Authors: T. Eric Bakutis
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy
“Too many. Now they have found each other.”
Jyllith imagined a dozen more families like hers, a dozen children hiding in cupboards. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I bring a warning. My children have gathered in a town called Knoll Point, above Pale Lake. They are bringing the Mavoureen through.”
“That’s not possible.” Jyllith stood and glared. “We locked the gate!” She had done that, with Kara, and Trell, and Byn and Aryn and Sera. They had locked the gate to the Underside forever.
“You locked this gate,” Cantrall said. “My children made another.”
Jyllith took the dream world and focused on Melyssa’s orange body. Bloodmenders learned to tell truth from lie by watching a person’s dream form. If Cantrall lied, Melyssa’s body would react.
“Say that again,” Jyllith ordered.
Cantrall repeated the absolute truth. He had murdered more parents, stolen more children, and raised them to hate. Like her. Now those misguided children were summoning the Mavoureen.
This was too much to stomach, too much weight on her shoulders. It wasn’t something she could deal with now. “What do you want from me?” Jyllith whispered.
“I want you to stop my children.”
“Join them. I spoke of you often and they will trust you.”
“So I can murder them all in their sleep?”
“So you can close their portal.”
“How do I do that? I don’t even know how we closed this one!”
“All I know is their leader is Divad, a man I trained personally. He opened that portal. He must know how to close it.”
“That’s not good enough!” Jyllith gripped Melyssa’s shoulders and fought the urge to shake the woman’s body. “Give me something. How many demons has he brought through?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where will they attack first?”
“I don’t know!” Then Cantrall stopped talking. Then Melyssa’s body choked and coughed.
“Cantrall?” She pulled him close. “Talk to me!”
“Please.” He coughed again. “Not yet.” Then Melyssa’s body spasmed, coughs coming in waves. Cantrall screamed, a raw scream like a man being ripped apart. It set Jyllith back on her heels.
Cantrall kept screaming as Melyssa’s body twisted about on the floor. A sadistic puppeter had turned him into a marionette and was now twisting his strings. Bone snapped and flesh split.
Jyllith pinned Melyssa’s thrashing body. “Push him out! Now!”
Then Melyssa vomited blood. It went everywhere, on her face and up her nose and down her neck and dress, but Jyllith knew that meant Cantrall’s soul had left her. A channeling gone bad could tear the user’s insides apart and this channeling had done just that.
Melyssa coughed up more blood as Jyllith took the dream world, stared at the damage inside the old woman, and cried out. Cantrall had undone all her healing and more. Melyssa was dying and it was happening right now.
“He was right,” Melyssa whispered. No soul possessed her any longer.
“I should have channeled him!” Jyllith hugged Melyssa close. “It should have been me!”
“Enough. Listen.” Melyssa felt so frail and warm. “Stop Divad. Stop his cult.”
“I will.” Jyllith lifted Melyssa — she did not weigh so very much now — and carried her to the bed of discarded cushions. She dampened a cloth and dabbed blood off Melyssa’s fingers and arms, face and neck, teasing it out of Melyssa’s hair and making little progress. There was just so damn much of it.
“His cult won’t trust you,” Melyssa said.
“Cantrall’s dead and you’ve been gone too long.”
“I know! I’ll find a way around that.”
She would find a way to make a cult of damaged children trust her. She would somehow close a portal to the Underside that shouldn’t even be possible to open. She would defeat demons that could not be hurt by mortal weapons or harmed by mortal glyphs.
She would get herself killed. Horribly, brutally, and then the demons would spend eternity ripping her apart in the Underside. Yet what else could she do but try?
“I’ll figure something out,” Jyllith repeated softly as she dabbed at Melyssa’s forehead. “You just rest.”
Melyssa straightened the hem of her dress, a small bit of dignity in a dying old woman. “You’ll need more than words. You’ll need proof you still serve the Mavoureen.”
“So I’ll bring them a demon glyph or an ancient tome. Something. We don’t have to worry about it right now.”
“I have a better idea.” Melyssa glanced at the red staining her white dress, uncurled her fingers, and smiled up at Jyllith. It was a wide smile unlike any she had offered these past few days.
“Jyllith,” Melyssa said softly, “you’re going to bring that Demonkin cult my head.”
Jyllith felt like someone had punched her in the stomach. “No.” She couldn’t breathe. “You’re mad, you old crone.” She stood, stepped back, and raised her hands.
“Mad or not, you still serve me.” Melyssa coughed blood on cushions and blanket. “You swore an oath.”
Jyllith trembled as Melyssa traced glyphs Jyllith knew well on her pale skin, strengthening her own limbs, and those were the last glyphs she would ever scribe. No Bloodmender could thin her own blood to this degree. Melyssa had just murdered herself.
Melyssa reached into her robes, produced a dagger, and offered it to Jyllith hilt first. “Take it.” The old woman looked strong, now, but she would die the moment her enhancement ended.
“Please don’t make me.” Jyllith remembered the first man she had murdered begging for his life. “Make me do anything but this.”
“This struggle is bigger than either of us. Presenting that cult with the head of Torn’s wife will convince them to accept you.”
Jyllith had done all she could to help Melyssa, but what the old woman asked now was unfair, evil. Insane.
“I’ve lived a long, lonely life,” Melyssa said, “without the man I love. Torn is free from the Underside and I want to be free too.”
Jyllith took deep breaths, forced herself to think and speak. “You’re dying already. Why make me murder you?”
“The Demonkin can use a person’s blood to see how they died. They will do that with my head and they must see you murder me.”
Jyllith knew Melyssa was right. She knew that glyph because Cantrall had taught it to her. She wanted to take that knife and jam it into her own heart.
“There is a cure,” Melyssa said. “For the Demonkin curse.”
“What?” Jyllith wanted to scream at her. “Why didn’t you tell me? We’ve been looking for a week!”
“I had hoped you would find another way.”
“Why? What’s the cost of this cure?”
“Those cursed must trade another’s soul for theirs.”
Jyllith sagged in place, an empty pit opening in her stomach. Sera would never send another soul to the Underside, yet there was a possibility there. One hope.
“What if I went in place of Sera?”
“Oh, child.” Melyssa smiled at her, like her mother had smiled when she answered a question right. “You can’t. Only an uncursed soul may be given in trade.”
Uncursed. Well. Jyllith was far from that.
“Now, while I can still stand.” Melyssa stepped closer. “Kill me and take my head.”
“I hate you for this.” Jyllith took the dagger and gripped it so hard it hurt. “I’ll never forgive you.”
“Just forgive yourself.”
Melyssa had trusted and forgiven her. Melyssa had saved her when no one else would. Melyssa even made her happy, sometimes, when she knew the old woman wasn’t looking.
Jyllith drove the dagger right between Melyssa’s ribs.
Melyssa gasped, eyes wide. She fell and Jyllith caught her. She held Melyssa as she trembled, shook, and choked on her own blood.
“Thank you,” Melyssa whispered.
Jyllith refused to cry. Melyssa didn’t deserve to see that. “I’ll stop them. I won’t fail you. Thank you for everything.” She kissed Melyssa’s forehead. “I wish we had more time.”
Melyssa smiled at her. Her face relaxed. For a moment Jyllith felt like she had always felt when her mother smiled at her, warm and safe and happy. It felt like holding her mother again.
Then Melyssa died.
Jyllith held Melyssa on the cold stone floor and wept. She hugged the old woman’s still warm body. Finally, she set Melyssa beside her cot and closed the woman’s sightless eyes.
“Wherever you are, I hope you found Torn.” Jyllith raised the bloody dagger. “Five guard your soul.”
It took some time to saw through Melyssa’s neck. Most daggers balked at bone and when it was done her hands were slick with blood. Numb and messy, she took her gruesome trophy and left the library for the first time in a week.
She was all alone now.
The gloss-stone walls surrounding the academy were charred and cracked. The plain white cobblestones that formed the ground were broken and choked by hard black scrub. Brilliant clouds roiled in the sky, the spectral storms Torn had summoned raging still.
It did not take Jyllith long to find supplies. No looters had ever reached Terras and the belongings of the departed dead were bountiful. She found a bucket and heated some pitch. Then she lifted Melyssa’s head by its long white hair and dipped it.
The pitch smelled terrible. She whispered an apology. Then she went inside to pick up Melyssa’s headless body.
It took her an hour to dig the grave and another hour to put Melyssa to rest. She had no time to leave a marker. It was already mid-afternoon and with only two weeks before this Demonkin curse consumed her, she needed every hour.
Even with a horse, the journey out of the Unsettled Lands and then to Pale Lake would take eight days. More than half of what remained to her. Her demon’s whispers would grow louder all the while, and listening even once would be the end of her.
Any mage who dared scribe demon glyphs, as she and Sera had done on the journey to Terras, allowed the Mavoureen to latch onto their souls. Those demons consumed them, slowly driving them mad, until nothing was left but a demonic shell and endless hate.
That was the Demonkin curse. That was her fate if she did not kill herself before two weeks elapsed. It would be Sera’s fate, too.
Jyllith gathered a heavy oak quarterstaff, a travel pack with a blanket, flint and steel, and coins of various denominations. It was enough for a horse and supplies at the first town she reached. By the time she finished foraging, Melyssa’s head was ready.
She dropped the pitch-covered thing inside a waterproof sack and tied the top tight. Her final task was to pen a note for Sera and Byn. She detailed Melyssa’s cure for the Demonkin curse.
She knew Sera would not use it but they deserved to know. She signed it with Melyssa’s name — they would never trust hers — and slid it into a weatherproof parchment tube from the library.
Finally, she strapped her quarterstaff across her back and took up travel pack, tube, and sack. She walked for the Terras gates. The sun closed on the horizon and a stiff wind rose as she stepped off the academy grounds. It chilled even through lined leather.
She pulled out the weatherproof tube. It had a long metal spike on one end. She jammed that spike into the ground as hard as she could, driving it until she was certain it was secure. It would not blow away or come free and anyone returning here could not miss it.
One way or the other, Sera Valence had her cure.
Jyllith straightened. A long road waited and she would walk it without any friends. Kara had endured much as Jyllith and Cantrall hunted her, but she had people she loved, relied upon, trusted. Byn Meris. Sera Valence. Aryn Locke and Jair Deymartin.
Jyllith had no one. Everyone she loved was dead. Her family was somewhere wonderful, but even if she stopped this cult and saved the world she would never go where her family was.
She would go somewhere else.
Jyllith stopped at Jair’s grave. She and Melyssa had buried him beside the Terras gates a week ago. She almost imagined she could feel him standing by, watching her.
“I don’t know if you can hear me.” Jair had been a Soulmage as well and he had given his life to give Kara hers. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this. It doesn’t seem possible.”
Jair had been under Cantrall’s thrall for a brief time, done horrible things for reasons not his own. She imagined he understood her, just a little bit. He had been a kind and patient soul.
“Watch over me,” Jyllith whispered. “Don’t let me fail.”
Then she looked out over the empty gray earth and made herself stop feeling anything. She made herself numb. She had to once more become the hard, vindictive woman she hated.
She had to deliver Melyssa’s severed head.
To be continued in December 2015…