Focus on the blood

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“Focus.”

“Focus.”

“Focus.”

I hear that every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second. My teachers are forever chastising me for my inability to perform even the simplest spells. They don’t understand me. No one does.

That doesn’t surprise me. My parents and my sisters never understood me either. They considered me less than human because I wasn’t as powerful as them. At least, that’s what they thought. They didn’t know what I could do. But they learned. As my teachers and the students who ridiculed me would learn.

I waited until after the last bed check of the night before I got up and pulled on my clothes. A silence spell, simple and one I was forever pretending to flub, kept the other young men in the dormitory from hearing me. I slid out the door and moved down the corridor. I heard voices and quickly cast an invisibility spell.

Two teachers walked past, discussing their love lives. I had to keep from snickering. Their petty complaints would soon be insignificant to what they were going to face. I let myself out through the kitchen door, ignoring the sleeping cook and her helpers.

I went out to the forest and the makeshift altar I’d set up three days after arriving at school. I shed the spells and used a small fire spell to light the candles and a small blaze under my cauldron.

I summoned a water sprite and made it pour magical water into my cauldron before sending it away. Sprites were difficult to keep bound and I didn’t want to waste any of my power. I was going to need it all for this spell.

I waited for the water to come to a boil. I tossed several roots, insects, and a dried lizard in. I stirred it as the ingredients dissolved. I ground up some desiccated bones and poured that in. There was a puff of acrid smoke and the potion turned blue. I smiled. I only needed one more ingredient. I heard footsteps approaching. My smile got bigger.

“You’re a witch,” someone gasped.

I turned around. My discoverer was one of my worst tormentors. She was the eldest daughter in one of the First Families, and a powerful mage in her own right. “Warlock, actually,” I said calmly. “You chose an interesting time to follow me. May I ask why tonight?”

“I saw you get up. I was going to say something but then I watched you cast the silence spell. And then I saw you do the invisibility spell when the teachers went by. You’ve never been able to perform those so I knew something was different. So I followed you. Now I’m going to tell the headmaster. You’ll be burned at the stake,” she said.

I crooked my finger and she started walking forward. Judging from the shocked look on her face, she hadn’t expected to have the control over her body taken from her. “No, I won’t. And you will disappear, never to be seen again.”

She tried to open her mouth, but my spell bound it shut. I led her to a black stone stained with dried blood. I forced her to lay down on it and strapped her into place. There were grooves in it and it was obvious she’d figured out what I meant to do. I released her from my control spell, but cast another one to keep her from screaming.

“Why are you doing this?” she whispered, though I could tell she wanted to scream.

“Revenge, of course. All of you high and mighty mages, thinking we sorcerers are worth less than the mud on your boots just because we don’t use wands and fancy magic words,” I said. “This will show all of you just what we’re capable of.” I pulled out an obsidian knife. “Of course, you’ll miss the whole show. I hope you’ve made peace with your gods.” I drew the razor sharp blade across her throat.

It was deep enough she died instantly. I hated making my sacrifices suffer. The living deserved it. The dying did not. Her blood filled the channels and I gathered it in a chalice. When I had what I wanted, I went over and poured it into the cauldron.

The potion exploded into a swirling crimson whirlwind with glowing white eyes. “What do you wish of me, Master?” it asked in a grating voice.

I smiled at the blood demon. “Devour this girl’s body, and then spread a blood born pestilence to all who reside in this school but me. Make it something that can kill, but isn’t necessarily fatal. Let it scar those who survive. Steal their ability to father children. Destroy the females’ wombs so they can never pass on their bloodlines. Curse them with the same curse that I felt at the hands of my family.”

The blood demon bowed. “As you wish, Master.” It turned towards my sacrifice’s body and started eating. I turned away to face the school. Retribution would be mine.

Forbidden verse

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Darkness falls
My eyes grow dim
The keyhole blazes
My hand trembles as I lift
The ancient key to the crumbling gate
I hear her weeping
She begs me to set her free
I turn the key
I am the gate

Reina stared at the strange verse her teacher showed her. She fluttered her wings impatiently. “So when do I start copying this one, setai?

“You don’t,” Talya said, her wings tucked behind her. “You asked me about the Forbidden Verses. This is one of them.”

“So what does it mean?” Reina asked.

“A thousand years ago, the twin sisters Seraiah and Meraiah joined their magic together to create our kingdom. They proved to be wise, compassionate leaders for a time. But soon Seraiah’s heart twisted and she wanted all the power for herself. She murdered Meraiah and her husband and seized the throne as the solitary ruler,” Talya said.

“I’ve heard this story before, setai,” Reina said impatiently. “Meraiah’s daughter and a group of nobles rebelled and cast Seraiah out. She was imprisoned until she died. Queen Marijeta and King Khariton restored the balance, where the child of each of the twins sat in power on the thrones, and peace returned.”

“You are partially correct. Seraiah was deposed, but she was not cast out. Nor did she die. She was imprisoned for eternity, alive and immortal, but unable to do anything to influence the world around her,” Talya said. “These words are the key to her prison. There have been a few Scribes foolish enough to imbue them with their power. They have either gone mad or died. Seraiah reaches through these words into the Scribe’s mind, forcing them to attempt to set her free.”

“So why do we even keep them around? Why not destroy all copies of them so she can’t be freed?” Reina asked.

Talya sighed and set the ancient document to the side. “Reina, we have destroyed them. Every time they reappear they are burned and their ashes spread with salt. It doesn’t matter. A Scribe corrupted by Seraiah will write the words regardless, if she has reached into their mind. So now each Master Scribe keeps a copy – reproduced by magic so no one is lost to the spell – in their archives to show their apprentices, to teach them what to look for and what not to write.”

“So when do I get to see something I can write?” Reina asked, already showing a lack of interest in the parchment, though her eyes flickered to the cabinet where Talya put it away.

Talya shook her head. “Nothing. Your impatience has earned you a mark. Go about your day and remember that a Scribe must be patient as well as precise.” Talya spread her wings and flew up to her private library. Reina flew outside, glaring at her teacher through the large window that provided most of the light in the room.

The sun set and Reina returned. She ate the simple fare Talya insisted on keeping in the house and went to her room. She didn’t read as was her normal tradition. Still seething about how she’d been dismissed, Reina put out the light and went straight to bed. She closed her eyes and attempted to go to sleep.

A soft strain of music, just barely audible, played in the night. Reina sat up, pushing her blankets aside. It was moondark, so she wasn’t sure of the time. She slid the curtain back on the opening to her room and looked out into the rest of the house. It was dark, so Talya was also in bed.

Reina spread her wings and flitted downstairs. The music grew louder, and now she heard a woman’s voice. She was singing a song in the ancient language. Reina only recognized a few words. It seemed to be coming from the cabinet where Talya kept the original documents she wanted Reina to practice on.

Reina opened it. The sound stopped. The young apprentice frowned. As she went to close it, a single sheet of parchment fluttered down to the ground. She bent and picked it up. Curiosity led her to light one lamp and see which one it was. It was Seraiah’s prison key.

Reina bent down and picked it up, intending to put it back into the cabinet. A voice whispered in her mind, singing of the kind of power that could be hers if she released Seraiah.

A bitterness welled up inside of her. Talya was holding her back. Reina was a skilled and powerful Scribe. Talya was jealous of her gift. That was why she wouldn’t put her name forward to be lifted into the ranks. Her hand clenched around the parchment. She whirled around and headed to her desk.

She laid out a piece of her finest parchment and lit the lamp above the writing surface. She looked at her selection of inks and chose the gold. She dipped her sharpest pen in the ink and began copying the words, imbuing them with all the magic she had. Each letter flared with a golden flame as it seared itself into the parchment. As the last stroke of the pen ended, she felt a searing pain rip through her body, and then knew nothing but darkness.

Talya came downstairs the next morning, startled to see her normally lazy apprentice’s lamp burning. She frowned. There were spots of blood on Reina’s stool. She went over to see what she’d been working on. Sighing, she collected both pieces of parchment and tucked them in the cabinet. She went to her mirror and drew a rune on it with her finger.

The Royal Scribe, leader of all the Scribes, appeared on the reflective surface a moment later. He saw her sad face. “Another one?” he asked sympathetically.

“Reina,” Talya said. “At least she was more creative than the last. She used golden ink.”

“Was there any sign of Seraiah?” he asked.

Talya shook her head. “A few drops of blood on Reina’s stool was all I saw. Everything was still locked tight.”

The Royal Scribe sighed. “The world needs a revolution. When will we be able to summon her again?”

“When the time is right,” Talya said. “The curse can’t hold forever.”

“I hope you’re right, Talya.” The Royal Scribe glanced over his shoulder. “I have to go. Their Majesties have summoned me. Keep faith, Talya. We will find a way.” The image wavered and vanished. Talya’s shoulders and wings drooped for a moment before she straightened up and turned to clean up the blood. She had another apprentice to find.

The breath of the dead

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Ameka stalked out of the manor, face flushed and hands clenched into fists. She’d had another fight with her stepmother. She was tired of Lady Raylene and her constant belittling. Ameka’s father did nothing to stop it. It seemed he encouraged it at times. It frustrated her to no end and she wondered what she’d done to earn both of their scorn.

She followed the garden paths without looking. Her body knew the way to her favorite spot even though her mind was far from her surroundings. The strong scent of spice and citrus drew her out of her thoughts for a moment and a smile flitted across her face. Her mother’s rose garden was her favorite place on the estate. It reminded her of Lady Kiran, a gentle and compassionate woman who’d died when Amika was a child.

Ameka sat down on the ornate padded wooden bench and returned to her ruminations. Her brothers didn’t come in for the same harassment she did from their stepmother, and her two half sisters were favored above her. She supposed it was because they were Raylene’s daughters, which didn’t surprise her. True born daughters of stepparents were often treated better than the stepchildren. Or so her best friend Oisin had told her before her father sent him away.

Tears slipped down her cheeks. Her mother, Oisin, her older sister Hella. Everyone who’d ever cared about her was gone. She stared down at her hands, noticing the clear drops as they fell.

She reached out and picked one of the red roses hanging near her hand. She brought it to her nose and breathed in the scent. It reminded her of her mother’s perfume. She curled in on herself as she remembered the smell of it burning, when her father destroyed everything that had belonged to her mother on the eve of his marriage to Lady Raylene.

Dosia, one of Ameka’s half sisters, found her in the rose garden a few hours later. “Our father wishes to speak to you,” she said, smirking. “Perhaps it is due to your disrespect for my mother.”

“I showed her no disrespect, though she deserves all she gets,” Ameka said. She brushed past the younger girl, who gaped at her, and returned to the manor.

Her father was in his study. “Ameka, when I summon you I expect you to come immediately,” Lord Ulises said, glaring at her.

“Considering I just received word of the summons, Father, I can hardly be tardy,” Ameka said.

“I required your presence two hours ago,” Lord Ulises said.

“Then blame Dosia, or whoever else you sent to look for me. You should know by now that after speaking to that woman I retreat to mother’s garden,” Ameka said.

“That’s one thing you and I need to discuss,” Lord Ulises said. “Or rather, you will listen and I will tell you what I’ve decided.” A cold lump settled in the pit of Ameka’s stomach. “Your mother’s rose garden will be uprooted so Raylene can put in an orchard. She enjoys peaches and plums, and you know how expensive they are. The mages will see to it that they produce immediately, and will keep them producing so we always have them.”

“You bastard,” Ameka snarled. Lord Ulises looked at her in shock. “You’d steal from me the last thing I have of her? You destroyed her belongings, even though as her daughters Hella and I should have gotten them. You took down her pictures and refused to let us keep the lockets she’d given us so we could remember her. It’s as if you wish to erase her very existence, though you swore to her on her deathbed that you wouldn’t do that. You’d let her memory live on with us.”

“Yes, well, I only said that to give your mother the peace she needed to pass into the next world and not come back to haunt us as a vengeful spirit,” Lord Ulises said. “Now, you will curb your attitude and hold your tongue. I should have done this long ago, but I’ve been holding off to give you some time to change your position with Raylene. Since you haven’t, I’m sending you away.”

“Where?” Ameka asked.

“To the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Lord Ulises said. “Since you and Oisin were so close, I’m sure the Sisters there will understand.”

“You’re saying I’m not a virgin? Call in one of your mages. They’ll confirm Oisin and I never did what you’re accusing us of,” Ameka said.

“Oh, it’s not what you and Oisin did,” Lord Ulises said. “It’s the fact that the two of you are closer than you imagine.” Ameka stared at him. “You and Oisin are brother and sister. Well, half brother and half sister.”

“What do you mean?” Ameka asked.

“Kiran was not a faithful wife at all,” Lord Ulises said. “Both you and Hella were sired by the Horsemaster.”

“Squire Gerulf is our father?” Ameka asked.

“So your mother claimed, once she learned she was dying,” Lord Ulises said.

“So why not send me to him?” Ameka asked.

“Because I don’t want him to know,” Lord Ulises said. “Kiran said she didn’t tell him, and I have no intention of doing that either. So, you will go to the Temple. I’ve already found a husband for Hella, so she’ll be well out of my hair.”

“If you send me away, I’ll use the powers of the Goddess and call mother’s spirit back. I’ll tell her what you’ve done. Her vengeful spirit will kill Lady Raylene and her daughters by the year’s end,” Ameka said.

“You can try,” Lord Ulises said. “I doubt you have the willpower to do that.”

Ameka turned and ran from the room, sobbing as she went. She dashed into the small chapel and slammed the door behind her. The entrance to the crypt was locked, but she slid the bolt out of its housing and descended into the darkness.

She knew where her mother’s stone coffin was. She’d spent a lot of time sitting at its feet when she was a child. She threw herself against it now, weeping and begging her mother for help. “Mother, he’s betrayed us all,” she sobbed. “Please, bring your curse on this house. Destroy his happiness as he has taken mine and Hella’s away from us.”

There was a cold breeze against her face and the smell of decaying roses filled the air. “It shall be as you wish, my lovely daughter.” The voice was nothing more than a whisper, but it was her mother’s voice. “His new wife and their children will be dead within the week. Your brothers will die before the harvest. He will die before Midwinter.”

“Why my brothers?” Ameka asked. “They have done nothing to harm me.”

“I was not the only one to seek solace in the arms of another,” Lady Kiran said. A faint glow surrounded her coffin. “Your brothers are the sons of the Horsemaster’s first wife. Ulises killed her so she wouldn’t reveal the secret to me, but I already knew. I claimed them as mine and raised them, but chose to have daughters with the Horsemaster because I knew he was a better father than Ulises.”

“What am I to do now? He would send me to the Temple of the Fallen Sisters,” Ameka said.

A ghostly caress brushed across her cheek. “Run to the stables. Speak to your true father. He knows who you are. He will help you.” The light faded and the smell was gone. Ameka didn’t stop to think. She ran for the stables, and her real father. She hoped he could help her. The thought of spending even one day in a place where torture was the routine of the day frightened her even more than death.