I’ll Hold You Forever…

Hold me.

I’ll hold you forever.

That was our phrase. We used it whenever one of us was feeling adrift, needing reassurance, needing to know things were well between us after arguing.

Needed it, to know that things were well after we made love.

We stopped seeing each other the day I hesitated; she retreated from me and stayed upstairs, in her claustrophobic room, refusing me several times a day.

She’d always been quirky, effusive, but with a loose connection to reality. To hold her was to bring her back to herself, and me.

Those days are over, but I check on her now and then, and when I do, she gets stranger still.

In her hands is an offering, and whenever I look in, she holds it out for me to see; it seems to be something between a heart and a flower, but I see no blood, and there are no plants.

“What is that, Tavia?” I took a step further than I should have, and she pulled it away.

The silence seemed to pulse, and her eyes seemed to gleam in the semidarkness as she folded herself against the wall.

I stopped, and sought sanctuary in the doorway once again, keeping my distance.

“Tavia?”

She looked at me, the glittering light shining in her eyes from an unseen source, or perhaps from the object in her hand.

Slowly, she lifted it out to me again, trusting.

Slowly, I reached out my hands to take it. “What is it?”

The object pulsed, and I hesitated, but she didn’t pull it back. “What is this, Tavia?”

I kept one hand at my side now, lest I be bound in some way, and she’d be free to harm me.

My fingers were just grazing it when it pulsed again, and something locked my wrist so I could not break free.

As Tavia drew it back, it drew more of me inside of it, pulsing and growing.

The pain was keen enough to turn my screams to hoarse grunting; I couldn’t save myself, and I couldn’t kill her.

Bracing my free hand on the wall behind her, I pushed back against the dark force that seized me as quick and sure as a wilderness hunter’s trap.

She smiled, and her own hands began to glow asthe pull grew stronger. She was giving it strength to overpower me. Writhing like a hooked fish, I kicked and screamed and cursed at her, but all she did was give me her glittery eyed stare, seeming not to comprehend was she was doing, that she was killing me.

The force of the pull was like an ocean current, and I wasn’t fit to endure it long. My lone fist punching the wall behind her, looking to break through to find a handhold, was neither strong enough or sufficiently expert to find one.

“Tavia! Tavia, let me go!”

“I can’t, Jeral.”

“Why can’t you?”

“I am only a gatherer.”

“Gatherer?” I fought harder.

“I merely gather the souls and send them to my lord.”

“And who is this lord?”

Her smile was feral. “We don’t say his name, and you wouldn’t know it if I did.”

I stopped struggling. My strength was failing. “Why my soul?”

That gave her pause, and she gazed at me a long moment, watched me grieving the inevitable, ignoble death she was about to impose.

“I wanted to share with you. I tried.”

“It was too much.”

“But even so, could you not have loved me?”

I now gazed at her a long moment, and knowing death was imminent, saw no reason to be any more dishonest with her than I’d already been.

“I tried, and I tried to tell you we were losing it, but you were oblivious.”

She bristled at that, but stayed silent, and a dark film began to envelope the object in which she’d trapped me, tears running down her face as I was hidden from view.

I don’t know if I still existed physically, but when her lord came for me, I felt her hold me, the warmth of her soft hands seeping through the shell, and offer me up to him.

He took the proffered object in one hand, and ran the other along its surface.

As it passed over me, there was only blinding agony, and then—

I’ll hold you forever…

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Circle of Blood: (3) Trial and Error

      The castle was bedecked in scarlet and black, the colors of mourning.

     The nobles’ sibilant whispers and the dignified sobbing of the queen’s ladies were bubbles in an aural swamp, rising to sink into the marbled stones of the high-ceilinged hall.

    Nakira, the Healers’ leader, stood before the king, her pristine alabaster robe giving her the aspect of a pale spirit gliding through blood.

  “I’m sorry, but I could not save her, my king.”

 Ohlin’s tears came unbidden, uncontrolled, and in front of his court, unwelcome; his jaw tightened and his shoulders tensed.

I was the only one who saw him clench his fist, though I honestly didn’t think he would use it. The blow sent Nakira sprawling from the dais, the crack of fist on bone was a sudden piercing as she tumbled down into an ungainly heap within the robe, now stained with flecks of blood.

Amid the screams, gasps, and exclamations, she was helped to her feet, her cheek swollen, a trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth.

He then passed his sentence in the most soft, reasonable voice, given the circumstance, as if he was discussing plans for a pleasant outing.

“Take them out of here,” he told the guard, who gave him a curious look.

“She’s alone, your majesty.”

“No, fool. I meant take them all out of here, out of the kingdom. Drive them into the wildlands. Kill any who resist, by whatever means you need to use. Don’t pursue them further; leave them to their fate.”

The cries and screams receded to the deeper voices of the council’s earnest cautions for temperance and mercy, all falling on deaf ears and a stone heart covered in ice; in his grief he was resolute, and would not be swayed.

Nakira looked to the captain of the guard, reading his lips as he held up an index finger: ‘One day.’
They escorted her outside, gave her a horse, and sent her away at a gallop.

                                                                            **************

He spoke to me in private.

“They’re not to reach the wildlands. The men of your Order will execute them on the way.”

“King Ohlin, it would be more prudent to let them go.”

His gaze on me was deathly calm, his next words holding a concealed dagger poised to cut the thread of my existence if we betrayed him.

“See it done.”

***************

Sharrika was crying, and Tafari simmered below boiling.

We’d be at the palace soon.

Sharikka let go of my arm, struggling to get herself under control

“Do you remember?” I asked.

“Just…just flashes.” She stopped walking, hugged herself tighter. “Dogs, horses, fire and screams. We threw spells back at them, spells that did things, put things, inside their armor. Nakira wouldn’t retreat. She called in the Blood Covens.”

The Blood Covens lived on the fringes of the wastelands, separated even from each other, but they all practiced blood magic to one degree or another, all of it lethal.

“That’s why they use the circles of blood? To protect their territory?”

“Yes, and the hanging of the knights they defeated, in full armor, in the places they were victorious. As I said, strictly to show their power.”

“Then why the binding spell in the clouds?”

“To keep the king’s men from pursuing. It was supposed to lose strength, but…” She looked up just as a long flash slithered among the storm clouds, turning their undersides to lilac, but smelling of sulfur.

“But why would they make the spell bind other witches?”

“They confronted Nakira, said she was weak, said it would be best if they claimed the lands we would have settled in the countryside. They wanted us to join them, but tired as she was, of the whole thing, really, she refused.”

“They killed her?”

“I don’t know. Don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.” She had to get herself composed again.

Tafari had walked some distance away; that had to stop if she was going to fight.

“Is she going to be alright?”

Sharikka hesitated before she answered. “I don’t know.”

“If she’s going to fight—”

She gave me a sharp look of frustration. “She’s not ready to fight!”

That was a stronger reaction than I was expecting. I gave her a moment, then took her by the forearms to step in and make sure I had her attention.

“She’s my daughter too, and we must make her ready. If you’re going to fight the Blood Covens, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Frankly, I’d let them have the place; it’s full of bloated corpses and blighted lands, and it reeks of carrion and waste.

“It will take years to clean up, so why do you even want it? If they rule, there’ll be no sanctuary for you here.”

She sighed, taking her arms from my hands, a gentle sweep of her own arm indicating all the land within view.

“Without a ruler, this place could be a haven for those of us who don’t practice blood rituals. We’re a vital link in the chain, even if weak. One thing remains true through all our lore: balance is essential to order. If the Blood Covens want to rule, they’ll use us as ambassadors and healers to fool the leaders of the lands they occupy.”

“You’ll become a servant.”

“Yes, but just for the moment. In time we’ll rebuild, restore our numbers, and bite the serpent’s head when we get the chance.”

I sighed at her naivete. “Sharrika, you’re talking about infiltrating, attacking, and killing the leaders of the Blood Covens. They went rogue centuries ago; they’ll see you coming long before you’re prepared, and take hours killing you, and everyone allied with you, for sport.”

My stomach sank as I saw her start to smile in the middle of what I was saying. “That’s where you come in.”

We started back toward the palace; she didn’t take my arm again.

“Finish your story,” she said.

 

Who Really Dies?

It was cold, and not just from nature’s winds collected in the dull, gray stones that comprised the walls. The presence of spirits was almost claustrophobic, like hungry children around their mother’s skirts.

What makes them so reluctant to let life end? To not go the places they were called, or where they’re needed?

 Life.

The life tied to the gold and obsidian altar wasn’t an ancient one, but all of ten years. They burned her tongue and voice -box so she couldn’t scream; screaming broke their concentration, and that could be dangerous for them.

They didn’t drug her, so she’d feel the pain.

They told me the gods I served required blood in payment.

What is it about life that gods want so desperately to intervene, and need it so desperately for their wantoness? Why can’t they leave it be?

She looked at me as I rose from the high-backed chair to approach the altar, the chalices placed beneath the holes to catch her life. There were four gold ones on each side, the silver, mine, in the middle.

I wonder if it will grow colder when her soul is released?

I pulled my cowl over my head, the top draping down in front of my eyes so I wouldn’t see hers.

With every step, I had to renew my resolve. My hand grew numb, tightening reflexively around the handle the closer I got to her.

When this is over, you’ll be a full wizard priest. If her blood doesn’t reject you, next year at this time, you’ll drink from a gold chalice for your anniversary.

I chanced a brief glimpse; she was watching the blade now, prey looking at the slow unveiling of the serpent’s fangs, its attitude cavalier, infusing its victim with death.

Nothing personal, my dear.

Her tears began to fall, her throat laboring with silent screams and pleas for long-dead mercy.

You shouldn’t! You can’t! You mustn’t! over and over in a howling, silent litany.

The gods require your blood. My magic requires your blood. My life needs yours to end that it may continue. It is unjust, I agree, and out of balance.

I raised the knife above her sodden face.

She thrashed, raging with every ounce of her young strength; I admired her heart, her fight, and I punched her in the stomach to get her to stop.

She went rigid against the bonds, struggling for air.

It is unjust, and out of balance, but so be it.

I struck.

*************

Her soul joined the spectral throng, and in the frozen silence, I could hear the ping and patter of her spilling blood, making the chalices ring. The notes of the gold were sweet, but the silver a special, discordant note with a different rhythm, out of harmony with the rest.

You are yet different, boy. You are still not worthy yet.

Her spirit took its place beside the others, and accused me, even as her body thrashed against her bonds. The others moved aside to welcome her, though she stood apart.

The chief priest took the silver chalice, and gave it to me first, waiting.

I drank the virgin blood deep, quickly, lest I truly taste the essence of her soul, its ripped threads mere remnants to the realm of life.

If she could have turned it to poison, she would have.

I drained the chalice, and the others watched and waited.

The blood did not reject me, and I was feted by a royal feast and far too much drink; I wanted to enjoy it, but kept seeing her terrified, wet, wretched eyes moving from mine, to the blade.

The chief priest noted my distraction. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m not feeling well. I’m…I’m sorry.”

“That’s unfortunate. However, the ritual has been completed. It has been a long day for you, my son. I give you leave to retire for the night, if that is your wish.”

“It is, Elder. Good night.”

“I’ll make your apologies. Good night, young priest.”

I managed a wan smile, and left the banquet hall.

**************

Chapter 2:

In the hours after midnight, there was just me, the candles, my thoughts, and the shadow of the girl standing in front of me, the details of her face lost in the ash gray shades vaguely shimmering in the light of the flame.

The pits of ivory that replaced her eyes drew me deep, ice amidst the fire.

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

 I did nothing.

“You were needed.”

Was I?

“You were told. Our parents were told.”

Our parents are dead. They hung themselves when I went back to tell them what you did.

“It couldn’t be helped.”

You don’t care about what you did to me?

“I cared very much. I needed your blood.”

To achieve this?

“Yes.” There was a pain in my chest.

This will not bring you peace. We will come to you. We will visit you.”

“Stop,” I whispered, covering my ears. “Please, stop.”

You didn’t stop the blade. You could have; they might have forgiven you. But I will not.

“GO AWAY!”

She faded.

You took my blood, but not my life…

3)

I couldn’t answer the door when they knocked.

My body lay on the bed, still, swollen, and racked with vermin.

I no longer felt the cold; I turned my newfound magic on myself, and spilled my own blood to counter what I’d done.

The ashen shades of my family came to me, and greeted me with warm, black, hollow smiles, their ivory eyes the same as hers, and yet, I felt something emanating from them.

I’ve reunited us. Do you forgive me now?

They embraced me, and my question was answered.   I understood their need now.

The absence of the corporeal wasn’t the end of life.

The draining of blood did not imprison the soul.

It was a different kind of freedom, more profound than any magic.

We vanished as the door opened, and I heard them exclaiming I was dead.

I would’ve smiled, if I could, and I knew the wizards’ academy no more.

 

Nechama’s Journey

From the time I was small, the land was dark. Vines grew with nettles, and leaves with fine thorns. Even its flowers lack color, a pallid vibrancy unpleasing to the eye.

My childhood home was dark, full of candles, with shades drawn and shadows painting our walls.

There was mother’s room, too. But mother was gone now, and father forbid me to enter it.

“Why?”

He glared at me in silence that would brook no further insolent questions, and walked out of my room, slamming the door.

But I was only a child, and his glaring authority only turned my childish curiosity to unhealthy obsession. What don’t you want me to see, father?

  He always took the key with him when he left.

He hired a nanny for me, daft as she was strict, but she was prone to drink, and more often than not I’d find her sleeping; not being old enough to take advantage of it, I said nothing to father.

I made attempts to pick the lock when he was gone, and nanny was in her cups; one day she caught me at it.

“Eh, girl. What’s this wickedness?”

I’m ashamed of how easily the lie and tears came to me: “It’s father. He’s mean: he locked my dolls in here, and I can’t play with them now.”

She seemed to be thinking, the glass in her hand sloshing a bit as she watched me cry, then she seemed to make up her mind.

“A girl oughtta have ‘er dolls. I’ll let you in, but it’ll be our secret, eh?”

I smiled, hugging her, almost making her drop her drink. “Thanks, Nan. You’re the best…

She took my arms from her legs. “A’right, child. No need t’get mushy, eh?”

She used a hairpin, and the lock clicked open. Given her addiction, she probably practiced on liquor cabinets and doors in other homes all the time.  I thought she’d go in and see there were no dolls, but she didn’t.

“Come get me when you’re done, girl. Don’t forget.”

“I won’t, Nan.” I made as if to hug her again, and she scooted away.

******************

Inside, more darkness: sparse, dark window shades covered with thick dark curtains, the room furnished in fluted, elegant, black furniture, and planks of dark wood on the walls. It seemed more a cellar bedroom than a part of the rest of the house.

I shuddered. There was absolutely no relief, no break of color or light anywhere to be seen.

Then I saw it, framed in the branches of a long- neglected plant, the glass beginning to shimmer and brighten.

A mirror. As soon as I saw it, I knew that’s why father kept me out of here, but it was a chance for me to see what I looked like, so I mimicked Nan in my head: What’s a girl to do, eh?

As I drew close, I began to cry as soon as I saw what was taking shape inside the glass. Westering sunlight laced through wispy clouds, broken up in spots of yellow and blue, the shadows of distant hills silhouetted in the distance, a calm lake leading to a lonely shore.

That’s where mother went; that’s why she left.

I looked back at the open door, heard father come in. He saw Nan sleeping, and yelled at her as she blubbered her apologies. Fearing the worst, he came running up the stairs.

It’s now or never, Nechama. Surely, he’ll punish you…

I reached out my hand, felt the warm breeze skim over the water, making small ripples,  saw the sunlight on my skin, felt its heat as bright lights burst and laced through the dark branches that held the mirror.

My body was fading, the lights on the branches extending, lacing around me, over my arms and legs, surrounding my head like a halo of stars.

Goodbye father…

      He saw me step through, and I turned at the sound of his voice calling mother’s name as he ran toward me, but it was too late.

The glass began to cloud over.

He sank to his knees, putting his face in his hands, his sobs of grief breaking my heart, breaking the mirror, breaking our bond.

Forever.

 

(MirrorMirroronthewall: Original art by Shadowheart69)

Ravella’s Bounty

She walked the night forest, sky blue light on her fingertips lighting the dark, twisted paths through the primeval woods she saw grow from the beginning.

She moved now in silence, embracing the quiet, but the night creatures grew still in abject terror and reverent fear at her passing; she’d culled their souls to her purposes before, and they hide, though she finds them all the same when they’re needed.

It was said of her that she desired to be among humanity once more.

As I tracked her she’d circled me, finding me before I saw her.

“You seek to kill me?”

“Yes, Ravella.”

“To what purpose?”

“Gold and lands. No more hunting. No more fighting.”

She considered me as I regarded the blue flame on her fingers. “Lower your weapon.”

“Will you compel me if I don’t?”

“No. Lower it.”

I will never be able to say why, but I did.

“Serve me, hunter, and I’ll see that you have all you desire.”

“The king has proclaimed you a blight on the land to be removed.”

“And what do you say?”

“I do the king’s bidding.”

“But there’s no reason to; I’ve harmed no one.”

“Even so, he lives in fear of you and your kind.”

She stepped closer: “Fear is crippling; you’re not afraid. You’re standing here before me, seeking my life, regarding this light. Is it to light my way, or is it, in fact, a soul I balance between realms?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Follow me, and find out.”

“The king—”

She put a finger to my lips; the scent of honeysuckle wafted under my nose. “He is not as powerful as he believes. There are things all around us, even now, that don’t even know his name.”

The finger left my lips as she continued, and they were cold where she’d touched them.

“You understand this. There’s blood on your hands, and a man’s plans follow him into the dust of his birth.”  The realization and answer to her question came at once; she’d already taken the king’s life, his soul shining in her hand.

I found myself growing sad. “Give me the light; let me restore him.”

“You know who this is, then?”

“I do.”

“Then why restore him, after what he did to you, sending you here to risk your life?”

“He was my king. You had no right.”

“Hear me well, hunter: neither did you, to anyone’s. To rob a man of his life is a profane thing, no matter the hand that does it, no matter the method used.”

“There are reasons.”

“The reasons are as varied as the methods, hunter. The end is the same.”

Her words poured like cold water in my ears, and gave me pause.

She walked past me, pressing deeper into the forest, and like a vassal, I followed.

 

*****************

The crypt was underground, awash with oracular illumination.

I thought to throw my blade at her back, now unwilling to face her, but she’d know, and what would become of me then?

“You keep them here?”

“I don’t keep them, hunter. They choose to stay. I could no more bind them here than I could love them.”

“And what of me?”

You, I have bound.”

“Though you don’t love me?”

She stopped, turned to face me. “I wouldn’t bind what I loved.”

“You speak in riddles.”

“No, hunter. You are true to your nature, that’s all. I didn’t compel you to come here. You were free to let me go, and free to go, were you not?”

I realized she was right; I’d felt no magic bring me here.

We were in a chapel of sorts, the ceilings lost in shadow, black candles burning with that spectral blue light.

“Where am I? What is this place?” I asked.

She smiled, cupping the blue flame in her hands as she lifted them to her mouth.

“Home.”

“Ravella! Don’t–!”

She blew out the light, and I felt myself dissolve into the darkness, her soft laughter revealing that I’d become the hunted, and fallen prey.

She desired to be among humanity once more, but on her own terms.

No more hunting.

No more fighting.

No more.

A Dragon’s Courage

From the time they were children, Akia hunted with her brother and his friend, Jakra: they fought, wrestled, swam, fought some more, fished, camped out, made fires, made trouble, and her brother noticed that Akia and Jakra eventually began to make eyes.

Jakra loved Akia’s fierceness, but only from a distance. Up close, her eyes bore too deep into his soul.

She knew he loved her, and would often fix him within her slate gray stare to watch him shift and blush, and she would smile, and try to go to him, but he would always find an excuse to rise, to run without running.

But she would have no other, and his fate was sealed.

She’d seen the rough ways of men; Jakra was indeed different, and sometimes they teased him for it, sometimes, not good-naturedly. That was fine; what he lacked in experience, she would see that he made up for in enthusiasm, and as he gained love’s knowledge, she would reap the benefits.

She would bear him many fine, strong children.

He disappeared into the trees, and she, being a superb huntress in her own right, decided he’d run long enough. She would chase him like a wounded stag, and have her prize.

***************

“She loves me, I know, but I’m afraid.”

“Of what, boy?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know. She’s like…”

“She’s like nothing, boy, she is, a warrior born. And you…?”

“I’m not. Not like her.”

“Your wish then, boy. Out with it.”

“I would have the courage of…of a dragon.”

The crone, removing her supplies, hesitated at his words. “Are you sure? If I bind you to her, that is what remains.”

Jakra nodded, too surprised at his own words to say more, not willing to risk losing his chance.

Akia waited, watching, to see what would be done.

The crone chanted, and crimson tendrils of light slid up Jakra’s body like baby snakes; before Akia’s eyes, his limbs lengthened, changed, grew claws and scales.

“NO!” She ran toward them.

He turned at the sound, his serpentine eyes growing dull; he didn’t recognize her, and that, she couldn’t bear. The rest of his face was beginning to change, elongate, and before his lips disappeared,          she kissed him.

“No, you fool!” the crone shrieked.

Fire arced from Jakra’s lips, and Akia fell, writhing in pain.

The crone hissed and cursed, packing her bag.

The pain receded. “What…happened…to me? My f-f-face…feels so…strange.” Akia sat up.

Now the old woman cackled, phlegmy and raw. “You got what you wanted, dear, and so did he.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

The crone bent, took the girl’s hand, and guided it to her cheek, where something scaly writhed beneath her fingers.

“You tricked him!” Akia gasped.

The crone’s wretched smile held no amusement. “And now you have him; this is the only way you will ever kiss him now.”

“I’m going to kill you, you old bitch.” Akia was shaking, her voice seething between clenched teeth.

The crone straightened. “That may be, child. But not today.”

**************

The forest was gone now, as was her brother.

She was a lady in a foreign land, no less fierce, but had long ago traded her hunting leathers for silver necklaces, blood-red gems, and fine dark dresses, though they were of no value to her.

Jakra the Red Dragon, now branded to her cheek, now living under her skin, uncoiled himself, and stared into her slate gray eyes with his slitted green ones, with the courage of a dragon. His love was now a primal, feral thing, but his heart, hot within his glowing chest, was now beating for her, and her alone.

She picked up the knife, and turned to where the crone lay bound to the altar.

“Today,” she whispered in the old woman’s ear.
 

Circle of Blood (2) Friend or Foe

We returned to Sharrika’s cottage.

They left me outside while they argued, and at first, I couldn’t hear, but they got louder when Tafari opened a window as Sharrika began to make a fire.

“I stopped him, Mama.”

Sharrika’s laugh was another new layer to her personality, something she’d seldom indulged. “Did you really think that was you, Tafari? You haven’t the skill. Not yet.”

Good to know.

There was a brief silence, then Tafari’s voice. “Why is he here?”

The light from the hearth fire crept up the wall, its glow pulsating in the window panes as it cast their shadows; they were standing close, as mother and daughter should be. I didn’t belong here, but I let the feeling go before it took me over. I was tired, and the shock of the sights I’d just witnessed were still being processed. I was prone to do or say something stupid that I’d regret.

Like backhanding your daughter in the mouth? I shook my head, a small mirthless smile on my lips. Yes, something like that.

“I don’t really know,” Sharrika said, “but he may be able to help us.”

“Do you really not remember him?”

“No, I don’t. But I know the Order. They’re warriors as well as priests; he may be able to help.”

“Or if they get to him first, they’ll use him to stop us.”

More silence; Sharrika hadn’t considered that. Tafari was young, but jaded. She’s surrounded by rotting bodies, threw a knife into a man’s chest, not without force, spit on my robe, and threatened to cut my throat. ‘Jaded’ might be an understatement.

I’d have to watch her.

“Bring him inside,” Sharrika said. “We’ll get him dry, and maybe drunk. He’ll talk to us then.”

I was fine with both, and given it was said so openly, I had to wonder if the window staging was also for my benefit. There were few times I felt I was in over my head, but dealing with witches, good or bad, whatever the strata between those categories, was always risky.

Tafari opened the door, heat still behind her eyes. She’d hold that slap against me though she was the initiator.

I hoped it wouldn’t come to killing her, but if being my child meant nothing to her, it had to mean nothing to me if I was to survive. That would be hard to do, but I would do it.

 

***************

The hearth fire and wine warmed me.

Tafari sulked on her bed as Sharikka tended the fire, keeping the poker handy.

I smiled inwardly; the fact that they trusted steel over spells was a bit ironic. I didn’t point it out.

“Why did you come back? Your Order was exiled, and none of you were to return.”

I took a sip of the dark wine, found it to my liking. “We were exiled, but not disbanded. We went elsewhere to settle, but the momentum of what we were trying to do was lost. We agreed to take leave, and come back to try again in a year’s time.”

“Why a year?”

“Some had families to tend, others needed to replenish their magic. The magic we waged here took a great toll.” I drank more wine, trying to fend off the memories of the screams and sights. No one, it seemed, bothered to clean up. “Why would you stay in the midst of…this?”

“Where would we go, that wouldn’t be attacked again? The invaders have already moved on. These clouds full of lightning bind us in place. It strikes those who try to leave. We can’t figure out a way to break it.”

“And you thought I might be able to help you with that?”

“I do, but only because we want to leave. We’re not going to fight again. Some went ahead to try to stop them, but the ranks are only thinning.”

“And the knight hung by his hands?”

“An example. A display of power to show the futility of steel against magic; they hung him in full armor, and left him to the crows, flies, and the elements. He was tough, and lasted awhile.”

“Tafari killed him.”

“I granted him a mercy we didn’t get,” she said.

“Indeed,” I said. “And the circle of blood?”

Tafari sat up and answered. “Their signature; they cut you, and draw a circle of your own blood around you, with different killing spells that discourage rescuers. Some of them are painfully cruel, and quite gory.”

“But nothing happened to you.”

“I didn’t try to rescue him.” Her tone was mocking, but I ignored it.

“You want me to break the clouds, and you gain your freedom. Are you the only two left alive?”

“The only two that matter,” Sharrika said.

“Seems a waste of binding, since you don’t pose a threat.”

“Who said we didn’t?” Tafari asked.

“Sharrika just told me you weren’t going to fight anymore.”

“They didn’t know that. Truth be told, neither do we.”

Sharrika looked at her; I couldn’t read her expression, but she didn’t refute the statement.

My patience and sense of caution were at an end. “I’m done. I’ll leave in the morning. This war isn’t over, and whatever you two want to do, or not do, doesn’t affect me. There’s no reason for me to free you at cost to myself.”

“Why did you return, then?” Sharrika asked.

“I came back to live out my days, and die in peace. I didn’t know the slaughtered were left to rot, and I didn’t know you were still here until Tafari told me.”

“And now?”

“That’s for you to answer.” I finished the wine.

“You said you’d tell me how we met.”

“I will, but not tonight.” I couldn’t suppress a yawn. My bones felt like warm butter.

Sharrika stood. “You’ve traveled far. Sleep. We’ll revisit this in the morning. Let the fire die.” She headed for her bedroom.

I nodded, already feeling the effects of the wine. I heard the lock click on her door, and Tafari lay back down, humming tunelessly as she turned her back on me. I sensed the guard spell around her.

With the pattering rain, the crackling fire, and the scent of wet lavender laced through with the nightmarish stench of putrefying bodies, my own flesh gave way to exhaustion. I folded my robe for a pillow, and stretching out on the rough hearthside rug, I slept, dreaming of circles of blood floating toward my eyes, and the knight staring at me with empty sockets, his red tears shining in the flashes of silent lightning.