by Serena W. Sorrell
When the leaders of a country have a child it is a great to do. When the leaders of a six-country alliance have a child, well––one can imagine the fuss it makes. The child will bear a burden unlike any other, even if a single country’s. This child would be the leader of all leaders. Such an occasion was rare and welcomed happiness, but also fear. Happiness that the family who ruled their union for the last thousand years would remain secure; an heir born at last. Fear though–fear is a tricky, slithery thing that seeps in even the most steadfast. Fear the child may not be up to the task. All without even knowing the shackles she had been born into the babe was welcomed to the world.
Magic flowed free in this world. Wild and abundant in every element. There were those gifted with fire, and others in water magic, some blessed by the soil, and even the wind granted its boon. The girl ruler’s own parents were masters of magic, trained since the first signs of magic graced them upon their naming and the test that called out one’s calling. Her father was a great magician who could call flame from the air and make it dance to his whistle. Her mother molded earth to her fancies, crumbling rocks and forming mountains with the ease of a twirl in her step. There was no doubt, none whatsoever, their daughter would be even better.
She was named, and the priest blessed her name before their great deity and the other five. A scholar strode forth followed by four apprentices carrying four vessels. It was time to discover the little one’s destiny. Though for she could not yet speak the soul knows what sleeps inside. The apprentices stood, two to each side, while the scholar hovered over the babe.
From the first vessel to his right the scholar cupped his hand in cool water. Drop by drop it splashed over the girl’s right leg and onto the floor. Nothing. The apprentice covered the water and stepped aside. No water magic slept inside the girl.
From the vessel to his left the scholar took a pinch of ash and a lump of coal. The ash was set upon the infant’s left leg and the coal in the center of the cinders. She jerked and with a kick the coal tumbled away. Nothing. The apprentice covered the cinders and coals and stepped aside. No fire magic slept inside the girl.
From the second vessel to his right the scholar gathered soil and pebbles in his hand. The soil was smeared across her right palm and the pebbles in her small grasping hand. She dropped the pebbles and they skittered away, the soil did nothing but dirt her dress. Nothing. The apprentice covered the soil and stones and stepped aside. No earth magic slept inside the girl.
From the second vessel to his left the scholar took an elegant feather fan, light caught the iridescent feathers. This was it. The fan opened with a breath of sighs and the scholar traced the infant’s left hand with the feathers before he fanned her. She clenched at the wind, and squirmed to the side. Her eyes opened wide and she began to cry. She withdrew her arm from the breeze. Nothing. The final apprentice knew not what to do. The scholar, too, held the feathered fan dumbstruck. No wind magic slept inside the girl.
No magic of any sort slept inside the girl. This girl who would rule them had no magic at all. Of course there were some who had none, but none of them had ever been in her place. This girl who who stand above six countries was normal and magic-less. The scholar looked from her mother, horror struck, to her father, perplexed. The scholar wondered if the ritual had gone wrong? The water too old, the ash too dry, the soil too moist, the breeze too…soft? The Council of Forty, who assisted the leaders, suggested this be kept secret for now. Every year, on her nameday, the girl would be retested. This happened sometimes, late-bloomers, you know. So with a sigh of relief and a plan of careful weaving the Council and their masters made their best announcement to the people waiting for word outside. They lied.
All was not lost. So their daughter had no magic. She couldn’t even speak or hold up her head. Magic would come, but until it did she would be schooled in every possible subject that might help her rule. Nameday after failed nameday more knowledge filled the girl’s head. She learned spells for fire, for wind, for water and earth, though all of them useless to her tongue and her hands. She knew all the right words, just in case this next nameday would be different. Yet, no matter how much she chanted, called, begged, or cried the effect every year remained just the same. The girl simply had no magic.
She had other tools in her head though no magic at hand. She knew the entire history of her family, back to the very first person who stayed at the deity’s side while she died. It was entrusted to her family then and there they would rule the lands and bind them together, and so they always had. She learned of the other five deities, lesser by far. She learned of their deaths, the war that they made, she learned their betrayals, the mistakes that they made. In this way when she heard the councilors whispers she knew what her own future would be. They were not pleased. A girl with no magic to lead them, to lead the country, to lead all six great lands. She heard their plans from shadowed corner. She watched their doings from behind columns. They were not her Council.
So, she did what she knew. The thing to serve her best. She studied, she read, she devoured words like water, and translated dead languages like the living. Day by day she discovered new things. Subjects the Council of Forty had not taught her. Ideas they had not told her. Magic they had not showed her. And she found a story, probably meant as a parable, but she read. She read it again. And again. Every word of the tale she dissected, and every word became a part of her plan. She would use everything the Council neglected to teach her. All the subjects, the ideas, the magic, and the story she’d found would be her triumph. These would become her freedom. She would be enough, at last. She would use magic of a different kind. She would become the strongest and wisest of her kind. She would be a servant to the people. She would be a savior to the world. But it would take time.
She bided her young years. She played ignorant to the Council’s games. Each nameday no longer brought disappointment, except the shame her parents wore. Their beautiful, broken daughter who could do nothing at all. Oh, but they would see all she could do. Part one was the simplest phase of her plans. She visited each ruler in their grand homes as a good, studying leader-to-be ought. She visited their libraries and read all their tomes. She memorized their languages, their histories, their towns, and their deity. They lauded her erudite curiosity. So young and already so responsible. When they left her to read by candlelight her true work began. The first dozen or so times she practiced at home it had proved tricky. The fifth magic was unstable and clumsy in human hands. Intricate and delicate, the process troubled her greatly. The pronunciations hard and the motions complex, and the prime ingredient necessary for any success.
She needed blood.
To use her own was to be sure the Council would discover. Not a single of the forty would know what the scar meant, but they could learn, a she had. Endangering and scarring herself wasn’t necessary for success. The first time she used a mouse. She was nervous to take life. It went against her vows. It went against her life. But when the magic blinked she knew it would require more. More than she suspected. She learned what greater quantities could do and each time her inhibition to end the life lessened. This magic was the key to her dreams.
On her travels she found beggars and orphans far from the keeps. These ones as discarded as she. These ones as hungry for a different life as she. From her unwilling donors the girl created scrolls and tomes with pages worn. Thousands of years aged, some crumbled at a soft touch. These books of blood she hid. She locked them in the deepest recesses of every library of every castle of every country. The books were left in the dark where no one had walked in lifetimes. Dust covered them as though no one living or long dead had ever laid eyes on the words within. Every creation varied in size, in language, in thickness, and style of script. She was thorough in planning. Nothing could be left to chance.
Those conjured pages contained fragments, the barest of hints and the thinnest of clues. A prophecy of her own writing. For magic was draining, and that was a truth. When time was ripe with fear and desperation the girl’s prophecy would be found. It would pieced together bit by bit. The way to save their world would be made clear. And, she the soloist orchestrator of saving it. Fear of a magic-less world would create a world which overflowed, spilled over with magic. She would receive magic, too, more magic than anyone, ever before. The bedtime story inspired the prophecy. It guided her plan as she cut throats in cities across the world. At last, work complete and seeds planted, she returned home. Her prophecy would come to life in a few more years.
She arrived at the great gates, and climbed the great stairs. There she was greeted by mother and father, the Council of Forty, and a man they called her betrothed. In her absence a tournament had been held. The whole thing now well decided. She’d shown such little interest in the idea the Council were certain the girl wouldn’t mind. To be quite honest, she did not. She would need a husband for her plan. The Council had made certain her groom was the strongest in magic, to make up for what she lacked. A tournament of two hundred had decided the fate of her hand. She looked to her parents, who beamed with relief. She took in her husband-to-be, disgust on his face at binding himself to a magic-less waif. Through narrow slits she glanced to the Council, this man or their child was to be her replacement. She would be rendered obsolete. They meant to be rid of her before her plan could begin. She smiled, she simpered, she curtsied, and inside, she raged.
They would not win. She would not be defeated. This world with old rules and old ideas, and parents who failed her, and Council who meant to murder her, and husband who planned to control her. No, she this travesty would not come to pass. Who were they to decide her fate? These were no deities. These were mortal people with pumping hearts. She had remade her own fate in a world that rebuked her. She would not accept a life others planned without a fight of her own. A silent fight it would be. It had to be silent. It had to be subtle. It had to be perfect. From living in the light of imperfection the girl had learned how to weave through shadows in beautiful, flawless perfection.
There were spells to make certain a daughter would be born. And a daughter it had to be. The daughter would have to be born with magic greater than any ruler in her family’s great lineage. a perfect heir. The opposite of her in every way. Another simple spell for the cost of one life. Her belly filled with new life. Another life to pay the price. Time was of the essence during this phase, but she couldn’t misstep. Finesse was required with every, small step. Everything she had learned while they whispered what a disappointment she was; everything she practiced while they murmured how it would be a mercy had their rulers been barren; everything she perfected while they snickered it wasn’t too late to adopt a powerful magic user to replace the useless girl. She was far from useless now, but they could not know. They could never know how much she heard, how much she learned, how much stronger than they she was.
Magic was fading from the world, only at a trickling pace, but it wasn’t enough to incite the fear required. No, it would not be enough for her strategy to succeed. Every good prophecy needed a foe to defeat. Heroes needed monsters to vanquish. She made hers well. The first half a dozen were clumsy, half-rotting, but bloodlust they had in spades. What had brought them to life would be what they craved. As life grew inside she created life outside. Her monsters became more refined with every spell cast. She corrupted living flesh, twisted it into something new. Words wrapped her will to their shattered souls. Her monsters hid beneath the city. In the darkest tombs where no one wandered. White mists shrouded them from sight. At last, she could begin.
Sickness took her suddenly, as it often did women in her condition. The parents wept over her complexion. The Council fretted over the child not born. The husband hid his glee, he could inherit with no wife, no heir. For her health, for her recovery, for the child inside, it was determined the family would leave. They would travel far from their sanctuary. The sea air of the northern cliffs would cure her. Together they would go. In a carriage driven by the husband, the girl and unborn daughter traveled with the mother and father. Three weeks the four and a half stayed by the sea. The sea’s wind gave her clarity. The sea’s beauty calmed her fears. The sea’s crashing waves steadied her resolve. The sea’s depth gave her courage for what lie ahead.
Their last night a new moon darkened the sky, illuminating the stars tenfold. Her stolen magic would be stronger under the stars. It was easy to drag a jagged knife, like teeth, across her sleeping husband’s throat. The blood spilled and she said the words that summoned the fog her monsters floated on. She did not watch them rend her mother and her father. For all their disappointment, they had tried to love her. Flawed as she was, they tried. The monsters did what she could not. The three bodies became torn rags, sundered pieces, and stained every inch of the ground. She ordered one to clamp its fangs into her shoulder, a half moon of blood stained her dress. Another she told to tear its claws across one of her legs.
A day for every body murdered the girl waited. A day for every life she snuffed out. When she was found, half-buried beneath the splendidly shattered carriage she raved about monsters. Nightmares that appeared from a white rolling mist. They ripped her family to pieces and upheaved their carriage. In haste, her beloved husband hid her in the wreckage. The deed had cost him his life. When the remains were discovered it was neither known which parts had belonged to whom nor what manner of beast created their deaths. The frail girl, grieving her loss, was rushed back home. She was now the leader of the country, and head of six countries. A fact the Council of Forty did not enjoy, a fact she did not care about at all. Her plans were coming to life.
The birth of her daughter just another piece of her plan. She was perfect, so small and sweet. Her nameday came and her mother named her for a caged bird from a childhood fable. It was her fate and one she would not escape. The scholar and four apprentices performed their ritual, nervously. The first element. Nothing. The second element. Nothing. The third element. Nothing. Breaths abated. What if this child, too, held no magic inside? The mother feared not, she had used a life to ensure her daughter’s power. Faithful to the words and true to the magic, the feather fan flew across the temple, blown out of the scholar’s hand from the barest of flicks over her daughter. The child was the greatest wind magician their country had ever seen. She was the strongest in the entire line of rulers before her. With inconspicuous mischief the Council grinned. And the girl they all loathed grinned within.
After her little caged bird was born the girl launched the building of a tower, white as the starlight of their deity. A tower to remember and mourn the family she had lost. It was proper she should mourn, and so the tower she designed brick by brick began construction, not so far from their grand city, just across a lake and beyond a forest. It would become her sanctuary away from the Council’s eyes. For who could intrude on a mother and daughter mourning dead family away in a tower, not knowing the mother had been the hands that murdered them.
At the tower she taught her little bird all she needed to know of the world beyond her cage. Tales about magic, its wonder and power. Stories of the distant lands, all which she’d visited. And then she planted the seed. Across the strait of sea, on the island country, lived people like them, but different. Their magic was something else, something more. Only a perfect ruler could discover the secrets of the people of dust. She never told her little bird much, only fed her dreams of wide plains and interesting buildings and fascinating people with so much to teach her. Soon her little bird asked more and more questions about the land across the sea. So many questions did she ask that when at last the Council joked, the little caged bird said she could never take over her mother’s position until she went across the sea and learned true magic. Her cage shrunk with every tale her mother fed her. It was all the little bird thought about. That land, freedom, the people of dust who could teach her so much.
For the Council of Forty this simply would not do. Across the strait to another land? Send their only piece, their last hope of regaining a magic ruler? It was preposterous. Their whispers grew louder. Their discontent boiled. The caged bird had decided to go across the strait. The Council had decided to murder her mother while she was away. And the girl? The girl with no magic decided the timing was perfect. With a slurry of herbs and and crushed scarabs she put her daughter to sleep for, what determined, her final magic feat. She was not happy with what was required, but it had to be done. The people of sand so different from themselves the deity of starlight had wrought. Without her stolen magic, the words, and the blood her daughter would never conceive the one. The child of her fabricated prophecy had to come from a union of sand and star, both parents with powerful magic.
It had been difficult, yes. Even for her monsters of mist to find a woman of sand, belly squirming with the life of her kind. The girl’s little caged bird had to be wrapped in their lives, swathed in their blood. For this she slept. A kindness of sorts from her mother, or so she told herself. She knew though, even caged birds had their limits. Her daughter was kind, caring and loyal, she loved people of all kinds. Most of all, her daughter loved life. So while her daughter dreamed unaware her mother bled the mother and babe of sand and infused their lives into her caged bird. With this it would work. With this her prophecy would have its hero.
The very next dawn, hands cleaned of blood, her mother waved farewell to her caged bird who thought itself freed. Not freed though, the cage only expanded, her child still had a role to play and she would play it afar. The little bird was sent to a great academy to study under the most powerful and wise people of sand. She was young and naive. She was sheltered and wild. She would fall in love with the greatest of ease. One piece was played. It was time to play forty.
The girl they had shunned, now woman, called the Council of Forty to her tower beyond the city, over the lake, and through the woods. The tower was a marvel they had to admit. Truly the best place to pray for the safe return of her child while mourning her losses. It would also serve well for her to fall from the impossibly high stairs. An accident they planned. She saw it gleaming in their eyes. She bowed to the assembly. She never had before. For a moment they paused, their bloodlust abated, as she explained her plan. For four years her daughter would study in that far, distant land, and upon her return her daughter would rule. How could she compare to someone with the magic she lacked and the knowledge of distant shores?
The Council of Forty stood stunned. Never had they expected an acquiesce to their unspoken request. Perhaps murder was not needed. The poor girl and her daughter had lost so much. Why take more from the daughter who would stand above them? It was only when the girl they had poured hatred into for an entire lifetime slit the first throat they had second thoughts. But too late. The first blood was enough to bind them in place. The second throat cut enough to pull out their magic, leeching them dry. And, one, one she had left alive. The final blood bound their souls and magic and dried corpses up in a stick. A beautiful, ivory-white walking stick. At its head sat a gem that sparkled with power from within, and it was true. The girl who had never had any magic inside remained empty, but in one hand she held the magic of forty and in her mind rested magic of the most twisted sort.
Typically, a city as large as hers would make a great noise about forty missing council members. But what were forty lost, when monsters of mist were appearing in every land and snatching people on moonless nights? The magic draining from their world the only explanation. Citizens looked to their leaders for guidance. Leaders looked to the woman for assistance and wisdom. She would search every archive, consult every expert, until cause and cure were found for these horrors.
Only a year and a half later a letter came from her daughter. A miracle? A curse? A blessing? A disaster? Her little bird was with an egg of her very own. She had fallen in love with a man of the sands, and though they knew no child would ever exist their love would and it was enough. Until this. How had this happened?
That her mother could not tell, only that it was a miracle indeed, for that very night prior her scholars had discovered a scroll, older than ancient. On the cracked parchment in writing almost faded a prophecy was writ. A child born of the two people of star and sand would be the one to restore magic to the land, would defeat the mist wraiths, would discover the resting places of the deities past. This child would hold all the magics of their world in their body and bring them into a better world.
This same message of hope was sent to every country’s leader. They were urged to seek more clues in their own lands. Anything at all which might someday assist this child who would save them all from the evil at hand. Anything at all which might expedite the child’s destiny. Anything at all which might change the world and put magic back, in its rightful place. In the grandmother’s hand, for she’d not be satisfied until her staff was of no use, until she could wield magic by will, as they’d told everyone she could.
Soon, all across the lands came calls from far and wide. Pieces and clues, which hinted at some child. A child to bear all the great deities’ powers. A child to restore magic to their world and vanquish its monsters. It was the prophecy they had all been searching for.