ever fight.’”

Breath catches in my chest. I know that feeling well. Every fight might be your last, and someday, if you fight too much and define yourself by fighting, one of them will be.

“He knew fear. It scared him. Fear rushed down on Killer-of-Enemies and it blocked out the sky. That’s the way fear is, y’know? When it’s over you, when it comes rushing down on you that way, then it seems like there’s nothing left in the world.”

My bones burn with the lust to kill.

My fist, I noticed, clenched without me even realizing it. It lies on the table between us, like a part from someone else’s body, hard as stone, cold as winter.

I see their columns in the distance. Black uniforms. War machines. Bright lights burning against a darkened sky. Black armor swallowing the snow. Behind their visors, I feel fear. It tastes like blood and tear gas and oil. Reaching past it, I sense a mother’s touch. A lover’s caress. Children’s laughter. Empty nights and endless skies.

I could send them burning with a single wave.

But he knows what will happen if I do. Not even I can fight the world.

Napayshni’s voice reaches past my memory. “That’s what fear’s like,” he says. He speaks for himself as well. “It makes you want to fight the world,” he adds as if he’d heard my thoughts. Who knows? He probably did. “Especially when you know you can’t.” As the night reaches in around us, he disappears into shadows even though he’s sitting right across from me. Inside his skin, I feel blood pulse, catch the clenching fist of his heart in his chest. “And that’s when you have to stand,” he whispers. “That’s when standing matters most.”

I stood and watched them burn the camp.

I’m standing even now, even when the flames have died.

I could have killed them all. I wanted to. He stopped me. Napayshni knew how much everyone else had to lose. Knew it in ways only those who’ve lost damn near everything can possibly understand.

The heat I feel is shame at what I might have done.

Napayshni swallows hard, breaking the trance for both of us. “So, Killer-of-Enemies, he took that last arrow, y’know? And he aimed it straight at Big Owl’s right eye, and when he let it loose that arrow sailed straight through the darkness and hit Big Owl square in the eye socket and punched that eye out.” His voice rises. “And Big Owl pulled up out of his dive, but he was going too fast to stop, and as his claws and wings spread out, Killer-of-Enemies grabbed up his club and he belted Old Man Big Owl right in the fucking chops.”

I see him grin again.

“And Big Owl busted up into a million pieces, a billion pieces, and he flew off all over the world, anywhere he could get that Killer-of-Enemies wasn’t.”

He pauses.

“That’s what fear does. It flies away and hides. And it’s still there, y’know? Just like Big Owl, it’s never really gone.” He reaches out to my winter-cold fist. Warms it with his touch, with the life inside us both. “But you can face it. And you fight it. And you can bust it right in its fucking chops. It doesn’t kill the fear… but, y’know, it makes it easier to deal with.”

I nod. “I do know. Yeah.” I lay my other hand over his hand and my cold fist. “Thanks for reminding me. I tend to forget it.”

“Easy to forget,” he says. “There’s so much out there trying to make us feel afraid.”

The wind rises outside his window, shaking the glass and rattling the frame. The burning in my bones subsides, but the fire never really leaves.

Outside, I hear the rustle of Big Owl’s wings. Voices raised in desperation. Fingertips on keys. Clenched lungs and muttered curses. The pulse of a nation beating its head against the wall.

We’re all afraid. Of them. Of us.

Breathe, I remind myself. The first lesson you learn in life: to breathe.

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