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