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    Libby Drew
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Keeper of the Rituals - 20. Chapter 20

“I’m coming with you,” Chase tells me.

“No. I need you to stay with Burke.”

“I’ll be all right, Micco,” Burke says.

“No,” I say forcefully. “Please, Chase.”

Chase knows how I feel about the man. As well as my history of loss. But he’s not on board with my plan, not in the slightest. “What did I tell you earlier?” Chase growls.

Well, he told me lots of things, both out loud and silently, and I’ll be holding onto all of them as I navigate the next dangerous fifteen minutes of my life. I step close, Calhoun be damned, and press a quick, deep kiss to his lips. “Keep them safe.” Then I open the door and dash out before he can snag me back.






Chaos is too gentle a word for what I step into.

I’m born away by the wind before I’m halfway across the first courtyard and slam into the fence marking the entrance to the habitats. Above me, palm fronds flap wildly where they’ve been impaled in the chain link. I’m less than 40 feet from where I exited the museum, but already that building, and the people I left there, are invisible through the blowing sheets of rain. I send a quick plea to the Great Spirit to keep my friends safe, then suck in a lungful of air and plunge down the path.

It isn’t the direction I would’ve taken if given a choice but seems the prudent one with the wind at my back. I reach Acadia’s enclosure first, reaching out to her with my mind to let her know I’m close but get no response. I’ve got my head down, bent against the wind as I dig in my pocket for the keys, when the outer door to her enclosure slams into me. It’s swinging wildly in the wind. Shocked, I brace myself on the post and peer inside to see the second door is unlatched as well. Fighting a rush of panic, I shout, “Acadia!”

Nothing. Not that my voice carries more than a few feet, but her hearing is keen. Though even with my preternatural senses, I feel nothing. She’s gone.

Another wind gust nearly lifts me off my feet, and I curl my fingers into the fence at my back while I consider my next move. My original plan, a headlong rush through the refuge, may not be the safest now, and it isn’t the storm that’s changed my mind.

Martina has been here—or is still here—and has opened this gate and possibly many others. No one else has keys to do so. Her presence could mean any number of things, and since she’s still firmly on the suspect list for Sam’s murder, she’s a danger to me and anyone else who encounters her. I hiss through my teeth when I realize Chase and the others are ignorant of this new development, and I’m torn in two separate directions: retreat and rejoin them or forge ahead to help the animals.

Martina is one woman, and a small one at that. She’s made mention more than once of her dislike for weapons, and I know—at least as of last week—that she doesn’t own one. My stomach knots, but I make my decision quickly and without regret. I have to trust Chase and the others. All three, even injured, are trained members of law enforcement. They can handle themselves. My wolves and panthers, however, are at the mercy of a metal key and one brave-hearted, if foolish, soul. I’ve failed more than once in my life to save who and what I love, and I swear to the Great Spirit that I won’t fail today. With a scream of frustration and rage, I let the wind carry me forward to the next gate.

The day grows darker as I fight onward, though it’s only late afternoon. The whipping palm fronds overhead add to the illusion of a falling dusk. Visibility is near zero, and running at full speed becomes imprudent, then downright dangerous. I turn the corner, and the next enclosure, Banshee’s, comes into view. This gate is closed, and she is inside, huddled against the fence, nose tucked into her tail. I almost weep with relief, calling out to her with both voice and mind as I approach. “Banshee, sweetheart!”

Her head lifts at my approach, and she leaps to her feet.

“I’m here, baby,” I yell as I dig in my pocket for the keys. I’m so focused on finding the right one, I nearly trip on Acadia, who is curled up outside Banshee’s gate. “Oh, thank fucking God,” I mutter. I take a few precious seconds to drop to my knees and wrap my arms around her. She nuzzles into my neck, and we stay that way for several seconds before I let her go and struggle back to my feet. The key takes forever to fit into the first lock, and I curse. Plastered to my side, Acadia growls in commiseration, and while I can’t hear the sound over the wind and rain, I feel it rumble through my thigh. The lock on the second gate doesn’t fight as much, and a moment later, I have two of my wolves at my side. “Let’s go,” I tell them, feeling no need to broadcast the danger or the need for haste. They understand what’s ahead.

I spin left from Banshee’s enclosure, heading for Whisper and Luna, and clasp the post to brace myself against the wind. Acadia steps in front of me. “Come on, honey,” I shout and nudge her with my knee. “Move.” She doesn’t budge, and Banshee nips the hem of my shirt, pulling in the opposite direction. Their message is clear in both action and thought. Not that way. I don’t even question, but go where I’m led, wondering at what they know.

Or what they fear.

A few seconds later, a shriek penetrates the relentless roar of wind. Inhuman and piercing, it cuts through my bafflement in a heartbeat. Now I understand. We aren’t running forward, but rather away, fleeing the source of this cry. I stop in my tracks, resisting Banshee’s pull, and lean down to stroke her head. What are you afraid of? I query with a thought.

A picture flashes in Banshee’s mind, and a chill grows in my heart to match the one on my skin. She shows me a startlingly similar creature to the one Danny described, though less mystical. At least in Banshee’s memory, this animal doesn’t stand on two legs, though its tail is a fountain of long hair, not unlike a horse’s, and so long it brushes the ground. Its fur is inky black and matted in places with swamp sludge. It resembles a wolf, a large one, yet its visage is sprinkled with enough differences, enough inconsistencies, that, in that heartbeat, I’m transported back twenty years, listening to Chase read to me from The Island of Dr. Moreau. This wolf disgusts Banshee. She fears it. This animal, she tells me in thought and with a growl in her throat, is not pack.

This is the proof I’ve been seeking. Danny spoke truthfully about what he witnessed on the night of Sam’s murder. He saw this abomination, this Long-Ears of Seminole legend. Clearly, so has Banshee at some point since. Possibly even today. The nature of the foul feelings bombarding me at the refuge this past week suddenly make sense. The swirling stink of murder, lies, betrayal, and greed has kept Long-Ears close, even after Sam’s murder.

So, Martina is not the only enemy on the move. I pause to swallow my dread, braced against a fence post while Banshee and Acadia huddle at my sides, but only for a moment. Fear for my loved ones swamps me, paralyzes me, but indecision, as Billie so likes to espouse, never wins the day. Forward is the only direction, the only choice, if I am to save my family, both animal and human. I must trust my wolves and our combined instincts. I place my hand on Acadia’s head. “Guide me,” I tell her.

We reach Hector and Dash next. Committed to each other in every way, they stand shoulder to shoulder at the gate, then lick the rainwater that drips from my fingers when I free them. With four wolves at my heels, I scramble through a narrow shortcut between enclosures, nearly becoming snared in the gnarl of fronds and branches that have become wedged there.

I burst onto an open path as a second high-pitched shriek fills the air. Dash lifts her snout to answer it with a howl, but Hector nips her ear. Don’t draw its attention, he urges. She snarls at being told to back down but holds the bay in her throat. After a few seconds to catch my breath, I plow ahead, Acadia my guide.

There doesn’t appear to be rhyme or reason for which gates we find open. I can’t decipher Martina’s plan, if she had one. But the wolves she turned loose didn’t wander far. Most ran to their nearest neighbor. Less than ten minutes later, I have all my wolves except two—Whisper and Luna—and my panthers. I duck into a tightly clustered copse of palms to get my bearings and take stock of the pack. The spindly trees offer little protection, but enough that I can take a moment to touch the wolves I’ve retrieved and feed as much reassurance into their minds as possible.

Like siblings who squabble in fair weather but team together in times of trouble, the wolves huddle together without any show of dominance or aggression, squinting at me in the wind and driving rain. Now I face another difficult decision: continue ahead to find the few who are left or lead who I’ve found to safety. Another heart-wrenching conundrum, but I only hesitate a moment.

“Let’s get you to the shelter,” I say into Nero’s scruff, then stand and send a message for them to stay close.

If Kane were here, this would have been an easy task. Our ability to communicate was more developed, and the others would have followed his lead. Today, I must rely on my own skills and powers of persuasion. “Not much farther,” I say, mostly to reassure myself, then plunge back onto the path, eating up the distance in a lurching gait as I fight the wind and dodge around branches and debris. The wolves follow in a tight cluster.

The path to the concrete block building designated as our storm shelter is overgrown and would be difficult to navigate on a clear day. In the height of this storm, struggling to stay on my feet against the unpredictable wind gusts, I slog through mud and rain-drenched foliage. With each step, my feet sink into mud and standing water. I try not to think of how swollen the nearby river may be. These solid walls of concrete will withstand the wind, but if the river crests its banks, the building will be nothing more than a watery tomb for us all,

“Almost there,” I say to myself, and a few moments later we arrive. The door is closed, but a mess of muddy footsteps outside the threshold assure me Chase and the others made it inside. Relieved beyond measure, I push open the door and gesture the pack inside. “Go! Now!” I command. They obey immediately, bounding over each other to find shelter from the wind and rain. I follow them in and slam the door behind me.

Here, the thick walls muffle the storm sounds enough that it feels unnaturally silent. So quiet, that despite the shuffle of paws on dirt, of the sniffs and low yips of the pack, I hear Chase speak softly.

“Put your gun away, Jeff,” he says.

I turn to find the wolves in a loose semicircle around the others, who are against the opposite wall.

“They won’t hurt you,” I say, mostly to Calhoun. “They’re just curious.” Though they likely recognize his scent as threatening, which is exactly what he was up until a few hours ago. I don’t pass that thought along. Not while there’s a firearm in the mix. “Please put that away,” I say, echoing Chase. “You’re in no danger from them.” As I reassure him, I strive to relay this promise to the wolves. They are ignorant of how human relationships can turn on a dime, and I suspect my sudden about-face on Calhoun will confuse them. Still, I am the alpha. I expect to be obeyed.

With aching slowness, Calhoun lowers his gun, and I sense a sliver of tension leave the pack.

I take my first deep breath in what feels like days. Until I catch Burke’s eye. His chin dips in a nod as he focuses on something over my shoulder.

“Micco,” Chase warns as I turn.

At first, I don’t understand the reason for the low, cautious tone. Then I see the lights.

Electricity runs to the structure, but I’m positive power is out from Naples to Clewiston right now. Yet, the space, I notice now, is dim, not pitch black. Meager, yellow light emanates from two battery-operated lanterns on the floor behind me. They draw my attention first before my eyes lift to the cages beyond them.

Martina and I fashioned this place to be effectual, not pretty. Over the years, we built a dozen cages of varying sizes, some elevated, but most on the floor. It’s as spartan and dank as any medieval dungeon and dirty and musty with disuse. But I see none of that as my focus sharpens and fixes on my panthers, who lay sprawled together in the leftmost cage. Built tall and sturdy, it contains a small climbing platform four feet off the floor. The slab of plywood that forms this makeshift perch is wide enough to hold them both, if they cuddle.

“Oh thank you, Great Spirit,” I whisper, stumbling toward them. Saffron stretches to her feet at my approach. Bumps her head against the bars and gives me a deep, rumbling purr. I have my fingers in her fur and my nose against hers before I register the person standing in my peripheral vision. A jolt of shock stiffens my spine. On shock’s heels come fury, pain, and resentment. Sensing this, Dagger comes to her feet alongside Saffron. Her lips curl back over sharp fangs, and she hisses. The pack behind me gives a collective growl of disapproval.

“Sweet Mother of God,” Calhoun says in a wavering voice.

I can’t be sure if he’s referring to the animals’ behavior or to the sight of Martina emerging from the shadows along the far wall. She holds nothing threatening, merely a large, metal bowl of water. She and I stare at each other for several moments before she extends her arms, holding the bowl out to me. Saffron sees it too, projecting her thirst so effectively into my mind that my throat goes dry. I take one step toward Martina, then another.

“Micco,” Chase barks. “Stop.”

“It’s all right,” I reply, then reach and take the bowl from Martina’s hands. As she nods and steps back, a single tear rolls down her cheek. I dutifully ignore it.

“Here you go,” I tell Saffron, lifting the latch on the door and throwing it wide. Calhoun makes a very undignified squeak—I promise to gently mock him for it later, if there is a later—but holds his tongue. As both my panthers are true ladies, they sit like queens as I place the bowl inside the door, then relatch it. Dagger nudges Saffron, and the youngster pads forward to take the first drink.

“Michael,” Martina says, sidling forward.

Chase barks, “Stop.” He rises from where he’s been crouched beside Burke, drawing his own weapon, though he keeps it pointed at the floor. I frown at it, wondering if the thing will even fire after Chase’s swim in the canal. I doubt it, if it’s holding water in the striking channel. I imagine Chase, as well as everyone else in the room, except Martina, is thinking that exact same thing.

Martina doesn’t force him to test it. She raises her hands in front of her and halts, even retreats a step. She, like us, drips muddy water. Bits of leaves and other indeterminable refuse cling to her loose and tangled hair. For the first time, I notice blood slowly dripping from a puncture wound between her thumb and forefinger. I raise my eyes to hers. “Who bit you?”

Her smile holds no humor. She holds her hand up to give me a close-up of the damage. A fat drop of blood rolls over the back of her wrist. “Whisper.”

Good girl, I think. “Where is she? And Luna?” Those are my last two siblings who are unaccounted for, and I itch to get back to the search. “Did you open their enclosure too?”

Darting a glance at Chase, and at his gun, she nods. “But they wouldn’t leave.”

“Were they in their dome?” I ask. She nods again, and I grunt in approval. It’s a special feature of that particular enclosure. Poured concrete with a tunneled entrance. Probably the second safest place in the whole refuge at the moment. Unless the rain or storm surge nudge the river over its banks. Then we’re all screwed no matter how thick these walls. Still, I relax infinitesimally knowing that Luna and Whisper are probably safe, at least for now.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, not bothering to temper the vitriol in my tone. “I mean, since apparently it would suit you if they all drowned anyway.”

She winces. Before she can speak, Calhoun stops her. “Ms. Landis, I must inform you—”

“I know,” she interrupts. “I mean, why else would you be here?” She sniffs and wipes a hand under her nose. “I have the right to remain silent.”

“You do,” he confirms.

“I know my rights,” she says quietly, darting a glance at Burke. “I have a friend in the business.”

To this, Burke says nothing. His expression remains stony. He tracks her every move with heavily lidded eyes.

“That may be true,” Calhoun says. “I am still obligated to inform you of them.”

She nods, and he does his duty. The recited litany haunts me, shooting me back through time. It feels a thousand years ago that Calhoun whispered it in my own ear, yet it’s been only hours.

I barely wait until he’s finished speaking before I blurt, “Why? Why, Martina?”

She struggles for a moment, as though deciding what to admit and what to hold back, then folds in physically, hunching her shoulders as she hugs herself. She looks to the ceiling and says, “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Probably not,” I agree. “I still want to know.”

The cacophony outside reaches a crescendo, but the structure holds. I try not to notice the water seeping steadily under the door.

Martina sinks to the floor, crossing her legs in front of her. “Do you know how many years Jacob and I were married?”

I shake my head, then look to Burke. I bet he knows the answer to this question, but he’s clearly decided not to play her game. Even injured, on the floor and slumped against the concrete wall, he looks coiled and tense. Livid and dangerous. Martina follows my gaze, then looks quickly away.

“Nearly twenty,” she says. “It would’ve been more, but the tribe didn’t much approve of a red-headed she-devil for a future tribal councilman's wife.” With a sardonic smile, she peers at me through her mess of tangled hair. “Jacob finally told them to go to hell.”

That sounds like the Jacob I remember.

“Twenty years married. Closer to twenty-five together. And I loved him so much… so much that a thousand years wouldn’t have been enough.” Her voice trails off. Fresh tears forge clean streaks across her cheeks. “Most of those we spent right here.” She points at the dirt at her feet. “At Brother Wolf. Working ourselves to the bone. Spending every penny we earned. Saving…” she slashes her hand through the air, “...absolutely nothing. Because there was always another animal that needed help. Always another vet bill. Food, Supplies.” She drops her chin to her chest, and her hair falls in a heavy curtain around her face. “And he always said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Mar. The tribe will take care of us. One day soon we’ll retire and travel the world, just like we always talked about.’” She laughs bitterly. “That’s what we wanted to do. Cliche, right?”

A bit. But that’s probably unfair. It’s not something I would wish for, but I’m only one person with one viewpoint in a wide world of opinions. I shrug, not willing to give her more than that.

“I venture to guess the tribal council ended your income payments after your husband died,” Calhoun chimes in.

“You guess correctly,” Martina whispers.

My mouth drops open in shock. “No. No,” I say again when she turns back to me. “They wouldn’t. Spousal benefits—”

“Are for Seminole widows, Michael,” she says.

Speechless, I spin to Burke. He nods, jaw clenched, lips twisted into a grimace. “Matthew?” I whisper. “No. That can’t be true.”

“She’s not tribe, Micco.”

My stomach turns over. There is so much wrong with that statement, with that idea, that I feel physically ill. “That’s unfair.”

“I’m not saying it’s fair,” he grumbles. “Only that it’s true.”

True, but also wrong. The world is full of such contradictions. Until today, they felt far away and nebulous.

“Nearly twenty years I gave to this place,” Martina says, voice low, expression deadpan. “My partner gave his life. When he got sick, do you remember, Michael? With Covid? He wouldn’t stop working. Wouldn’t stop spending hours here every day, because he said the wolves needed him.” Now she lifts her face to me, and it’s twisted with so much pain that I catch my breath. “I needed him too,” she says with a moan. “I needed him. And then he died.”

Oh honey, I think, because voicing anything just now is beyond me.

“When the tribe cut me off, I tried to make it work. I… drummed up donations. Took out personal loans. Sold the few things of any worth that Jacob and I had collected together. But it wasn’t enough.”

Still, nobody speaks. Nobody offers commiseration or sympathy. Which, looking at Martina, I realize she doesn’t expect, want, or need. She’s in her own head, drowning in a pool of grief that time still hasn’t drained.

“Then,” Martina continues, “Charlotte came to me about her illness. About what she wanted to do with her estate when the cancer took her.” She inhales a shaky breath, but her tone takes a hard edge. “And that’s when I knew exactly what I had to do.”



Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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I hope you enjoyed the chapter. 
Thanks for reading!
Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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Posted (edited)

11 hours ago, drsawzall said:

Could/were Burke and Martina be working together???

And for something completely out of left field, what would a DNA test reveal about Micco and Burke????

Mind y'all, I'm sober as I ponder this...dang it all to heck!!!

Chapter 3, interaction between Micco and Martina as she supposedly comforts Micco after Sam’s murder:

“We share a long stare before she leans close once more under the pretense of another hug and whispers in my ear, “We’re here, Michael. Don’t worry. Matthew and I are here for you.”  It’s a curious thing to say. I can tell Burke thinks so too. He’s standing several feet away but has the hearing of a cat. His brow furrows at her words. My unease ratchets up a notch.”

I don’t know whether that means they are working together or Burke is working to keep Micco safe at all costs and so pretending to work with Martina.
In this chapter, Burke rather coldly reminded Micco that Martina isn’t tribe. Burke is strongly linked to the tribe. 

Edited by 84Mags
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I have every much enjoyed this story and I will be deeply saddened when it comes to and end!

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