The Last Lullaby

The snow was ending, and the moon shone bright, full and high and clear against a sky of black crystal, with shadowy clouds gilded by a silver nimbus. They traipsed across the heavens like gypsy scarves, obscuring and revealing the cold, glittering stars so far away.

On any other night, it was a breathtaking scene, but tonight my hands gripped the cold balustrade of the balcony so tightly that if the moon itself were in them, I would have crushed it to powder.

Her cries reached me through the thick oaken doors, and her screams ripped the winter silence asunder.

They told me this might happen. I prayed that it would not, but now…

The midwives, bless their plucky souls, had been efficient in their ministrations, but now, the rest, being up to Jesika, had taken a turn for the worst.

They sent the youngest of them to tell me. “Mr. Laskin, you’d best come, sir.”

One look at her brimming eyes told me all I needed to know.

They told you…They told you! Be strong, Alexei. Be strong, and see her on her way.

I followed, biting back the sobs that threatened to burst my jaw.

They stepped back from the door like a parting black curtain, faces somber, eyes downcast and full of tears.

On the bed, my Jesika, trembling, the last of her strength fleeing, holding our twins in her thin, shaking arms, and smiling through the sweat that left her spent and sodden on ruined, reddened sheets.

“Alexei…see?”

The tears came, and I couldn’t see.  “I see, my love. They’re beautiful, like you.”

“My crowning achievement.”

“Yes.”

Her breathing hitched, and blood marked her lips as she coughed, reflexes making her hold the strangely silent babes tighter.

The young midwife wiped Jesika’s brow and mouth, and poured a sip of water through her lips.

“I’m leaving, Alexei.”

“I know.”

“They’ll be my legacy, too.”

“Yes, Jesika, and a worthy one.”

“You must name them. Take your time with that…” Her coughing racked her.

The babes began to slip from her arms, and one of the midwives took them while the other again cleaned her face.

“Your violin…” Jesika whispered.

“What?”

“Get it. Play for me, Alexei. One last time.”

I bolted, retrieved it, not bothering to tune it, and ran back.

I heard the midwives crying before I got to the doorway, and stepped aside as they filed out.

The youngest who came to me still held my children.

“Mr. Laskin, her eyes…?”

“I see, child.”

“Her eyes are still open, sir. Would you…do you want me to…?”

“Place the children beside her.”

“Sir?”

“Place the children beside her, and attend them.”

One of the midwives came back to the door. “Natalya, we must –“

I shut the door in her face. “Attend them, Natalya. Please.”

Natalya did as I requested, though she was uneasy.

“I’ll not harm you, child. I’m going to play for my family. My wife sleeps in death, and my children in life. I will play them all a lullaby.”

Natalya turned away from me as I tuned the strings, watching the children, not daring to look at Jesika’s frozen smile.

I began an improvisation, slow and in a major key, happy, but not bright.

The children opened their eyes, and looked at me with those sage stares, rapt, as if they knew what I was doing, and why. Brother and sister, bonded in life, already bereft of a greater fealty than I could give.

Natalya sat, trembling, her hands ready to catch them should they list, or cast themselves off the bed.

But they didn’t move except to blink, and gurgle, raising their little hands toward me.

And then I played for Jesika, a somber, loving dirge that was a testament to her will and strength and beauty, my fingers as sure of her song as my heart had been of her love.

The twins began to cry, as if they knew what I was doing, and why.

And when Jesika’s eyes closed, Natalya retreated to a corner of the room, her mouth open in a silent scream; her tears wouldn’t stop, and her breathing became hiccoughs. She was but a shadow, and time was lost to me as the song caught me up. In my mind, I danced with them in an open field, all of us smiling and laughing, and time was lost to me as I swooned, and fell.

 

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

“…lost them all?”

“…wife and twins, on the same night!”

“…on earth happened?”

“…murder…”

“…poison…”

“…went insane…”

I hear the whispers, the gossip, and I see the fear as they pass me, when they have occasion to be around me, which is rare. I rarely go out now. Soon, I won’t go out at all.

I don’t remember much, except a song; something in me remembers a song.

A lullaby, it was.

A lullaby for my family, now sleeping all together in the ground.

I kneel in the hard, hoary grass, and place the parchment of our wedding vows before me. Behind me, weeping angels mark the graves of my little ones, Viktor and Irina, placed by Jesika’s side.

And by the ivory light of the winter moon, I tune my violin, and play, and play, and play….

 

The Passing (Chapters 9 & 10)

Chapter 9: A New Witch Hunter

I closed the journal, my thoughts and emotions quailing at the implications.

Was it, is it, my mission to finish, Gran? To hunt them? To avenge the lost?

Only the wind answered with a gentle breeze on my skin, a brief respite from the warm, westering summer sun.

Witches hunting their own kind. If I found them, what then? Would I be the only one? Do I have the power to kill them, or even the will to try?

I shook my head. Too many questions, and I needed sleep. I could summon a spirit for guidance, but I wasn’t ready to hear whatever it had to say. If it charged me with the task, there’d be a blood binding, and I’d be consumed by the desire to find them all, no matter the physical or psychic cost to myself, to feed them to the Dark Realm’s whim.

By their cowardly loyalty to the king, your own kind forced you and Gran to flee after they slaughtered her son, your father, along with your mother. They stole your childhood, and forced your birthright on you before you were prepared to receive it properly.

You have every reason to go after them, to find out the truth, alone or not.

“Or I could live my own life, and set my own path.”

A brief silence, and then an answer:  Sleep, Tina. All will be revealed, settled, and reconciled.

“By me, or by you working through me?”

Will it not be the same?

“No.” I said it more out of hope than certainty. “And you haven’t told me your name.”

The silence that followed bothered me more than any response.

Chapter 10: Day of Departure

“I’m sorry, Tina.”

“Why? You were far more than kind to let us stay, Atheron.”

“If Hanna’s spell didn’t hide my cottage, we’d all be dead now.”

“But we’re not, you and me. You put yourself at risk for us. I couldn’t ask for more, and I won’t.”

“Hannah did say this day would come, yet you’re still so young.”

“Better I leave you now, then, while I can take the bumps and bruises ahead of me. I don’t want to practice magic here. If I lose control, or even make a mistake and try to correct it, it will spill over to you, to this place, and they’ll include you in whatever monstrous practices they do.

“I couldn’t bear that. You weren’t blood, Atheron, but you were, and always will be family.”

We shared a long embrace, and he spoke to the top of my head. “Know this, Tina: This door, it’s hearth, and humble fare, will always be open to you as long as I’m here.”

I nodded against his chest. “Thank you.” I kissed his scruffy cheek and release him.

There were no more words to say, and he lifted his hand in farewell as I turned from him toward the bright and warming day. Gran’s spell of protection would dissolve, and the cottage would be visible once more.

“I bid you peace, Atheron.” I wiped away a tear as I heard the door close behind me.

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

I stopped by Gran’s cairn, and knelt beside it.

There was already moss on some of the stones, and small leaf stems emerging between the spaces; nature was reclaiming her.

“Thank you for all you’ve shown me, for all you gave me, and did for me. I’m out in the world now, unsure of my fate and future, but I ‘ll use all you taught me to make my way, and leave my mark in it.

“I don’t know if, or when, I’ll ever come back this way. Maybe I’ll make it a yearly pilgrimage, but we’ll see what life holds for me until then.”

Brushing the undergrowth from my knees, I stood. “Farewell, Gran.”

I watched in fascination as one of the stones split, dribbling water, as if her own heart were crying at my leaving. I touched it with my finger, and felt its warmth, then left it behind, wiping more tears away that were unbidden, but not unwelcome.

My heart was breaking too.

 

 

 

 

The Passing (Chapters 7 & 8)

Chapter 7: Gran’s Journal

The small teak chest was on the nightstand, patiently waiting for whatever happened to it.

The lock refracted the candlelight, a mocking eye that followed our search. I was peeved by Atheron’s reluctance to break it open, but he was determined to exhaust every possibility first. That he was reluctant to use his strength also struck me as curious, and the brief flitting thoughts I had to question him about his past grew more insistent, but I pushed them aside for now.

Initially refusing his offer to help me, I changed my mind; he could reach places I couldn’t, as the rooms were designed for someone his height. Through all the clutter we created, I couldn’t imagine Gran really hiding anything from me.
The moon rose and filled the room with the familiar shadows, but we were determined to find something that led to what happened, and it was in the small hours of the morning that we finally did.
Hidden in Gran’s sewing basket was a journal, bound in worn, dark brown leather.           She never mentioned it.
I felt a small pang of disappointment. You trusted me with dark spirits that could snatch my soul, but not a journal, Gran?
Atheron picked up on my mood. “Maybe she would have told you if she had more time…”
I decided it wasn’t true, but I also decided not to argue the matter with him; the important thing now was to read through and see if there was anything that could actually be of use to me, or if this was just the meanderings of an old woman aware that her time was drawing to a close.
To the dread surprise of both of us, it was the story of the Purge.
We both read the first few lines that spoke of the king’s fear of magic.
“Do you want to read this now, Tina?”
I kept silent, took stock of myself, my emotions, my state of mind, and answered.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight. You’ve traveled today, so why don’t you go to bed. I’ll fill you in when we have breakfast.”
He nodded. “Very well.”
This was, and would be after all, my burden to bear.
We bade each other a good night, and he left.
I put the journal down, washed, and finally climbed into bed, adrenaline racing, seizing the journal, but taking a moment to look out at the stars before I opened it.
“I don’t know why you didn’t trust me with this, Gran. I’m hurt by that, but I have to believe it was because you wanted to spare me this burden.
“You gave me the greater portion of it, however, and in order to do what I need to do, I’ll need it all. I can’t go into this further without more knowledge. You understand.”
The room stayed silent, the air, still.
Sighing in exasperation and a flash of temper at her stubborn silence, I opened the journal to the tale she should have told me, and started reading.

Chapter 8: The Great Purge

      We named him King Jake the Craven, but while it was true he feared magic, he was not foolish in his attack on it.
     The Purge was not a massive battle of two sides facing each other with honor, but done as random attacks that targeted the vulnerable outskirts first, since there were no reliable means to warn those closer inside.
      His patrols ranged the forest day and night to ensure that.
     No one place was ever attacked repeatedly. The soldiers made sure the destruction was total, and the number and manner of deaths conveyed the king’s message.
     There were efforts to band together to counter them with magic, but he’d promised to spare the houses and families that aided his soldiers by working wards and counter-spells to keep both the soldiers and mercenaries safe.
      He paid them well too, and kept their identities secret.
     Not thinking of betrayal, we took no notice of the spies among us; everything seemed as it was. When we finally realized spies lived among us, it was too late.
     The Traitors Guild, as we called them, told him our plans.
     His campaign against us as successful, he turned on those very witches he used and killed them too, staking them along the forest roads, though it was rumored a few managed to escape.
     Tears flowed, and families were scattered. Those who’d lost all hope took their own lives rather than be hunted by royal death squads.
     Attempts at treaties were summarily dismissed, and the soil was soaked with blood while the air reeked with the screams and curses of the dying, and the scents of burning flesh and houses.
     Dodging the patrols, we appealed to the king’s Game Wardens, thinking to persuade them to our side to warn us. They didn’t turn us in, but fearing their own deaths, they wouldn’t be bribed.
     Our tracker and tracer spells were found and broken, and even the dark spirits failed us.  They’d put away the summoning spells somewhere sacred, warded, and sanctified by the most powerful clergy.
     We continue to search for the remnant of covens that may have escaped, that we might avenge our losses with their blood.

     Their fate and location, as of this writing, is unknown.

 

 

The Passing (Chapters 5 & 6)

Chapter 5: The Key

As time will, it moved forward.

My visits to Gran’s cairn grew more random, and shorter.

Atheron went about his life, and cooked dinner for us while he taught me how, and in the evening we’d read, or sit contemplating on our stargazing, or sipping tea and watching the hearth fire shrink in on itself, closing our own eyelids as it dwindled.

Then the day came we opened the door to Gran’s room. I could have searched it while Atheron was on his forays and errands, but while he’d made this part of the house Gran’s bedroom, it was still his home; I had his trust, and I didn’t want to do anything that would make me lose it, so I kept myself occupied tending his garden, cleaning the hearth, reading, and preparing the vegetables and seasoning meats for our meal.

It was late in the day, and the way sun’s rays fell took me back to her dying day and the passing of power. There’d still been nothing that indicated she had; it was as if it never happened.

Not a dream, nightmare, whispering voice, or vision had manifested itself to me.

I’d become aware, too, of Atheron’s own cautious gaze as he watched for something to happen to me. Out of that fear he disguised as not wanting to overtax me, he still refused to let me cook.  With a pang of sorrow I realized I couldn’t stay much longer. I was young, strong, and able to look out for myself now.

Gran had said the day would come, and it was getting to the point where he wanted his place back, and I no longer wanted to be confined.

But for now, there was Gran’s room.

“Are you sure you can do this, Tina?”

“I’m fine, Atheron. Thank you. I’ll be fine.”

But he insisted. “Would you like my assistance, or privacy?” He was shifting on his feet, not really comfortable about it, and I knew it was out of a sense of obligation more than anything else.

I turned and smiled at him. “Are you asking sincerely, or out of politeness?”

He returned my smile. “I’ll leave you to it, then, but I’ll leave the door open.”

“All right.” That was fair. He’d been kind to fugitives, not a friend of the family. He never got familiar with Gran; he’d likely only used her name at her insistence. Then, as now, he walked a middle ground, deferring to her age as she deferred to his hospitality, but they never became friends.

She’d called him such, but it was more of general term of affection than a fact.

I sensed too, living the life he did, there was a mistrust of magic; he watched me sometimes when he didn’t think I knew he was there.

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

There was nothing in her room I hadn’t seen countless times; before being bedridden, Gran kept the room tidy.

As far as I knew, and she’d ever said, there was no secret stash of letters, a locked diary, books, maps, jewels, or anything else that I needed to find after she died, so when I found a small teak chest bound with gleaming brass under the bed, I called Atheron, and he soon filled the doorway.

“What is it?”

I held it up for him to see. “There’s a lock on it.”

“No key?”

“I didn’t find one.”

“What do you want to do?”

“It’s small enough. Can you break it? Perhaps a twist…”

“Tina…”

“Please?”

“Maybe you should search a little more. Set it by and keep looking.”

“You won’t help me?”

“I’ll help you after you’ve searched everywhere.” He looked around. “Hannah was a fastidious woman. I’m sure she’d have a key somewhere. And you don’t have to open that now, or even tomorrow.”

“What’s ‘fas…fastidous’ mean?”

“What?”

“That word you said.”

“Oh,” he said, chuckling. “Fastidious. I meant she was very neat and clean.” His eyes went distant for a moment, “Like my own Gran…”

“Was she magic, too?”

He thought about it a moment. “Not that I remember. Dinner’s almost ready. I’ll call you when it’s done. Try to find the key first.”

“All right.”

He left, and I began to think: Where would she have put the key?

Chapter 6: Discoveries  

     Fastidious: extremely clean and neat.
Gran had always been that way, but at the same time, finding something under her bed she hadn’t told me about wasn’t like her at all.
I was the only family she had, and she never told me about the small teak chest that was gathering dust beneath her mattress.
Why not? Then it hit me; this was it, I’d have to call on the spirits to open it. It was my first test.
   Oh, Gran…I don’t know…
I felt a stirring inside, a spot of warmth in my belly like I’d swallowed something that was still alive. Along with it, a rising panic as my knees went weak and I stumbled against Gran’s dresser.
“Atheron!” I thought I’d shouted, but I heard no sound.
     Gran, you told me nothing of this!
I ran from the house, not wanting to unleash whatever horror was filling me into it.           Steam rose from my skin.
     Tina.
A distant voice named me; they knew who I was, and to be named was the first step toward control. I was flung onto my hands and knees, my thoughts scattered like leaves, and I forced myself to concentrate through the fear.
     Think. Fight. Control.
I felt the panic continue as the voice named me again.
“I didn’t call you! Leave me!” I could hear myself, but my relief was short-lived.
     But the key–
“The key be damned! I… I did not call you. Any of you. Leave me.”
The warmth left me, along with the panic and voices, but it had affected me so that when Atheron finally called that dinner was ready, I took a long moment to pull myself together to answer him.
I saw his worried frown when I entered through the back door, as he’d been looking for me in the room. Feeling the weight of his gaze,  I kept my eyes on the floor.
Sitting across from me after he’d served us both, he looked at me another long moment. “I thought you were searching for the key.”
“There’s a key, but not a real one.”
“What does that mean?”
“Let’s eat. I’ll tell you as we go.”

*************
We stuffed ourselves as I talked, but whether we ate a lot out of relief or anxiety was hard to say.
Now that I’d done the first calling, I really didn’t have much longer here.
Atheron finished his meal, and asked the one question that I’d wanted to ask Gran, but never did. “Hannah told me some of the story, but I never asked why those with magic didn’t simply enchant the king’s soldiers, or set demons loose on them?
“Maybe if they’d been united, he wouldn’t have won.”
I gave it some thought, but being new to it all, couldn’t come up with an answer that would satisfy us.

It was a good question. So good, in fact, that I decided to find out the answer myself.

“Maybe it wasn’t that simple at all.”

He grunted agreement and went back to eating.

 

The Passing (Chapters 3 & 4)

Chapter 3: After the Silence

I walked out of the room, and found Atheron, the hermit (our hermit, Gran would tease), still at his table, concentrating on swirling bread around his bowl. He was bringing it up to his mouth, but stopped when he saw me.

“I’m sorry, Tina.”

He had just enough time to put his bread aside as I ran to him, sobbing, losing myself in his big, comforting arms. Giving over to grief and the onslaught of uncertainty, the emotions took their toll and I collapsed into sleep under their weight.

When I woke up, he’d put me in his own bed under a massive blanket.

He slept on his cot which he took with him in his travels, and he’d let the hearth fire burn down to embers. The sky was suffused with bright moonlight, and speckled with stars.

He was snoring softly.

I didn’t know if he’d taken Gran, or left her, but I didn’t want to wake him to ask, so I went to take a peek into the room instead. Her body was there, but he’d covered it with another sheet, tucked in around her.

We’d enjoyed a peaceful time here, not having to look over our shoulders as we ran; Atheron had been valiant and vigilant in protecting us. He even made Gran laugh, and there was always a patient kindness in his eyes when he dealt with my childishness.

I tried to find out what drove him to hermitage, about his life before now, but he was as protective about that as everything else, finding a way to distract me while he pretended he was going to answer.

I’d pout later, realizing what he’d done, and promise he wouldn’t get away with it next time, but as far back as I could remember, he always did.

“G’night, Gran,” I said, as if she’d just fallen asleep and I’d see her smile in the morning.

**********

I climbed back into bed, turning over what she’d told me about the dark arts, but I wasn’t sleepy anymore. I didn’t feel any different after the transfer of power, outside of that flying sensation and the light around us, nothing else happened.

My sleep had been dreamless.

Sitting up in bed, listening to the forest sounds, I suddenly needed to know what Atheron intended to do with Gran, and I didn’t want him to do it without me. I stayed awake, reminiscing, remembering Gran as I’d known her in my brief life.

She was beautiful and brave, and try as they might, men far taller, stronger, and even older than she couldn’t intimidate her, no matter what their life’s station. There’d been other times I’d seen her eyes, hooded and distant, as she looked out the window at the changing seasons that marked her time, her lips moving as if in prayer, but no sound to indicate who or what she prayed to, or for, and why she was doing it.

Even with my childhood curiosity, I never got the courage to ask her; I simply called it ‘Gran’s time,’ and left her in peace whenever she was like that.

In a welcome memory I didn’t know I had, I saw her smiling down at me in my crib, singing, laughing, her face full of love and joy for my birth, for me. A feeling of peace went through me, warm like a hug in winter, better than Atheron’s comforting arms.

Go to sleep, Tina.

I turned on my side, away from the rising moon, and pulled up Atheron’s massive blanket; I had to use both my hands and all the strength in my arms to get it up to my chest.

G’night, Gran.

Chapter 4: Knowing, Parting

In the pale pink light of a foggy morning, Atheron made a cairn for Gran, and we sang a dirge that was supposed to put a soul that might be restless at peace. I don’t think Gran’s soul wanted to go through any more than it already had.

She would be somewhere surrounded by water, deer, and birds, and large swaths of sunlight on grass, and flowers with scents she could catch on a breeze; I didn’t think she’d miss the weight of the magic either, but if she could have taken it with her, she would have spared me the burden.

We finished the dirge, unsure if either of us felt any more at peace for singing it, but the last note faded away with the last tendrils of fog.

The birds resumed their song when we were done, and I didn’t realized they’d stopped until it happened.

“Thank you, Atheron.”

He sadly smiled and gave a heavy sigh.  For all that he was a hermit with a plot of land, isolated for however long, for whatever reason, I think he was grateful for the company; having someone to care for took his mind off the reasons and circumstances that led him to such a life.

“You’re welcome, Tina. I was honored to know her.”

Later there’d be questions, plans, decisions, and going through Gran’s things. For now, neither of us felt like talking, and though the joy had fled from our lives for the moment, the morning chill had not.

“Time for breakfast and tea,” he rumbled. “Let’s go.”

I took his hand, and we returned to the cottage.

I noticed he’d closed the door to what had been Gran’s room, emphasizing her absence, and the empty places in our hearts we knew no dirge could ever fill.

 

 

 

 

The Passing

Chapter 1: The Gathering Shadows

      I remember Gran spoke often of the Great Purge, the one ordered by the King because someone used magic, supposedly, to seduce his young wife away from his old bed, or simply because he was afraid of magic. 

    It depended on who you listened to, but the results were the same.

    She’d lost everyone she cared about, and everything she had to the death squads that had their way with the villages under his decree: magic, no matter how mild, was to be vanquished and exterminated without mercy or exception.

    That she started over at all was not a small thing; that she took me in after mom and dad were slaughtered was perhaps the bravest thing she’d ever done.

    Through it all, she never renounced the craft. I loved her for that alone.

    Keeping me safe was just the icing on the cake.

    But until I got back out on my own, we’d depended on a hermit’s kindness, and waited as Gran wore slowly away, like a river stone.

    There  would be no spells of immortality, no blood sacrifices by moonlight, no relics of fertility that sought another cycle of useless youth for the sake of it.

     The evening shadows of the hermit’s cottage lengthened in form, deepened in color, and gathered round Gran’s deathbed like silent mourning spirits about to lose a dear friend.

     Indeed, perhaps they were.

    Gran’s eyes shone in the gloom with a dim light that spoke of a long time of gathering wisdom and power that were dormant now, perhaps even fading. What potency remained still wrapped her like a second skin.

     The hermit’s gnarled and meaty hand slipped over my own small one, a giant god holding an earthly grape before crushing it.

     “Come now, Tina.” His voice was a low rumble that tickled my inner ear. “She’ll be gone within hours.”

      “What’s going to happen?” My voice sounded as small as I felt.

      “The Passing.” 

      “What’s that?”

      He smiled down at me. “A question that will be answered in a little while, my dear. Attend your grandmother.”

      “All right.”

 

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

 

     She was sitting up, propped by the hermit’s giant pillows. 

     Though she could barely see me, she smiled at my approach. “Tina…”

     Her voice was a small, rusty bell with a padded clapper, fallen into disuse as she kept her own death vigil.

     “Yes, Gran.”

     “Take my hand.”

     The hermit placed my hand in both of hers, and though they felt warm, they were light as old parchment on a dusty shelf, somewhere forgotten long ago.

     “Sit, child. I will tell you one last tale of the Purging, and then I must go.”

     “Hannah,” the hermit said, “she’s just a child.”

     “And the tale I tell her now, friend, is for the time she’ll no longer be. For the kindness you’ve shown us, I ask that you grant me this time with her alone, and hold your peace. She’ll not be with you forever, either.”

      “If that is the way of things…I bid you peace, Hannah.” He wasn’t happy, but he kissed her cheek, and shambled away. At that moment it seemed the very shadows drew closer to hear the tale along with me.

 

Chapter 2: The Last Tale

 “One does not ‘dabble’ in the dark arts, Tina. They aren’t building blocks to be taken and played with, then confined to the darkness of the toy chest until they’re desired again.

  “The journey to attain them seems innocent, even necessary, but trust me in this, they fill a torrential river of fire and blood, so that if one is not careful, they will overrun the banks and consume the one who’d wield them.

   “Adding to the confusion of what made the King so cowardly, there was reputed to be one such in his bloodline, and though we never learned what harm they’d done him or his family, he declared all magic a blight in the realm, and would see it destroyed, along with all who held it, or sought after it.”

    She shifted on the pillows, but she’d gone a little paler as the shadows deepened ever incrementally more.

    “It’s very like how when you sit on a river stone or bank with your feet in the water, and at first they’re cold, but then they adjust. You use just enough strength to keep them in front of you, or you may let them drift a bit before you bring them back.

     “That’s how the spells must be contained, releasing a bit at a time, and making sure the spells remain intact. Now imagine that something in the river seizes your ankles and snatches you into the middle of it.

     “You will sputter, scream, and flail at first. You will not be able to discern where in the river, or how far from the banks you are. If you don’t regain focus, and use your knowledge to swim, you will lose your life.

     “To lose control of the dark arts is like that. Do you understand?”

     “Yes, Gran.”

     “Good.” She patted my hand. “A smart girl becomes a wise woman, indeed.”

     She went silent for a time, and I knew she was gathering her thoughts, choosing her words.

      I waited. 

      The hermit was cooking, and the air was redolent,with the smell of peppers. 

      My stomach rumbled softly,and Gran chuckled, hearing it too.

      “Bear with an old woman for a while longer, dear.”

      “I’m listening, Gran.”

      “A good child.” She sighed, shifting to sit up higher, growing paler still; it seemed the more ghostly her appearance became, the closer she was to ascending from her body.

      She was gathering the last of her strength.

      The hermit appeared with a steaming bowl, but I waved him away.

      I’ll keep it warm, he mouthed, and slipped back out. I turned back to Gran.

      “I’d hoped to pass the power to your mother.” A tear streaked her cheek in the last of the sunlight. “I never thought I’d have to bury her.”

      She took her hand away from mine to wipe it, and the cold seeped in on mine until she put it back.

      “So then, Tina, I must pass them to you. They’re dread powers for one so young, but I can’t take them with me.”

      “Why?”

      “I’m a vessel, but death is like dropping it on the floor. If I try to take them with me, they’ll escape; unconstrained, and uncontrolled, they’ll do as they please, and have their way with all of us. It will take a strong one to put them back, and that will be a long, bloody time.”

     She touched my cheek. “I’d give them to the hermit. He’s big enough, but he’s not gifted.”

     “Am I big enough?” I was growing a little afraid.

     Gran chuckled and coughed. “Your gift is, Tina. You will be a great one in the land, but you must also be careful.”

      I swallowed, wanting to brave for her. “I will. Give them to me, Gran.” 

      She smiled at the bravado in my voice, knowing I didn’t feel it, and held out her thin arms.

      “Embrace me, child.”

      I faltered, and she prodded me gently. “We are blood, Tina. My time is at hand. I won’t let them hurt you. Embrace me.”

      I did, and as my arms encircled her I saw my body from above.

      There was light over the both of us, pulsing bright and dark, swirling out of her and into me.

      Her flesh grew whiter, more dessicated, mummified, as she trembled and shook in my arms.

      I braced against her body, keeping it up, balancing against it as the power rocked me from within.

      “Gran…Gran…Gran…”

      Her voice was inside my mind. It’s fine, Tina. You’ll be fine.

      Her last breath was warm and cold against my ear, and her body sagged back. I went with her, laying her back against the pillow, the sky went dark as the last of the sun left the sky.

      The void of black, speckled with stars high above me, was no comparison to the void that would open beneath me.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

      

Oasis of Demise

The last of the sunlight glimmered like blood on the crystalline sand as the wind rose and the air grew cold. The shimmering of the last of the day’s heat escaped like the last breath of a dying man.

A white-robed waif stood on the bank of the oasis looking down at the still water reflecting the twilight. Her back was to me, though she knew I was there.

“You’re late.”

“This pack is heavy.”

“You could have trained a beast for transport.”

“This was too important to leave to the whims of beasts who like to wander. I wouldn’t have the strength to stop them, so walking was the surest path.”

“Very well. You’re here now. Give me the pack.”

I was going to tell her to be careful of the weight, she looked so frail, but the look she gave me told me not to bother with any pointless attempts at chivalry.

I gave her the pack, and the waters of the oasis began to ripple as the speed of the wind increased and swept across its surface while the sand began to swirl in small eddies of their own.

“Stand back there, and cover your eyes.”

I obeyed.

She knelt on the wet sand and opened the pack wide, then she put both arms in and took out two handfuls of multicolored jewels in varied shapes and sizes, all seeming to glow from within.

“What are they?” My voice was breathy, like a child’s that couldn’t put words to a strong feeling.

“The talents of humanity.”

“Talents?”

“The collective knowledge of all that’s known in the world up to this moment. In these gems are the talents of art, language, trades, discoveries of knowledge, rituals of superstition, all magic, whether dark or light. But this one,” she held up a bright, shining one streaked through with bands of red that pulsed with a heartbeat rhythm, flaring and dimming, “is the one that holds all the thoughts of men that have perverted the good of them and turned them to evil purpose.”

She set it down, apart from the others.

“And the water here, what will it do?”

“Dissolve them. We must start over.”

“Why?”

She began to toss the gems in the water, and a mist began to form over it as the ripples grew more defined in the twilight.

“Because we do not learn, and seem to get nor farther than we did before. The cosmos grows weary of us; we are eternal infants in its sight. I do not know how many more turns it will give to us.

“Perhaps we don’t deserve one.”

The wind turned the ripples to waves.

“And then?”

“The oasis will dry up, and the winds will blow the gems remains throughout the world again, to make new combinations of nations and people, new knowledge and skills, and once more we will crawl out of the earth to try again, if the cosmos deems it so.”

She picked up the last jewel and looked back at me. “When I throw in this one, we will both die.”

I took a deep breath, not knowing what to say. I wanted to beg her not to, but we both knew it had to be done.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“Do I have a choice?”

She gave me a sad smile, and shook her head.

Turning away, she tossed it, and its facets caught the moonlight, flaring, refracting, and pulling a shroud of celestial light over impending, indefinite darkness.

I felt my body fall, heard it hit the sand, and felt it creeping over me as the wind blew even harder, and I saw her corpse roll into the water, the small waves taking her out to the center before she sank.

My own eyes closed to sleep until the dawn of another age, and with my last breaths I prayed that whatever watched beyond the stars would grant us mercy once more.