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.

 

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Circle of Blood

I stood looking at the carnage, blinking from the sudden, searing flashes of lightning streaking across roiling black clouds.

There was no thunder, which gave the scene an eldritch air.

Swarms of rats moved en masse over the mounds of corpses, taking such treasures as they could find.

The torrential rain cut the edge off the stench, but didn’t stop it.

An armored knight, his bare hands pierced with spikes, hung in the center of the palace door, a circle of blood painted around him. I didn’t know how long he was there, but the crows had taken his eyes.

It’s already started. I’m too late.

A short, hooded figure approached from under a pile of smoldering wood, stealthy, heading for the doomed knight. As he was hung with his weapons, they were going to loot him.

With his hands spiked, there was nothing he could do to stop them.  I think more than anything else it was the cowardice of the pending deed that rankled and made me call out.

“Leave him alone!”

The figure jumped; they hadn’t seen me through the downpour.

They scampered back into their hiding place. The urchins knew this backwater warren better than me. I lived here once, but never called it home.

The man turned his head in my direction, and I worked through the mounds of bodies to take him down.

“I’ll get you out of here.”

“No!”

I stopped, taken aback by his refusal.

“No. They’ll know it was you, and they’ll find you. I’ve nothing to go back to. Better I die here. Leave! Leave while you still can, while there’s still a chance you can—”

The serrated blade of a knife buried itself in his chest with such force that his body jerked, making a muffled thump against the door, and he went still.

A different hooded urchin stood there, smiling at its handiwork.

That could’ve been me.

I sighed, still looking at the knight, but speaking to the urchin. “What do you want?”

They answered me, retrieving the knife. “I remember you. You should leave, priest. There’ve been changes since you were exiled, and your Order is no longer welcome here.”

“Where do I know you from?”

They removed the hood: a girl with smooth brown skin, large, dark brown doe -shaped eyes that held an intelligence beyond her years, her form on the cusp of womanhood, but hidden beneath the soaked black cloak she wore.

“I’m your daughter; you took my mother, Sharrika, against her will.”

“Sharrika…?”

She came toward me. “I see you remember her name.”

“She was supposed to kill me.”

“Yes, and you did something to make her stop. She fell in love with you instead. What did you do, father?” She spat the word out like snake venom. “Rape her with a spell?”

I had no answer she would find acceptable.

“What became of Sharrika? What is your name?”

She spat on my robe, and I reacted, backhanding her across the face.

She sprawled over some bodies, sending the rats scurrying, then pushed off the pile, running back to me with the knife in her hand.

I didn’t want to hurt her, but I didn’t know what she was going to do; I tried casting, and felt a jolt to my own body that almost made me lose my footing.

She has powers. The bloody knife was at my throat, tilting my chin up.

Her breathing was raspy and harsh. “If you ever hit me again—!”

    “Tafari!”

The rain had intensified, but the figure that approached was only in a long red dress, clinging to the very curves my hands explored in better times.

Tafari took the knife from my throat. “This isn’t over, priest.”

Sharrika walked up to her, took the knife, and apologized, her eyes downcast. “Please forgive my daughter, sir. She isn’t married, and so has not yet been–“

“That’s none of his concern, mother!”

I was surprised at Sharrika’s candor; it wasn’t her way.

“Sharrika.”

She gave me a blank stare, tilted her head. “Do I know you? Have we met before?”

Emotions warred within me, but I nodded. “We have. I’ll tell you later. Let’s get out of the rain.”

A crow had landed on the knight’s soaked corpse, looking for fresh pickings. The rats persisted in their foraging among the mounds of rotting flesh.

She nodded and beckoned me to follow.

The rain fell harder, but she and Tafari took their time; it was a moment before I realized the rain was falling around them, not on them.

“Witches.”

I don’t know whether Tafari heard me, but she turned to give me a mirthless smile.

I ignored the threat, put my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes, and walked back into the eye of the malevolent hurricane that would shake my life to its core. It would have been easier if I’d turned and walked back through the broken gates, as Tafari commanded, never to return.

When all was said and done, I was glad I didn’t, but I wished I had.

 

 

World Without End (1): What’s in the Heart

Chapter 1: What’s in the Heart
We finally did it. The last war tipped the balance, and the chemicals that saturated and stuck in what was left of the atmosphere wreaked havoc on the weather. The pissing contests of the powerful had finally screwed us all, and the world as we knew it came to an abrupt and lethal end when the seasons, finally tipped out of balance, lasted for random intervals that were now impossible to forecast.
People had been swept away by cresting water, cooked by blistering sunlight, and hot winds took the leaves before their change. Curled and blackened, they crumbled before they hit the ground. There was shelter, but no safety. Cities were built underground, but there was no food. Towns had been built in the hills, but there were mudslides and floods. Now that it was snowing, if there was anything left of the world below, it was covered. The snow fell for weeks at a stretch, and people had long ago indulged their last panicked impulses to scavenge what remained of ‘normal’ life, even as they lost everything.
On the way up, we saw others who’d tried to brave the mountains: some bloated, some skeletal, some too weak to climb further. They were pickings for the eagles and carrion birds, if any of those were left. The temperature was beyond brutal, and even our rugged equipment was beginning to let in the cold. Movement at the level we needed became difficult.
The mountains were the last refuge, and on the way there, Kylie and I spoke to no one, helped no one.
We’d been in these ranges, hiked and explored them. There’d be shelter if we could beat the storms. But in this new world we found out the storms could no longer be anticipated; they formed quickly, anywhere, like lightning strikes.
I was separated from Kylie in one of those mountain storms that came suddenly; if she fell, she never screamed, or at least, from the wind howling, I never heard her. I dared not turn, since the whiteout all but blinded us anyway. I grieved, but kept moving, since there was no sense of time here, and darkness could be as sudden as the storms. The cowardliness of not trying to save her hit me hard, though it was short lived; for all I knew, she’d made a choice of her own.
Not knowing how long I’d been searching, my hands and legs were beginning to fatigue. The ledge I walked wasn’t too narrow, but the wind still made it unsafe, so I used up the day moving carefully. I needed to find a cave that could hold me. I was at the point of despair when my fingers gripped around a corner. I didn’t want to move in front of it unless it was a cave, so I risked reaching my left arm around, and it disappeared up to my elbow. Gripping what was there, and inching forward, I found it.
Taking a couple of breaths, I reined in my excited hope this was a possibility. Even if it was just a recess, it was still a wind shear, and I could shelter there for a while, if not for the night.
Focusing all my energy on controlling my body, I made my way around; it was indeed a cave, one I had to get on hands and knees to negotiate, which was fortunate, if it didn’t narrow to where I had to crawl.
I said a mental prayer of thanks to whoever could hear me above the wind, and went inside.
It didn’t narrow, and I would’ve wept tears of gratitude if they weren’t frozen behind my eyes.
It was dank, and there was some guano, but not an abundance; my guess was that the sudden weather fluctuations killed off the bats. I had room to stand, but I could explore later. Exhausted and thirsty, I went back to the entrance and quickly grabbed handfuls of snow, bringing it back into the relative warmth and eating it until it melted; it was still cold, but it wasn’t frozen.
My throat ached, but what little water my organs got made them expand like sponges. I needed more, but sleep had me by the ankles, and won the tug of war.

***************
The entrance to the cave was dark. No wind, no snow, just still, cold air for which I had no way to make fire.
Hoping nothing nocturnal still lived here, and recalling that there were no pools of water I might fall into, I stood up to stretch my body.
As my senses woke, a ravenous hunger gripped me, and the thirst returned worse than before.
There was nothing to be done for it. I needed to move.
I walked in ever widening circles, taking small steps with outstretched hands.
My right foot struck something. It moved, as if something lodged was now loosened.
Checking my eagerness that it might be food or water, or (gods grant me) both, I knelt, feeling around until I touched it, running my fingers slowly over it so I wouldn’t get cut. It had cold, metal handles.
Take it out. You’re just delaying the inevitable. Death would be a mercy now. I didn’t really believe the voice in my head, but that didn’t make it wrong. My hands were numb but moveable; I’d shoved them into my sleeves to keep from getting frostbite, and slept with my arms folded.
Hoping it wasn’t sealing something beneath it, I pulled. It came out easily enough, and it was small enough to fit in one hand. It felt like a small chest of some kind. There was a small lock on the front.
In a mix of dread excitement, I reached back into the hole to see if there was a key, and was rewarded with another tiny flash of cold on my fingertips. Rolling through a list of possibilities from ways to make fire to weapons, hunger and thirst were forgotten.
Through blind trial and error, I finally opened it. Lying on
white velvet tucked down the sides, a red gem began to glow with a dull light. It wasn’t enough to light the cave. It was barely enough to see, but definitely there.
Figures I’d become a rich man at the end of time. This could be priceless, but with no one to sell it to, it’s also worthless.
I set the chest down, and picked up the gem, admiring it for a few moments.
When I went to put it back, my hands were no longer cold, and the light seemed brighter.
I chalked it up to loneliness, fear, and exhaustion, though in truth I felt none of those things now.
Walking back to the entrance of the cave, I didn’t have to get back on my hands and knees to crawl out. The rock was high enough to just bend over a bit. Too grateful to question it, my mind told me the cave entrance was the same; I only imagined crawling inside.
Now at the mouth of the cave, I couldn’t get over the beauty the night sky; the stars were pristine, and though the air was still cool it felt clean and good. I wasn’t shivering. Glancing toward the box where I’d replaced the jewel on its velvet, I thought I could see the light glowing through the wood, though the wood wasn’t burning.
“Just tired. You’re hallucinating, or dreaming.”
Or dead.

Can’t Stay, Can’t Leave

 

Eddie
I captured an outdoor table at our favorite local coffee shop as my girlfriend went inside to get the coffee. It was a pleasant midmorning, and casual strollers who got up before noon were enjoying the coolness of the morning.
Jill was inside getting the coffee.
There was a distant booming noise, as if thunder were rolling across the ground.
The air went white, and the temperature searing; my table flipped over and into me as a massive gout of firs shot down the avenue. Tumbling out of control down the street, seemingly no more heavier than a piece of paper litter, a blast of wind picked me up and threw me further, and the white of the sky grew brighter until it suddenly went black.
Death is a mercy.
*******************
I don’t know why I’m still alive; that shouldn’t be.
There are places where the rubble still smolders.
The radiation is patiently nibbling at my flesh, pulling bits of scraps like a jackal sneaking up on the panther’s kill.
I want to die. I need to die.
I’ve seen myself, and Jill wouldn’t have me now, if she was still alive.
Jill…Still, I feel her arm around my waist, see her hair shining in the sun, and the smile in her eyes as she laughs at another one of my dumb jokes. It’s either sincere, or she’s a good actress, but I love that she makes the effort if she is acting.
I’m going to miss her laughter.  I start to cry.
I’m all alone here. 
Just for the hell of it, I reach out to touch her…

Jill
The shards went everywhere, hit everything.
People died from the places they went, and no matter how I try, I can’t look away from the carnage.
Eddie’s gone, but so is the chair where he was sitting.
The rest of the people are piles of bloody ashes in the street, up and down the block.
Arcs of hot light are streaking the air, so I stay low, looking for survivors, for first responders, for anything, but nothing is moving.
No one is coming.
I know I’m in shock, but I don’t scream, I just focus on trying to find Eddie, knowing it’s stupid to try, but there’s nothing else to do now.
There’s certainly nowhere to go.
I don’t even know what the hell went wrong, but it went wrong fast.

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

I don’t know why I’m still alive; that shouldn’t be.
The air shimmered in front of me, in the shape of a hand.
Jill, you’re hallucinating; don’t be stupid.
But just for the hell of it, since no one’s watching, I reach my hand up, and invisible fingers grasp mine.
Eddie?
Hands touch without meeting, and I don’t know what he sees wherever he is, but we stay like that because I can’t go to him, and he can’t come to me.
I’m going to miss his stupid jokes. I start to cry.
In the distance, I hear the first of many sirens start to wail.

A Choice of Poisons

They came in vast numbers to slaughter what remained of us.
For too long we harried them on every front, and every time they stepped on our necks, we seemed to grow new heads: here, a smashing of their flank as we split to take the vanguard and the rear; there, an explosion that killed them by the hundreds.
We were as children splashing away at the tide.
It all served to stir them to a frothing, raving mass of bloodthirsty vengeance seekers; they were as relentless in their desire to kill us as we were to survive.
In time, they resorted to other means: a dark magic where venom and blood combined to make them practically invincible.
The problem was they had the venom, and we had the blood. They plundered it from us and stored it for themselves, until their magicians could sustain its combined power and keep it from fading. They worked at it day and night.
From my high vantage inside the fortress, I could see the serpent army, the Ormarr, as we called them, spread out across the fields below, their bodies glowing with a faint, eldritch light.
The sword at my side brought no comfort, but there was another way.
“Stand aside,” I told the gatekeeper.
“Are you daft, boy? You want us to open the gates and throw flowers in their path?”
I looked at General Sarris, his craggy face mapped with scars and an old black eye patch over his left socket, a testimony to his many fierce and bloody campaigns.
“No, General. That was not my request. I said, ‘Stand aside.’
Seeing my calm demeanor, he considered me. In the silence between us I could hear the faint clank of weapons as men shifted, the crackling sizzle of nearby torches, and the dull murmurs of the dull creatures below us, bobbing and rocking like lanterns on a ship.
“I’m all that stands between these men and death,” I said. “The longer you wait, the stronger they grow.”
“Ator, have you forgotten your first night here?”
“I remember all too well, Sarris.”
****************
The camp fires were dying, and little by little the sounds of snores and released gas joined the night creatures’ cacophony, drowning out the small, crackling flames.
    A seasoned soldier eyed me openly, not challenging, merely assessing.
   “Do I pass your examination, sir?”
   He chortled, and came toward me, hands out. “Not looking to fight, boy, just want to give you some advice.”
   I nodded, but kept him in view.
   “When you’re out here, boy, waiting for demons to fight, no one in the rich towns cares that you don’t sleep at all, as long as they sleep through the night.
   “They don’t care that you can’t comfort your daughter after a nightmare, as long as they don’t have to face the living ones they created.
   “They don’t care if you have to die, as long as they get to live. You remember that, boy, and you’ll be all right out here.”
*******************
“You shouldn’t fight them alone,” Sarris said.
“I’m the only one who can take the venom.”
“You’re immune to the venom, true; not to being torn apart.
“I’ll be all right.”
“Well that much is true, boy, because you’re not going out there.”
I sighed, looked back out at the animated field of unnatural blasphemy, and again entreated them.
“Stand aside.”