The dust had been swirling all day in small cyclones that lifted off the barren path outside her hovel, spiraling into the air and adding to the haze cloaking the distant purple mountains. Had the local priest of the shrine been visiting, he would have thought it a bad omen and said the desert spirits were agitated. Misha simply frowned and kept her passing superstitions to herself; she had enough to worry about.
She had first staggered into the village, bloodied and ashen from a fight she had nearly lost with a pack of savage, hungry kerroth. The villagers had taken her in, cared for her, and then offered her a place with them. She thought it strange they had so quickly accepted her…that they had even helped her in the first place. One did not find that sort of unselfish compassion in the cities, or among the slave tribes who raided caravans along the trade routes.
Misha was astonished to have found it anywhere, had not realized such a thing could exist in the world, for she had never encountered it before in all her life. Yet it thrived here in this godforsaken hole in the middle-of-nowhere nestled among the barren hills of the wasted world.
…of course, the villagers did not know what she had been…what she was…
The village, such as it was, spread out across the dusty folds of low, barren hills just on the edge of rock-spired badlands carven by the wind and sand, nothing more than a scattered series of huts and associated plots of claimed land. Her own hovel was situated upon a more level patch of ground in the higher hills at the edge of the village, giving her a modest overview of the shallow valley and the huts of some of her closer neighbors.
In the valley’s curve below she could see the village’s small, singular crop field, the only truly fertile patch of land in the whole village, tended to by all in the village, for it fed them all. Next to it stood the wide stone rim of the village well, according to local history dug long ago by the Ancients and uncovered more recently by the first of the villagers to settle here.
She had found the villagers did not burden one another; everyone kept to themselves and only bothered those who wished to be bothered, with the exception of those things that had to be done together to help the community survive, like tending to the fields. She liked that. She liked the distance she had found in their attitudes.
More importantly for her, the village was far enough from the cities that no one would take any notice of them, neither raiders nor city-folk. Even if someone did, it was too far for anyone from the cities to care to punish them for living in rebellion, living without a god to rule over them, and they were both too poor and too far from trade routes for any raiders or slavers to concern themselves with. Here, no one would find her and no one would bother her.
Still, it was not all peaceful. Dangerous things were always creeping in from the desert, looking for an easy snack. In fact, once she had recovered and settled in, a pair of jackar had attacked her hovel late one night and nearly dragged her away before the other villagers arrived and frightened the mangy creatures away with fire. After that, she had taken to wandering the evening shadows of the badlands.
…and little bothered the village…now…
The villagers thanked the elemental spirits for their recent good fortune, but what the villagers did not know – could never know – was that the spirits had nothing to do with their fortune. The spirits likely opposed it, for the source of that fortune was Misha.
A part of the tale she had wisely avoided telling her rescuers was that the only reason she had survived the kerroth attack had been because she knew the dark and vile arts of wizardry, and had used them to lay the snarling beasts out across the sands as charred, hollow corpses before the pack could tear her to shreds. No matter how compassionate the villagers were, she doubted the same treatment they had given her would have been extended towards a wizard. Wizards, after all, had destroyed the world.
Being a wizard meant a swift, painful death…whether one lived in the city or in the wilds. Wizards were hung, burned, or stoned; for good measure the mobs sometimes did all three. Even the elements rejected them; “flame would not burn them, sand would not cover them, and the sea would cast them out” the old wisdom said. You could not burn them to ash, you could not bury them deeply enough, you could not hurl their remains into the great seas of silt…the elements would reject their presence and spit them out.
Worse, those who died would rise again instead of becoming one with the elements, and they would wander the wastelands for eternity, thirsty and hungry, damned and rejected by the very world, never knowing peace or rest or a breath of cool air.
Truthfully, she had thought she would have no real need of her wizardry now.
But Misha knew her soul was stained with the blood of the land, and what fate lay in store for her on her death, so she desperately wanted at least a few years of peace before death claimed her and eternal torment began. That was why she had fled here… not specifically here, but into the deserts and far from her master in the cities.
So use her wizardry she did, and the scavenger-cleaned bones of various beasts scattered through the nearby badlands bore testament to her success and her power, as were the pockets of scattered, ashen dust – barren circles stripped of life – that told of her methods. She kept her peace by seeking out monsters coughed up by the wastelands that wandered too close to the village, and when she found something, practiced upon it the use of the terrible powers she had learned in her long studies, but careful, oh-so-careful, of the village fields.
Now, even worried about the slim chance that some nosy villager would stumble across the objects of her Art kept hidden in her hovel, or spy her “working” in the deserts, and so ruin everything she had found here, for either discovery would mean a death-sentence, she stayed. For she loved the freedom, the peace of it all, the quiet and the solitude she had found.
Misha tended to the fields daily, but otherwise kept to herself and carefully nourished and protected a small plot of flowers outside her door. The others had originally smiled politely at this, and offered their advice: the flowers would not grow in the poor earth found there, and she was better off drinking the portion of her water ration she spilled in the poor earth in her attempt to coax life into bloom, or give it to the fields if she felt the need to contribute it in some other way. The fields could always use more water.
She didn’t listen, of course. It was her water, her land, her choice. She wanted flowers, but the villagers were right, at first…then Jessom had come and prayed over the tiny, brown, wilting things struggling in the dust and sand.
Everyone knew the gods had abandoned the wastelands, and those foolhardy enough to willingly dwell in them. But the elements had not. So while in the cities the elements served the gods, out here the elements were the gods, and both the gods and the people needed their priests. For this village, that priest was Jessom.
He was not much of a priest, really, he had only the village’s small shrine to tend and little honest training in the ancient rituals followed by the elemental priesthoods of the cities. Still, he was deeply devoted to service of the elemental spirits of the world: the sun, sky, wind, earth, flame, and water that were sacred to the village. Sometimes his devotion to the elements made him foolish, but he never abused his position like the priests of the city, especially not like the templars who served the god-kings.
He was very, very different from them in manner and attitude. She liked him for that, surprisingly; and his prayers had helped. The earth had bloomed.
The first time Misha had caught him crouched outside her hovel, she had nearly brained him with a large rock. She had earlier made it plain to the villagers she would do her part but otherwise wanted to be left alone. As it was the same with many of them, they had respected her wish…except for Jessom.
He had quickly explained himself and begged her apology for not asking her permission first, but he thought her steady devotion to give life to the barren land was noble and should be blessed by the elemental powers. Despite her suspicions of and annoyance with him for disregarding her desire for solitude, Misha had lowered the rock and allowed him to continue his prayers over the flower beds.
The truth was, if he had asked that first time, she would have told him “no” and sent him away. Misha suspected that was exactly why Jessom had not asked, because he knew she never would have given her permission, and he obviously felt her task was too important to be undertaken without such a blessing.
Jessom had come every day for a week to pray over the earth of her flowerbed, and Misha had allowed it each time. Afterwards, he humbly proclaimed his prayers would have done nothing without Misha’s unfailing devotion to the small garden. That, he said, was what allowed the flowers to grow and bloom so beautifully; the elements had blessed her efforts, and his prayers had merely called their attention to it.
Misha had snorted.
She was a wizard, a defiler, a murderer who killed the land bit-by-bit to give power to her spells. The elements would never bless her…but of course, Jessom didn’t know that. So she called the flowers Jessom’s and attributed their success wholly to him and his faith and the elements, whether or not he would accept the responsibility.
It was strange, she thought, given who and what she was that the one individual whose intrusions into her privacy she accepted, even enjoyed, was the village’s priest. She did not ever mind his dropping by unexpectedly to visit and talk, even if she had never said so to him.
Or perhaps her unpredictable bond with the priest was not so strange. At first, perhaps, he presented a way out for her, an intermediary to the spirits to help beg off their wrath, a way to cleanse her soul of the sins she had committed against the land. At one time, she had thought to abandon her practices, to put away her magics and seek atonement…if such a thing could be found. At one time she had meant to either bury or destroy the items of magic she kept secreted around her hovel – wizardly instruments, arcane writings, and her personal grimoire: things of terrible power constructed during the long apprenticeship to her master – yet she had hung on to them, not quite willing to rid herself of the dangerous things. Even knowing any use within the village would wither the fields and destroy her own small garden, even though she had no wish to do either.
Perhaps if she had ever gained the courage or stupidity to reveal her past to Jessom he could have plead to the elements for her, spoke to them on her behalf, convince them she had been young and foolish and did not deserve the torment awaiting her. But he never asked about her past, and she never loosened her own tongue. No one in the village talked of such things; if someone wanted to share, they did. Few cared to. This was a new life out here, not the life any of them had left behind. That life was dead to them all, forgotten. Best forgotten, whatever horrors they had suffered or committed. Only the village mattered.
Misha sighed; it was obvious atonement was too far behind her, now, for she had brought her old life with her. She doubted even Jessom could intercede with the elements on her behalf at this point…not after the willful destruction she had wrought through the lands outside the village. There was only the lifetime of peace in the quiet village to look forward to before her just un-death of everlasting punishment began.
So she was not merely using the priest, because she doubted anyone could intercede with the elements for her. Perhaps the village was just rubbing off on her, the selfless nature of the community. Perhaps she just liked Jessom, as a person, for his compassion and his faith, for his…his good heart.
But she was no mind-reader, she had not studied the Way, so she could not truthfully tell the nature of Jessom’s heart. It seemed honest and caring, but experience told her everyone was hiding something. Everyone had dark secrets, did they not? Jessom must have come out here for some reason he wasn’t telling anyone about, either. Just like her hiding from other villagers what she had been in the city…what she still was…
Perhaps that was why she liked Jessom. He was a mystery, a puzzle she couldn’t quite put together, and so she tolerated him because she was looking for the pieces that would make everything fit.
Misha watched the swirling whorls of dust outside her hovel a few moments more – the agitated spirits – Jessom would certainly comment on it if he were to arrive soon. He had told her earlier that he intended to drop by to visit and check on the flowers. She moved from her place inside the doorframe and went back inside, checking to make sure everything was properly hidden and her own dark secret was safe from Jessom’s kindly eyes.
She idly mused that maybe the priest was not coming; perhaps that was why the spirits were agitated? Though why the spirits would be concerned about her welfare made no sense to her, for they would not be. As she adjusted one of the simple rugs she had hung on the wall, she heard someone step unceremoniously through the doorway behind her, sand crunching underfoot.
“By the moons, don’t you announce yourself before just entering a person’s home, Jess…” Misha’s fake tirade died in her throat as she turned, the blood draining from her pale face. It was not Jessom who had strode into her home.
The words of magic leapt hot into her mind, ravishing her lips with promised caress, but they died as quickly in her throat at the sharp tip of a bone spear snapped fluidly up to rest against her skin. Still, it was all she could do to clench her jaw and swallow the words down, to let their memory burn in her stomach as a growling, ravenous hunger rather than release them as they begged her to do at the cost of her own life.
The spear-man flinched at what he saw raging in her dark eyes, but the tip of his weapon did not waver from its tense promise against her throat. Then he smiled.
The dust of the road lay thick across the man’s face and shoulders, though beneath that gray veil, the desert sun had seared itself into his skin. Whoever he was he had traveled a long way, so she thought him some far-riding bandit or raider who had thought the village worth plundering…but there were things about him that spoke to him being more than a too-adventurous reaver.
There was cruel intelligence in his black eyes, and the spiked bone plates strapped across his muscular frame were stamped and etched with the mark of a noble house – a mark she had hoped never to see again, whose appearance here could not be mere coincidence. But when the warrior’s words confirmed her suspicions, it still turned her world upside down, “An old friend has been looking for you.”
“You have the wrong woman,” Misha growled the lie past the tip of bone hungering at her throat.
The bald man grinned at her, revealing rows of polished white teeth sharpened to glistening points in the fashion favored by gladiators and city ruffians, “No games, Misha. Lord Arrak spared no expense in tracking you down. He was very upset when his favorite slave ran away.”
Misha’s eyes seemed to flash with anger and she abandoned the earlier pretense of ignorance, “So I am his slave, now, not his lover?”
The man shrugged and stared her down, seemingly undaunted, though one of his eyes twitched tellingly, “Is there any difference?”
She could tell he knew what she was. It was plausible her former master would have told him so, to properly prepare him, and his difficulty meeting her gaze was a dead giveaway. There was a belief that a sorcerer could steal your soul if you looked them in the eye.
“What do you want?” she asked again.
“You, of course. You are the property of Lord Arrak, and he wants his property back. Oh, and don’t think of trying any witchery on me. Lord Arrak had the this spear fashioned by the priests to protect its wielder from your vile magic.”
He waited until he saw the frown tug at the corners of her mouth, then pulled the spear away and stood there cock-sure he was safe from any sorcery she could conjure.
What aggravated Misha was that he had reason to be.
She rubbed at her neck and her hand came away with a streak of red. He had nicked her.
She glared and he grinned at her discomfort.
“So, are you coming with reasonably, or do I have to kill you and drag your carcass back to my master?”
“So the choice is between certain torture and certain death? Of course, he would simply raise my soul from the dead to torture me with his foul magic for the next century. I would lose twice.”
The warrior’s black eyes widened in surprise, and Misha pressed him, “You didn’t know your master was a sorcerer himself? Of a blacker and more foul sort than I?”
The spear snapped back up towards her, still steady and deadly, “That is the only sort of sorcerer there is. Still, I will take my pay from your hide, if only for the cost of hunting you down. And if the priests of the god-king happen to discover two sorcerers beneath their very noses after I have returned you to him, then someone might become all the richer for having provided such valuable information.”
“You think they don’t know themselves,” she snorted derisively, “Spare me the subtle plots and plans you announce so openly. I will go nowhere with you.”
He narrowed his eyes, hard chips of obsidian glinting, “No games. You have one chance; otherwise, I will kill you where you stand. Choose.”
She gritted her teeth at the impossibility of the situation. She could always flee, but this man had crossed empty deserts in order to find her, and there was little chance he would simply give up if she escaped his grasp here. Such a flight would be temporary; she would never find peace unless she put an end to this one now.
As they stood tensely there, staring at one another, a whiff of smoke hit her face. So wrapped up in this conflict, she had not noticed the smell until now, until it had become so strong it forced her senses to make note of it.
The warrior noticed her sudden interest, the flaring of her nostrils, and grinned his sharp teeth at her again, reminding her of a hungry kerroth, “What? The smoke? My men and I thought the inhabitants of this sand-pit might fetch a nice price at the slave market. A little private bonus for this blasted hunt.”
Her eyes widened angrily and she screamed curses at him, racing out of her hovel and past him without thinking. Instead of spearing her, he just laughed and stepped aside to let her pass, following casually behind as she stumbled to a halt on the ridge overlooking the valley and the rest of the village below.
Bright flames of orange and yellow snapped and crackled among the black smoke billowing upwards from the golden fields as they burned. The screams and sobs of women and the outraged cries of men reached her ears now, carried by the smoke-laden wind, and through the growing haze she could see a mob of men rounding up survivors and cutting down any who yet resisted.
The words to a savage spell flashed through her mind, snarling and growling to be let free; only the prick of sharp bone through the cloth on her back gave her the wherewithal to grind her furious desire back down and cage it, unquenched…and unquenchable for the moment.
A half-dozen men armored in the bones of slain desert beasts climbed up the ridge towards her while their brethren below bemused themselves in vicious sport with some of the women. One of the men carried something clutched in one fist and held it up, “Commander! We caught this one on his way up here. We warned him, but the fool still tried to stop us.”
The other warriors laughed as this one swung the gruesome trophy around.
“Jessom!” Misha screamed in stunned horror as she stared at the open-mouthed, bodiless head. Strong limbs grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms against her side and lifting her off her feet. She kicked and struggled as the commander growled in her ear, “Time to go.”
The warrior holding the grisly trophy cast it into the sand at her feet and mocked her, “Friend of yours?”
“This the one, commander?” someone else asked.
The commander grunted an affirmative and snapped, “Get the restraints, I don’t want to have to wrestle her back with me the whole way.”
“We should burn her now,” another man snarled and spit, cursing, “Ashen wizard.”
The commander cracked his forehead into the back of Misha’s skull, sending blazing flashes of light popping across her eyes, dazing her enough to stop her from struggling for a moment, “Lord Arrak wants her back for himself. Now go get those damn ropes.”
Misha hung limply, realizing the commander was a fool. He didn’t know anything about sorcery, about what it could or could not do; yes, that damn spear would protect him from any sorcery she directed against him, and he could have skewered her with it before she could have called up her magic, had he still been holding it.
Before the commander realized what she was doing, she screamed words of power that surged from her mouth like a gout of flame into the pale, smoky heavens. A ring of verdant green energy swept inwards towards Misha, and in its wake the sands turned to ash, rocks shattered, and shoots of yellowed grass became hollow gray silhouettes that vanished to powder at the merest stirring of the air. The men around her staggered as it struck them, their souls lashed by black winds that futilely dragged at spectral outlines, their bodies desperately clutching to their lives even as the earth beneath them was turned to death.
The commander, too, stumbled in surprise and horror, loosening his grip enough that Misha broke free and fell to the ground on her knees as the life-energy rushed into her in a terrible, ecstatic wave of nauseous force. This was exactly what she had wanted.
She muttered the final words of the spell as her back arched her bosom towards the heavens in shuddering pleasure. The warriors around her – all but their commander – fell to the earth screaming in agony as invisible flames consumed them and turned them into white ash, their screams dead on the wind.
She rolled away, and gained her feet just in time to see the spear-head whistling towards her head, slicing as viciously through the air as it would her flesh. Fortune saved her, for she was but a hairsbreadth beyond the commander’s deadly swing, the spearhead slicing only through rough cloth instead of her abdomen.
Expertly, the commander spun the spear under his arm and over his shoulder, turning the force of the failed swing into a series of quick and sudden stabs at her midsection and face. Purely by luck, she avoided every strike as she quick-stepped backwards, off-balance, trying to avoid falling over the ridge. Or at least she thought she had avoided them all; she gasped as she noticed a stinging pain and a line of crimson blossom in the pale flesh of her right forearm.
The bald man paused briefly to give her a feral grin, clearly enjoying himself, snarling, “AS you can see, your luck won’t hold forever, witch. The elements will thank me for putting a spear in you, even if Lord Arrak won’t pay as much for you dead.”
In the village below, the remaining warriors had turned at the sounds of their companions’ dying screams atop the ridge, and most of them now rushed upwards to help their commander. Barely able to keep away from the spear of Lord Arrak’s hireling, Misha knew she would not survive once his men joined the fray and penned her in.
But she had no time to focus and cast another spell, she had to keep moving or die.
She dodged towards her hovel, feeling the spear score her across the back, stumbling from the pain but dragging herself forward anyways.
“You can kill all my men, but you can’t hurt me,” the commander laughed, “And running won’t help!”
Misha barely made it into the small building, the spearhead scoring the stone as she used the door’s arch for cover. She didn’t plan to stay inside, however, and launched herself out the single window to her right, snagging in the ratty curtain she had hung. Tangled in the dark cloth, she crashed and skidded on the rocky ground outside, throwing up dust. Inside, the commander dodged back outside, trying to keep up, smiling with certain victory.
But she was not as badly tangled as it seemed. Misha threw the torn cloth off her as she rose and again uttered words of power, calling out the twisted words of a terrible spell. As verdant energies surged up out of the land around her once again, the ground shook and quivered, the rocks rattling and groaning, and the great, broken cliff that rose up behind her hovel shuddered dangerously, shedding rocky debris.
The commander stumbled, head bloodied by a small shard of falling stone. He barely managed to keep his feet, yet before he could spit a curse at the clever witch or even question how her magic had affected him while he held the spear, he was suddenly buried under a ton of debris shattered loose from the cliff-face above, which cascaded down upon him in a sudden, dusty rush.
Misha growled and whirled around, sighting the approaching warriors as they climbed the path up the steep ridge. The same spell leapt to her lips again, the verdant energies surged up out of the land around her once again, the destructive radius further out this time, and the ridge quaked and crumbled beneath the screaming men, burying them in sand, rock, and choking gray ash.
Smiling, Misha grabbed up the torn curtain and leapt off the now broken edge of the ridge, sailing through the air and down towards the rest of the village on the shallow valley floor below, the torn cloth billowing and rippling around her like a pair of unnatural wings fluttering in a wind blowing from nowhere.
She touched down and strode through the village, chanting the gruesome syllables of dark spells, slaying the remaining warriors where they stood, using her wizardry to draw the fires from the fields in crashing waves hurled against the surviving men. She did not stop until every last one of them lay dead, charred ash and bone in the gray dust that had once been the soil of the village. The last ran screaming into the desert beyond the village until his charred husk finally collapsed and lay still in the sands.
Gathered at a distance around her, the surviving villagers glared. There was no look of thanks from any of them, only absolute hatred and fear. None of the survivors spoke a word, they just glared in anger and fear, and Misha was plainly aware who they thought the greater evil on that day, between the rapists and slavers and she. Her welcome here was long spent.
She almost lashed out at them, too, the magic practically begging her, but none made any move towards her, so Misha lowered her shaking arms and calmed her hungry, raging mind, the last pangs of the magic’s ecstasy fading from her quivering body.
A glance around made her heart tighten in her chest and skip a beat as she surveyed what she had done in the throes of her wizardry. The fields had been sucked dry of their life, so much so that the fires consuming them had faded into long-risen smoke: her wizardry had left nothing for the flames to consume but ash, and so they had been snuffed, too. Unlike the temporary damage the fires would have wrought, the land it stood upon would never see another growing thing, only dead, gray ash bore testament and scarred the land.
The grounds of the entire village were coated the same. She did not test what might lie at the bottom of the Ancient well, whether it was dust or sludge. The village…was dead. Forever. There was nothing left to build with or on, no way for anything to survive here.
She turned without comment and headed back towards her hovel on the ridge above, summoning the magic again to carry her quickly back to the top, adding yet another wound to the raped land.
“Rot,” she snarled as she passed by the stone prison that held the commander, noticing one dusty, bloody hand sticking out of the deep pile of rock. She laughed wickedly at him, but her laughter was cut short as she caught sight of the entry to her hovel and stumbled forward.
The garden she had so carefully tended was nothing but wilted stems that blew away at her touch and barren soil; a sob choked its way out of her parched throat. She kneeled unsteadily at the entry and stared for a moment at the immortal destruction she had wrought upon the flowerbed, running her hands through the gritty, dead ashes that remained. They felt unclean and unholy; she shuddered.
A few moments later, she rose and went inside to gather up her few possessions, including all those implements of the black art she had hidden therein, and left shortly thereafter, striding off into the desert. Black smoke hung thick high above the land, a false cloud filled with the lie of seeming rain. Her angry feet guided her back in the direction of the city while the dead village lay forgotten in the wasteland behind her.
Copyright (c)2005 Raven Daegmorgan