By Devin Vandriel
Parvez sat like a puddle, waiting for the town Priestesses to help his mother through her suffering.
The dropping sun was just caressing the tops of distant trees. A howl – thin as water – cut the air. As the howls of Sachio corroded the night air, his neck hair stood, urging him to seek the safety of rock, and calling to him. Urging him to come.
His mother let out a cry that sent terror scouring into him, like an injured rabbit cornered by a hungry dog. He was sure this last scream had been weaker than the one before, a pale reverberation of strength.
She’s not going to make it. His dark thoughts made tears well in his deep green eyes. The Priestesses forced them up the ladder and into the village common when blood started spilling from her. She had been torn.
Ripping himself away from his father, he ran across the stone roofs, and jumped over the opening that served as the entryway to his neighbors’ home. He dropped to his knees on the roof of his own home. Scraping his hands. His father’s quivering voice followed him, “No!”
Inside their house, his mother lay on her back, face wet with tears and sweat, eyes tight with pain. Four women turned to look at him. Liwanu, quick as a bear, twice as fierce, glared up at him. “Parvez, if you don’t do as you’re told, I’ll strip your hide and use it to clean the walls.”
Hands pulled him back and away from the roof’s entrance. His uncle, Mendel whispered, “Parvez, let me show you how I carve obsidian figurines.”
Not given a choice, he was pushed in the direction of Mendel’s home. Skill developed and perfectly cultivated over years of careful, precise work, had made his figurines worth three times that of his competitors. Provided for his family. Small creatures captured in stone. Tiny details bringing them to life. Any other time, Parvez would have loved to play with them, but not tonight.
He was guided firmly by the shoulders as they moved across the stone of the mountain, passing doors that led down into warm, safe homes.
“She isn’t going to make it, is she?” Parvez asked, his voice small.
Mendel’s grip tightened on his shoulders uncomfortably. “She is a strong woman.”
Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, Parvez walked on, trusting that Mendel wouldn’t drop him into someone’s house.
He didn’t answer the question. His thoughts were bitter and hollow, difficult to swallow.
He had been to the coastal town of Catalhul once. It was different. The houses separated by several feet. Made of wood instead of stone. Doors on the ground. No safety. Anything could come in at night. Take them from their beds. Eat them. He had felt exposed there.
Not like his home. All the houses were dug deep into the rock, carving safety out of the stony mountain. The only way to them was a forty-foot climb up a flat wall. Great pains had been taken to get their walls smooth and unclimbable. Only once the sun was fully above the trees did they lower ladders to tend the barley and wheat fields. To fish and to hunt.
Sachio came every night. Grinding against their walls. They never got in. Sharp shallow gouges told where they had tried.
Climbing down the ladder into Mendel’s home, he was met with the aroma of freshly baked bread. Kira sat vacantly by the flickering fire, its colors dancing from cavernous cold blue to pulsating searing reds, then to reflective arcane greens. A dull red and black blanket dripped down around her. Someone had taken countless hours to embroider a bull onto it.
Kira’s unfocused eyes never turned from the curling flames as she said, “A barley loaf is on the table.”
She was using her magic trying to do something for his mother. At least, that’s what Parvez hoped she was doing.
Mendel guided him to the table, without a word to his wife. “Best not to disturb her while she works.”
Curious about women’s magic, Parvez stretched his neck to see. She sat like stone, seeing things no one else could see. A slice of bread was forced into his hands.
The bread was fluffy and warm. It tasted of ash.
“What is she doing?” Parvez didn’t see the figurines around the room, didn’t see the workbenches with uncut obsidian and tools lying about. His full focus was on Kira and the twirling fire, as it revealed things it safeguarded from others.
Mendel smiled miserably at him. “Let me show you something I understand.” Setting his food down, he turned to his workbench, selecting a small hammer, and began tapping gently at a piece. “The trick to obsidian is to strike carefully. If a piece is broken off, it can’t be put back.” Pausing, he glanced over his shoulder eyeing Parvez intently. “One careless strike could ruin everything.”
The slight flicker of Mendel’s eyes to Kira told him Parvez wasn’t only speaking about obsidian. Shifting his attention back to his work, Mendel went on about obsidian. The quiet tap tap tapping, almost comforting.
Parvez stopped listening, instead considering Kira. He wasn’t sure how long he was staring before she gradually twisted to examine him. He got the distinct feeling that she saw into him, into his mind.
“Come sit with me, Parvez.”
Behind him, the tapping halted.
Hesitating, Parvez moved slowly. Sitting stiffly, cold chills ran down him as the sensations from the fire touched him. Several long minutes passed. Nothing said. Unspoken thoughts. Her bright green eyes were judging, weighing, considering.
Brushing her shoulder length black hair behind her ear, she broke the silence. “You have the gift.”
Mendel sprang to his feet. “Kira, that’s enough!” Anger dripped like sour honey.
Deliberately slow, she turned to look at him, frozen fire. “He has a right to know what he is and what he can do. You…” she paused, changing what she was going to say. “This is Priestess work.”
Mendel opened his mouth.
Kira’s raised eyebrows dared him to speak.
“The priests will not have it.” His voice had lost some of its fury, eyes not as aggressive.
Her smile was as sweet as vinegar. “Then go find one., Might I suggest beginning your search outside the walls?”
Mendel stepped back as if slapped. He sat down hard.
Turning her attention to Parvez, her smile morphed to warm butter. “It could save your mother; it could also harm you greatly. I believe your desire to save your mother and your strength will be enough.” Reaching out, she turned his hands over to look at the scrapes.
Thrusting her left hand into the fire, she drew it out with what felt like eternal slowness. Yawning green flames gently clung to her upturned hand as if afraid to burn her. Bringing her right hand above her left, the green flames split, grew, and changed to succulent lavender.
She placed her hands against his, and he flinched unnecessarily.
Cool to the touch.
When she drew her hands away, what remained was dried blood and unblemished skin. Her left hand took the flames from the right. Holding her left hand to the fire, she shook the flames free. They fell from her fingers like water, in drips and a stream rather than as fire should behave.
Pulling the blanket tighter around her shoulders, she shivered and said, “I wish there was more time… all I can give you is this. The Sachio were once people. At sunrise, some of them return to being people.” Pausing for several seconds, she focused on her husband. “Some do not return in the morning. Your other uncle is one such.”
Surprise smashed him like an unexpected fall into icy water. His heart skipped a beat, and his mouth went dry like sand.
He had another uncle. His father and mother had kept this man’s existence from him. The entire village had kept his uncle’s existence from him. His thoughts were a snarled net. She would do it for me. That thought silenced all others, cut them off like a bad joke. “Tell me what to do.”
A short time later, he was dashing back home, revolting red flames biting at his cupped hands. He feared they would go out as he ran. But they flickered as if they were impervious to the air. Around him, all was quiet. Not even the Sachio howled.
Reaching home, he was met with the sight of his father cradling his head in his hands.
Parvez knew. One or both hadn’t made it. If it had been his mother his father would be holding the child now. If it had been the new baby his father would be comforting his mother. They both had died.
The soft sound of boots on stone made his father look up. He blinked. Then stood, blocking Parvez’s path. Only when Parvez was standing firmly in front of his father did either of them speak.
“Parvez, there is nothing that can be done, she’s…” Tears threatened. “She’s already gone.”
Back stiffening at the words, Parvez set his jaw. “She is my mother. I must try.”
Dropping to his knee, his father looked him in the eyes and said, “Listen to me Parvez. Your mother would not want this for you. It isn’t a life. It’s a rich echo – a fake existence that will take you.” Searching Parvez’ eyes, his father waited.“If it doesn’t work I’ll have lost you too.”
Swallowing the lump, Parvez said, “She is my mother.” His words were whispered like a shield.
Nodding, his father stood and turned away, contemplating the deepening shadows of the moonless night. Brushing past his father, Parvez climbed down sluggishly into his home, careful not to let the angry flames touch his clothes.
His mother lay on the bed. Motionless. Eyes closed. Face bloodless. Reaching out, he touched her and jerked his hand away.
She was cold. Next to her lay a small covered lump. Pulling the blanket back, he blinked, almost vomiting. His sister.
Licking his dry lips, he focused his intentions as he had been told to do. At first, the fire in his hand bit and snapped at him but as his will infused the flames they tamed, becoming like gentle waves. Time whipped by in a flash of color. Energy rushed from him to his mother and his sister. Color returned to their bloodless faces.
Movement came next.
The flutter of an eye. Inhale. Pain.
Staggering back, Parvez bent double. His ears rang as if something had stuck his head. He crawled over to his crying baby sister and pulled her close. It seemed the most important thing to keep her warm.
“Parvez.” His mother’s voice was feeble. “My son, what have you done?”
A hand dropped onto Parvez’s shoulder; his father stood over him. The look in his eyes was one Parvez had never seen. A mixture of awe and fear. Of knowing.
His father reached down for the baby, and Parvez let him have her. Her cries were softer, as if she’d been soothed.
It took Parvez time to gather strength to climb out of the house and lay in the cool dawn air, on the cold stone. He couldn’t believe he’d spent all night in there. It had seemed only moments.
Kira had been clear about the price of such magic. About what this might cost him. Sunrise tomorrow would show the price.
He could feel something. Pulling itself from him, shifting and rising. Tearing away and clawing at his insides.
Something coming to the surface.
Closing his eyes, he inhaled. Crisp fall air cleared his mind. He would deal with the curse if it came.