Deep in the Everwinter forest during the bleak midwinter, I made my way to the ritual river. Wind howled around us like the wailing of a deranged beast. No sunlight found its way through the thick branches overhead.
I accompanied the coven of Everwitches who made these forbidden woods their home. This was where my magic led me two years ago and these were the witches who felt the roiling power within me and offered to teach me how to control it when I stumbled into their land.
My magic was raw and untamed, and they realized that the moment my feet touched their forest. After learning with their daughters and advancing quickly through their teachings, they determined I was ready to attempt the final ritual with the other daughters of the coven.
Six daughters walked with me in silence. Bare feet padding through the melting snow, bodies bared to the frigid wind of the harsh forest. The Matrons walked behind us with the ritual items, carrying the robes for their daughters. Ahead of us, the elderly Matriarch, the Arwitch guided our path to the river. The path through the overgrown woods was thin but well-worn from generations of witches leading their daughters to complete this ceremony we walked to now.
This cold was nothing compared to the harsh winters I had suffered back home. Nothing beat the wretched winters of Gwathendor, home to the Thanatens. I was only half Thanaten, but I had been born to the cold all the same. The magic in me would keep me warm without strain.
Our procession followed the path of the river they revered so much, for at the heart of the river rested the heart of the goddess of magic. That was our destination.
Their legend told that generations ago, before the Rift, when the gods still walked the land, the goddess of magic favored the Everwinter woods. Upon her demise, her heart found its resting place in the Everwinter River.
The coven grew their powers by bathing in the river when they came of age. I was two years older than the witch daughters I walked with, but even as a child, my magic had been greater than theirs.
As the silence stretched, I realized there wasn’t a single noise coming from this part of the woods. The further we got from their village, the quieter the world grew. A chill crept along my spine with the feeling that there was nothing living in this part of the forest.
When the color of the river changed, I realized why.
The crystal blue water seemed to get darker. But the longer we walked, the quicker it changed until the blue water turned pink and gradually became crimson. It was as red as blood, and the darker it became, the stronger the scent of it grew on the wind.
In the blink of an eye, the last of the sun’s rays stopped trying to penetrate the claws of the trees and it submerged us in total darkness. A breath later, the forest blinked back to life with pale, luminescent fauna, casting a glow over our surroundings. The light gradually increased in intensity until we could see the woods fully once again. All the while, we continued walking alongside the red, swiftly flowing river.
“Here she comes, daughters. Brace yourselves to see what remains of our great goddess.” The Arwitch’s ancient voice croaked. Her fingers tightened on her staff as she forced her old bones to carry her around the bend. We passed the last cluster of trees and suddenly the surrounding air grew warmer. Like the kiss of the first day of summer.
Steam rose from the red water of the pool. The sudden break in the branches overhead revealed the bright blue moon, so close you could easily imagine reaching out and brushing the bottom with your fingers. Luminescent flowers glittered with their pale light and the Matrons let go of the fires burning in their palms.
When they let go of their magic light sources, something unusual burst into life. The ground trembled beneath our feet and fresh waves splashed into the pool at the start of the river.
Ignoring the witches, I looked at the monstrous sight of a massive round stone the size of a hill rising from the water. The dark stone sat unmoving with dripping orifices at the top and cracks around the structure. We all held our breath, feet frozen to the ground, where I noticed there was no snow, but rich, green grass.
And then the petrified heart of the goddess pumped again. The ground rumbled beneath or bare feet. I witnessed the heart of Hestra beat and send blood gushing from its orifices into the river.
Small waves of blood rippled through the pool and down the river. The glittering flowers shivered as though excited by the sight. The power rippling through the air made me shudder involuntarily.
“We bring a new generation of daughters to you, Hestra!” The Arwitch and the Matrons all raised their arms to the still beating stone heart of the goddess.
The daughters of the coven and I joined them. Bowing our heads and reveling in this moment where we alone witnessed the divine power of a god. The goddess of magic might be gone, but there was still this last trace of her here.
It was an honor the Everwitches allowed me to witness this ritual, and even greater they allowed me to join. They did not owe me their teachings or secrets just because I had been graced with magic upon my birth.
“We pray to you, Hestra, Goddess of Magic, Lady of the Moon, and Mother of the Night.” The Matrons began rubbing crushed flower petals and herbs with oils over our bare bodies as their Matriarch spoke to the heart of a god.
The oldest Matron at the end of the line pulled a silver chalice studded with black gems from her robe. The mother at her side handed over a wineskin that I knew for certain wasn’t full of wine. She poured a thick red liquid into the chalice that looked suspiciously like the dark crimson fluid dripping from the stone heart.
“Blood from the goddess, freely given.” The Matron went down the line. Each of us took a sip of the metallic and spicy liquid within. It wasn’t the first time we’d imbibed something strange for the sake of a ritual.
Something warm flowed through me from my lips, down to the depth of my stomach where it settled in the pit of my being. Goosebumps rose on my skin, despite the strange warmth surrounding us. I took a deep breath as a light breeze danced along my skin and I heard a voice whispering my name as if from a familiar yet unknown woman so very far away.
“We offer our daughters to your service until your return to us!” The Arwitch cried, and we all undulated loudly in response. Waving our arms and swaying with the wind, naked and free under the light of the brilliant full moon.
“Take our daughters, Great Hestra, and return them reborn!” My heart skipped a beat the moment the Arwitch cried out, and the Matrons pushed us into the water without warning. All the air lodged in my lungs as the scalding red water of the pool submerged us.
Not all of us would emerge again, they warned. Not unchanged, at least.
Sound could not escape my lips with the burning liquid pulling me down into its depths. The crimson water was alive, and it wrapped around my limbs and forced me under, deeper and deeper. I opened my lips to scream and instead swallowed acrid blood that clogged my nostrils and throat.
The woman’s voice was there again. No longer on the wind, but flowing in the deep essence of a goddess that was now drowning me.
“Nevar.” Her voice was like honey. “Come to me and become one.”
My limbs flailed as I tried pushing myself back to the surface. My muscles ached and every time my lips parted, I swallowed more of the goddess’s lifeblood. The water was so heavy, and I could feel each wave beating me down deeper until there was nothing around me but pitch black.
I wasn’t afraid of the dark. But I could feel her here, surrounding me in the water. The owner of that voice speaking to me with that alluring voice.
“You’re mine now, Nevar. You’re destined to be with me. From the moment the Rift split the earth to the moment, you were born. You are mine. Come to me, daughter of the sun and shadows. Come to me Nevar Mor’gen. Come and be mine.” It pulled me as though I were in a drunken stupor.
All I wanted was to follow that voice.
The last of the struggle left my body limp, floating to the bottom of the river, and I nodded my head for her. Accepting her and everything that came with it, though I didn’t know yet what that was.
Without warning, my body was propelled through the river. Burning water turned into frigid air, and I gasped for my life. It hurt my lungs to finally breathe, and I peeled my eyes open. With the last of my strength, I pulled myself the rest of the way from the crimson water, coughing up the last traces of Hestra’s essence.
When I looked up, the Everwitches were all crowding their daughters, dripping red and now robed. All the daughters had come back from the river and, based on their open-mouthed stares at me, I surmised they didn’t imagine I would return.
I was the last to resurface.
“Our coven welcomes you.” The oldest Matron left her daughter’s side to approach me after the Arwitch gestured towards where I was slumped on the riverbed.
“Thank yo…” Something twisted my insides. My thanks turned into a bloodcurdling shriek, pulled from my lips and into the darkness of the night.
Then my bones cracked and broke under my skin. My blood boiled in my veins, and I screamed until no more sound could escape me. Black appeared along my arms as the god’s blood dripped away.
Scales and feathers grew from my pores, taking over what had been pale skin. My body broke and changed. I shattered into a million pieces as I died.
Then it morphed and grew as I was reborn.
The sound of soft feet padding on the grass reached my ears through the haze on my mind. I writhed on the ground in agony as I became something new. My eyes burned and my vision blurred, but I made out the shape of the Everwitch Matriarch as she crouched down, head angled to the side to witness my transformation.
“Magic comes with a price. You will pay yours with blood.” The Arwitch said. It was the crone’s warning and an omen all at the same time.
Another scream wretched itself from my lips and the other witches jerked away as the sound changed into something that would curdle your blood and make your body cold. It didn’t sound like me any longer.
The old crone rose to her feet and turned her back on me. Her shoulders rose and fell as she inhaled deeply, then she spread her arms to the moon again. “Hestra has graced us tonight. Our elven visitor is a witch, a daughter of the night, and a creature of the darkness.”
“Witch! Daughter! Creature!” They chanted and whooped and cheered and all the while I writhed in pain and suffered through the agony of my bones breaking and my skin stretching and splitting.
Claws grew from my fingers. Fangs lengthened from my teeth, pushing free from my gums. Great wings grew from my arms.
I was magic, darkness and living shadow under the light of Hestra’s heart.
When I spread my wings and leapt for the moon, the heart stopped pumping into the river, and it never would again.
Sequel to Captured Sunlight
Book Two of A Song of Sun and Shadow series!
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