It had been quite a long time since I’ve seen all the marks on my skin.
My life consisted of me leaping from one set of clothing to the next as fast as possible on the off chance that someone walked in on me. With Arion outside the door, there was an even larger risk of that happening than usual.
However, I was left with no choice, so I jammed the door closed and hid behind the bathing screen with the looking-glass for extra protection and sat awkwardly with the jar of ointment in one hand and the other stretched in the most strangest of ways to reach every inch of my back.
My palms and my neck were well enough, but my back and ankles were bitten in several places, so I would need to cover every bit of it. Luckily there was no blood – the bites were tiny, the injections nearly invisible. Rubbing the ointment in was my only challenge.
But it had been so long since I’d seen my back. Not since Jovian sat down for my lessons with a small mirroring stone, lifting up the back of my shirt so I could see and whispering quietly what each swirl meant and the way the magic flowed through it.
The marks have grown since I’d last seen it, with more red blades bursting from the dragons’ mouth then there had been before, and more silver lines in the swirls that went down just under my rib. It looked like it was about to swirl around my waist if it went any further, and I wondered what it meant. I would have to sit down for another lesson with Jovian when I returned to him.
When every bit of it was finally covered, I double checked everything, rechecking my ankles and feet, then doing my hands and neck again just in case I passed out from the pain as I had last time, and someone decided to strip me down or something.
I stood before the looking-glass for one moment though, looking at my mark-less body.
I looked... strange.
Though I rarely saw myself bare – with the marks or without. Now, I looked incomplete somehow, as if those marks were limbs that were natural to my body.
I supposed that’s exactly what they were.
The banging on the door had me jumping and huddling, marks visible or not.
“Are you dead in there?”
“I’m coming.” I snapped at him and yanked the robe over my head that Mokura allowed me to borrow so that I could have the eggs extracted without showing anything embarrassing.
“What took you so long?” Arion grumbled when I exited.
I rolled my eyes. “Do you have any idea how many layers I had on?” I lied and walked ahead of him into the main room.
Mokura’s home was exactly what you would expect a home in a swamp lived in by a witch would look – eerie, cluttered, and dank. The reason witches were hated while mages were revered was because of a single, simple fact; mages used power stored within themselves to create their magic, while witches stole it from the living things around them, forcing it from the energy inside anything from plants to people. Ofttimes, this created something that should not be handled at all.
Because of this, jars and clay pots and plants struggling to survive the poisonous air was hanging all over the place from string, rope, roots or even hair.
Witches could give curses through a single drink of seemingly harmless water or could see pieces of your future from stealing your blood using the energy from the most oddest of things. They could also gift blessings of protection and give items that will help guard you, but it was a rare few who trusted witches to gift it.
Even elves whose strongest magic was made with blood were not thought of with such contempt as witches were.
“Ah, there you are.” Said Mokura, glancing up from Jazera’s back with a finger up, holding a tiny piece of what looked like sand while the other held a thin reed. The reed was still pressed inside a tiny wound like a sewing needle forgetting its purpose. A single drop of blood dripped onto the creaking floor where there were a few others already painted there. “I’m almost done this ones’.”
“Just hurry it up.” Jaz grumbled, holding her cloak tightly to her chest. She was not at all pleased. Aitch stood next to her, holding a plate of several reeds and a small jar, acting as a table. Mokura put the egg in the jar and went back to work.
While Arion went to kneel in front of Jaz, gripping her fingers and looking worried, I studied the witch.
Mokura was not the same witch as the one that had helped me. The last time I’d been here, Mokura had been a little girl, coloring a picture on the table that had held a thousand jars. But like all witches, she had aged quickly in looks due to the power she forced from around her, and she looked to be in her late fifties, though she was younger then I.
Her mother had looked to be in her nineties when I’d come but was probably only thirty or so. By the speed of which she was ageing, Mokura would not live much longer at all, yet she did not have an apprentice child with her.
She must feel quite alone.
The witch pressed another reed into Jaz’s back and told Aitch to hold onto it. Then she licked her finger and pressed it against the skin near where the reed punctured the skin and closed her eyes.
I could see no difference, but after a moment, Jaz suddenly gasped and there, on the tip of Mokura’s finger, was another tiny egg. She held the reed again and Aitch handed her a jar to which she put the egg, and then she did the same process once more but with a different reed, as apparently, she’d used up the energy in that one.
Then she was done, patting the solid black mark on Jaz’s back that had shown itself at birth, marking her as a Shadow for all to see. Then she looked between Arion and I to see who was next. Arion motioned to me as he helped Jaz sit on a chair that looked as if it were about to collapse. She put her head between her hands as if faint or ill, but I wasn’t worried; it would only last a few minutes then she would feel fine again.
I took the seat and the witch undid the strings in the back so that the clothing fell open, revealing my bare back.
And in that moment, I felt a strong, uncontrollable zing of fear go through me, unused to being so exposed. I felt nervous – had I missed a place? Was anything still visible? The grey was sometimes hard to see in the looking-glass...
But Mokura only pressed a reed to my back. I grimaced as it went in, but the worst was when she forced the energy out of the egg and it died beneath my skin, then ejected itself from my body through the reed.
But that’s when she had a reaction.
She gasped. Loudly.
I tensed and Arion, the ever-present pain-in-my-ass, stepped up next to me and looked suspicious. “What is it?” He demanded for me.
“Her... your energy is fighting me.” She said, choosing to speak to me instead of through Arion – I liked her more immediately for that, witch or not.
I remembered the excuse my uncle had given so long ago and said it now, hoping that it would still work. “I have witchblood.” I told her; it was the only explanation except for what I actually was. Arion looked at me sharply. I ignored him. “But I’m unpracticed.”
“Ah.” She understood. “That explains it. I’ll need payment from you as this will take much energy from me.”
“Blood or coin?”
“I have no need for coin.”
I pursed my lips but nodded – there was no other choice but to agree, I had to nod or die as hundreds of burrs ripped their way out of me without care for arteries or organs in a few weeks. I would rather not die that way.
She put the reed to my back, but then hesitated. “Are you sure? Having a witch work on you will make your cravings for magic heighten. Unbearably so. I do not want to go making this harder for you.”
I hadn’t known this was the case for witches, though I had known that their magic was addicting, and most could not stop once it started. That was why they offered so often to help - so they could get their fix. It was why those wisps had been there for us and why she was doing the Shadows for free.
Arion grimaced. “Mir...”
“I’m fine.” Great, now he would be worried about me becoming addicted to magic and dying of old age before we got back to Jovian on top of everything else.
Knowing Arion was watching so closely, I tried to show no reaction to the pain... but failed miserably, much to my disappointment.
But I didn’t lose consciousness, and when my back was finally done, I turned and let her get at my ankle. Once again, she hesitated, looking up at me. “The ones in your legs and feet will reject themselves on their own over time. It will hurt, but it won’t kill you.”
“But the cravings are more difficult the longer you-”
“I’m fine, I’ve had this done before.” I told her. “By your mother. I was fine then, and I’ll be fine now. Please continue.”
Eventually, she finished it all and I went to get changed once more. I took my time now, dragging it out, not liking what I was going to have to do, nor was I liking the number of watchful stares I would get later for that lie that I’d been forced to give. I would have to stick to it for now on, too, or it may cause suspicion.
When I went out, Rian was the one guarding the door and he stopped me, tilting his head. Questioning.
I hated, hated lying to him.
One day, I vowed right then and there as I met his kind eyes, you will find out who I am, and I will explain to you why I have lied to you about so many things. You will understand why I could not tell you the truth, I already know it. And for this, I will gift you the world if I can.
“I’m fine.” I said aloud, taking his hand and squeezing his fingers. “I promise,” – that I’ll tell you one day – “that I will be fine. My mother handled it too and taught me how. I am fine. Please don’t worry about me.”
He looked relieved and nodded, trusting me at my word immediately. I felt my guilt crush me, and I understood once again why Jovian would not allow me to make friends, no matter how brief the friendships would be.
It was simply too hard on the heart.
With Arion and Rian finished, we were ready to go. It was night, but we could travel through the swamp as easily through night as we could in the day, as we could see just about the same distance ahead in either case due to the mists. We would not stay the night.
Mokura reminded me of the payment before we left, and I felt my stomach clench.
“Are you sure you don’t wish for anything other than coin?” I asked. “Or one of the Shadows bloods? I don’t feel comfortable giving my blood away.”
She narrowed her eyes, looking unkind for the first time since our arrival. “The blood of another witch is more powerful than any blood they could give me.”
“But I’m unpracticed.”
“Even better. You are untainted.” She held out her hand for mine, her other holding a jar at the ready. Her eyes softened slightly at my obvious worry. “I won’t take much.” She promised, almost gently.
I swallowed and, seeing no other choice, I nodded and used my own blade to cut my wrist, purposely leaving my blade on the chair next to me instead of putting it back into my belt. The sound of my blood dripping into the glass made me grimace, but it wasn’t long before I was told to pull away and wrapped it tightly before finally donning my gloves.
Arion politely thanked her for her help, and we all headed back out onto the raft below, but when I was half way down the ladder, I made a show of cursing loudly. “Forgot my knife.” I told them. “Wait here.”
Mokura looked up from the jar of my blood when entered again. “Forgot my knife.” I explained to her as well. But then as I picked up my knife, I dropped a purse on her table. “That’s filled to the rim with dragon crystals.” I told her. “Surely you can trade for that.”
She looked at the purse, her fingers clutching my blood like a lifeline. “You are holding nothing but swamp water for all the good it will do me out here.” She shook her head. “I’ve taken my payment. I assure you I will do nothing terrible with it, simply strengthen my own power.”
But that was the problem – she wouldn’t strengthen it, she would feel a flare of magic so strong she would know exactly who I was, and that could not happen.
I nodded slowly, steeling myself for what I was about to do. “Then, I am truly sorry.”
Her eyes widened in immediate understanding and she dropped the blood. Her hand went to her neck as mine raised the knife. I threw the knife at the same time she threw something at me which splattered across my face.
I spit it out of my mouth while I heard the thump of Mokura’s body falling. I did not dare to swallow. I wiped my tongue with the tablecloth for good measure.
It had been a curse of some sort, I was sure, but what kind? My heart pounded as I searched the floor for what she had thrown and finally found the vial. It was empty of contents except a single blackened object too large to have fallen out. I studied it a moment and realized it as a burnt rabbits’ foot.
“Shenz.” I hissed. It had been a bad luck charm. Luckily it was liquid form, so it wouldn’t last long, but some had gotten into my mouth. Hopefully it wasn’t a strong one.
I found my purse of crystal and then my knife, stuck into Mokura’s neck. She was dead, obviously. I felt sad for this as she had been kinder then most of her species, but it needed to be done so I would feel no guilt for it. More important people than a kind witch in a swamp would die before I gained what was rightfully mine, I was sure. I would save my guilt for them.
I wiped the knife off on her loose skirts, nodded once at her in goodbye as if she could see me, and stood. I bumped my head on the table on the way up and grimaced, already hating the curse she’d given me in her dying moments.
Arion was beginning his climb up when I went over the edge. “Move. I’m coming down.”
He grumbled and went back down the few steps he’d managed to climb. “What took you so bloody long?” He demanded.
“Trying to bribe her to change the blood for coin again. It didn’t work. Found my knife though.” I carefully went down onto the first rung of the ladder and when it held, relaxed and started moving down further. “You know, Arion, you can be a bit of a-” I let out a squeak as a rung went out from under my foot, then broke off in my hand at the same time. I fell down fast, but instead of landing on the raft, I slipped down between the narrow edge or it and the ladder directly into the thick, disgusting, water.
I was yanked out a second later and pulled up onto the raft. Immediately shivering at the change in temperature, I pulled up my soaking hood, then accepted Rian’s as well, cursing quietly.
Arion tested the ladder, tugging at it. “Odd,” he said. “They felt sturdy before.”
“Yes. Just my luck, hm?” I grumbled, then I sighed. “I’m going to sleep.” Before I get myself killed. “Wake me up when I have to walk.” Because I doubt it was safe for me to even sit quietly at this point. Sleeping the curse off was the best idea for me. Hopefully it wouldn’t last long at all.
I tugged the cloak over myself, my nail catching on what was probably the only loose thread in the cloak and ripping painfully as I did.
I decided that I hated witches.