A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 2, Line 1) Twisting Fate

“As the adage goes: what can go wrong will go wrong… unless you’re in Kory City, because then it’ll go catastrophically, momentously, and apocalyptically wrong.”

- Excerpt from ’Idioms of Koryn City.’

Esther was empty and cold as she left Vera’s office to flee towards the sanctity of the Shack.

Retracing her earlier path without Kessi nipping at her heels made her feel lighter. She enjoyed the feeling until it made room for something she’d been hiding from for so long: loneliness.

Only once she had a name for it did she understand how pervasive it was in her life. It had settled in the hollows of her joints like fine dust, making them sluggish and useless; it had invaded her mind, rendering it quiet and empty; and it had entangled itself into her soul, leaving her flat and stagnant, strung out so thin she struggled to breathe.

Kessi didn’t care Esther was a huntsman. She held nothing against Esther for being a conservator, as she was one too. She would soon know the frustration of being hated for using her visions of death to save the lives of others.

Esther longed to feel that type of connection, the type born from shared experiences and mutual understanding. To some extent, she shared it with Esvian and Reeve. But they would never understand the struggles of being a conservator. Vera understood the struggle, but she was Esther’s guildmaster and over twice her age.

Kessi was a different story. They were different, yes - six years apart and with opposing upbringings. But that didn’t negate their similarities. Kessi was a deadlander, as Esther had become. Kessi had a good heart and wanted to use her visions to help others. Esther had once aspired to that, before her years of service had worn her down.

Esther brushed the thought of Kessi’s friendship away as she passed through the tollbooth leading to the poorest district of the city. Esther couldn’t offer the girl anything of value. While they were both hated by the public for their service, at least Kessi hadn’t yet earned the ire of her sisters. A sisterly bond was essential for the welfare of the conservator. How could Esther offer that if she refused to spend time in the guildhall and the hymnody distrusted her?

The truth of the matter was thus: Kessi was better off without her. Associating with Esther would only bring her pain and the rejection of her sisters.

It was painful to think about. So Esther shut down her mind and attempted to immerse herself in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city.

Esther wove through the various levels of slums, clambering over the roofs of the shanty houses built into the old drainage ditches and cutting through narrow alleys. She started viewing the twisting paths between the ramshackle buildings as a maze. An icy breeze slithered by, sending a shiver down her neck. In the cold’s wake, a hot flush crept through her limbs until it gripped her scalp. Tiny pops ignited in Esther’s head. Tingles danced down her spine as a brief impression of a frosty maze overlayed the slum complex before her.

Esther stopped walking. Another wave of heat rushed through her, so intense she swayed on her feet as her vision saturated with red. It meant only one thing: an oncoming blood hymn.

The distant chanting began. Esther called upon her training and opened her heart and mind to embrace the blood’s call. All at once, a darkened maze under the dim light of the stars and the new moon pulled her under. The transition was seamless and painless, a testament to Vera’s teachings.

A woman crept around the last corner of the maze, her footsteps hesitant and silent. A cold fog danced around her, pulsating like a beating heart. It snapped at her limbs, trying its best to give away her position. She held a gleaming crossbow of pristine condition in shaking hands. Her red hair was wild and blood covered her torn gloves.

She reached a large doorway. One door lay on the ground, the other half-ripped from its hinges. Through the thickening fog, the creature she’d been stalking appeared. It was a feline-shaped beast with a body of ice and eyes and stripes of fire. The creature faced away from the woman, its prehensile whiskers twitching and coiling as it hunted a large midnight bird perched on an altar.

The woman stalked forwards, aiming her crossbow at the beast. She thought it was distracted by the bird, but it was all a ploy. The creature knew it was being hunted. It was pretending to stalk the bird to lure the hunter out.

The woman got close. The creature whipped around, a low rumble resonating from deep in its throat.

The fog was so thick the woman couldn’t see more than a meter ahead. The big cat pounced, locking them into a dance that reeked of death. The woman discharged her crossbow. The shot was too wide and the bolt disappeared into the frosty brume.

She screamed as the creature grasped her legs with its appendage-like whiskers. It pulled back, felling the woman onto the cold, hard ground.

Stuck in the centre of the maze and with no way to escape, the woman whimpered in fear. The beast bristled in victory at its helpless victim. It surged forwards, closing its maw around the woman’s throat like a vice.

Esther gasped and leaned back against a nearby wall as the hymn subsided. The traces of the vision vanished, leaving her back in the slums. Instinctively, her hand flew to her throat.

The animal was a tiraknea, a feline whose whiskers could pull its prey towards its mouth. But tirakneas weren’t real. They were mythical creatures, said to be the servants of the Blood Queen. No reports of wild sightings existed because they didn’t exist. Tirakneas were stories designed to keep people afraid of magery, and nothing more.

But blood hymns were incapable of lying. The hymn had used the tiraknea to symbolise something it couldn’t communicate otherwise.

Esther swore under her breath. She’d never heard a symbolic hymn before and didn’t know what the tiraknea could mean. Symbols were personal to each conservator, but patterns emerged when they borrowed from their cultural climate. She’d have to research the tiraknea at the Shack’s library and pray she had a conventional, unoriginal mind.

But before that, she had more pressing concerns. Who was the cynosure?

There was a tiny southern pull behind her eyes, her exhausted sight’s attempt to pull her towards them. But a conservator’s sight was a compass, not a map. It could take her to the cynosure, but it couldn’t make a positive identity. Esther needed to know what they looked like or their name for that.

More often than not, their name would arise like a forgotten memory a few minutes after the hymn. But their appearance was different. The only clues for that lived within the hymn itself.

Esther closed her eyes and focused on her cynosure, squeezing her fists until the details of her appearance surfaced. She had a muscular but thin build... She was of average height... Her eyes were brown... She had red hair. Fiery red hair.

“Oh no,” Esther whispered. “Oh no, oh no, oh no!”

The southern pull from her sight and the fiery red hair pointed to a single suspect.

It was Edyta.

Esther’s mind reeled in circles of dread. So strong was the emotional turmoil that Esther needed to sit down on the dirty ground so she wouldn’t faint.

“What the fuck do I do?” she murmured.

The Six Sacred Steps made her duty clear. She needed to inform Vera and then warn Edyta, all while following the correct ceremonies. That included parading around the Shack in her conservator’s habit.

But Esther couldn’t do that. Even if Edyta told the other huntsmen who Esther was, knowing her nature and seeing it was different. The other huntsmen would never look at Esther the same again. And if she couldn’t win the trials and escape Gardara, she couldn’t live with the stigma. She’d have to retire from the career she loved more than her own life.

And there was another problem: would Edyta even believe her? Edyta discovered her secret, then Esther predicted her death the next day. The timing was too convenient, and the hymn too outlandish to be real. Edyta would call her crazy. Heck, Esther wasn’t convinced she wasn’t crazy. Tirakneas weren’t real. They didn’t exist.

Yet she’d seen one in the vision. It had to be symbolic.

Esther stood up and marched towards the Shack. Then she changed her mind and walked back to Vera. She took five steps before dizziness plagued her and she collapsed back onto the floor.

There was one beast inside of her that couldn’t tell Vera, yet there was another that needed to. The beast of duty begged her to inform Vera. Yet the beast of silence thought only of freedom. If Edyta died, she couldn’t threaten to reveal Esther’s secrets. Esther would be safe.

She did not know what to do. So she did the only thing she could: she shut her thoughts down and viewed the hymn through a lens of impartiality.

Fact number one: the hymn would come true on the new moon, which was ten days away. She would die around the time of the huntsman’s trials.

Fact number two: the maze, fog, and tiraknea were symbolic. There was no logical reason for Edyta to encounter all three at the same time. It sounded like a crazy enough situation for the huntsman’s trials, but it wouldn’t be feasible. There wasn’t any space in the deadlands around Koryn for the guild to build a maze, nor were there the funds to do so.

Fact number three: Esther didn’t know what any of it could symbolise. She’d never heard a symbolic hymn before. She should have paid attention when Vera discussed them in their weekly meetings.

Esther sat on the floor until she arrived at a conclusion. She didn’t know whether to tell Vera about the hymn, but she could begin by unravelling its symbology. The Shack had a vast library cataloguing and detailing Gardaran wildlife, both real and fictitious. Esther could go there to research the tiraknea to uncover its potential symbolism.

Going to the Shack would also help her tick off another one of her priorities. With the royal visit incoming, she needed a sponsor for the trials.

With no more thought, Esther took off running.

The conservator guildhall’s archives were dusty from disuse and disorganised. But the Shack’s library was a different story.

They were in the basement of the Main Hall, so the colder underground temperatures helped to preserve the documents and books. Dozens of bookshelves lined the walls and stood in packed isles like erudite sentinels. As Esther passed by rare books chained to their bookshelves and loose parchment locked in glass cages, the smell of vellum, ink, and paper calmed her.

The keeper of the library was a woman named Hàve. She was possessive and proud of her library and known to baby or boss around anyone who entered. When Esther approached, Hàve was sitting behind her desk. She fidgeted with her grey hair while watching a group of huntsmen Esther didn’t recognise. They wore the insignia of Fort Gradora’s guildhall, the largest and prestigious because it protected the capital. One read a book about the ruins of Al Karesh, which was a common enough occurrence. Those books were only found in Koryn City. Many a foreign huntsman arrived to read them, hoping they would shed some light on their own warped ruins.

“They’re not going to burn the books, Hàve,” Esther said.

“Oh, you never know with huntsmen.” As usual, she spoke softly. Esther couldn’t believe used to be a favourite candidate for guildmaster after former Master Sudarmir died. “Anyway, how may I help you?”

“I’m looking for information on tirakneas. Where would be the best place to start?”

Hàve sprung into action and grabbed an enormous bunch of keys. “Myths and legends! You are a woman after my heart. I’ll set you up in the southern corner where it’s nice and quiet.” Despite her stooped back and old age, her voice was lively and had a youthful lilt where the scholarly subjects were concerned.

Within minutes, Hàve had sat Esther down on a single desk and presented her with a stack of materials. Esther inventoried them at a glance: A large tome called ’The Complete History of Gardara;’ a smaller one titled ’Natyran Myths and Legends;’ a cylindrical leather case with ’Copy of the Last Surviving Excerpt from ‘The Rise and Fall of our Glorious Blood Queen’ ’ stamped on the lid; and finally a book any huntsmen knew from front to back: ’A Huntsman’s Guide to Hunting.

“Start with the ’Blood Queen’ folio and chapter 79 of the ’Huntsman’s Guide’,” Hàve said. “They’ll give you what little ecological and ethological details we think we know. ’Complete History’ and ’Myths and Legends’ don’t discuss the creature, but they’ll give you an idea of the cultural context surrounding it.”

Esther smiled at the old woman and patted her arm. “You’re a real blessing, Hàve.”

She smiled and blushed. “Oh shush, you young thing. Now get to your reading.”

Esther picked up the leather cylinder and hesitated before she opened the lid. After years as a conservator, she knew how rare documents about the Blood Queen were. After the Rebel King deposed her, Gardara went blood magery mad. They hunted down its practitioners and destroyed any documents about the Blood Queen and her magery. The centuries-long censorship meant people knew nothing about her, not even her name. It was also why conservators didn’t know what caused their hymns or why the conservator’s sight was so rare.

But Vera had taught them to about avoiding unnecessary associations with blood magery. Once other people form the association, she would often say, you better run. She forbade them from talking about the Blood Queen or blood hymns where a non-conservator may overhear them.

Stop being foolish, Esther told herself. This is for Edyta. She’s your cynosure. The thought made her feel a mix of revulsion and fear.

She twisted off the lid and set it aside. From the title alone, she knew the folio would be biased. Hàve was right to suggest cross-referencing the information with ’A Huntsman’s Guide to Hunting.’

She dived in, fighting the exhaustion creeping up on her after extensive use of her sight. The ecological and ethological details both sources offered about the tiraknea were scarce. While they both agreed on its general physiology (white feline with red stripes and a set of long, prehensile, appendage-like whiskers on its cheeks), they disagreed on its appearance and scale.

Rise and Fall contained a full-colour illustration depicting tirakneas as twice the size of a man. The artist exaggerated its fearful qualities, giving it long canines and claws that glinted in the light.

Esther believed the more realistic size used in ’A Huntsman’s Guide’ that said it stood between three-foot-six and four-foot-two and weighed around four hundred and forty pounds. There was a small notation beneath the sketch stating they’d based the size off of the Mainland’s Nivineese tiger.

More interesting was A Huntsman’s Guide’s notes on the tiraknea’s circulatory system. The old legends said tirakneas had two separate circulatory systems and two hearts. The surface system comprised a smaller heart that pumped surface blood around the top layers of skin and muscle. The book described the surface blood as ‘brilliantly red’ and said it would harden when exposed to air, forming a resilient defensive membrane around the wound.

Then there was the lifeblood system. It worked the same as any normal animal’s circulatory system, except it was hidden under a layer of thick fat. The heart was larger and the blood was allegedly a red so dark it appeared black in poor lighting.

Both sources agreed that the only way to kill one was through internal haemorrhaging. Automatically, Esther assessed how hard it would be to kill. She’d need to sever the jugular with one slash of her sword or pierce the heart in one crossbow bolt. She’d get one shot before the surface blood formed a resinous shield over the skin.

Neither tome said anything conclusive about the tiraknea’s behaviour. ‘How can one conclude anything about the ethology or psychology of a creature that doesn’t exist?’ proposed A Huntsman’s Guide. Esther was inclined to agree.

So she moved on to The Complete History of Gardara and Natyran Myths and Legends. They would give her the best information to decode the symbology behind Edyta’s hymn.

Annoyingly, there wasn’t much. Tirakneas were said to have fallen with the first of Dealth’s Tears, causing many to believe they hailed from another world. The fact was overshadowed as tirakneas became increasingly associated with blood magery over the years.

Natyran Myths and Legends had a faded illustration depicting the Blood Queen on a throne with a large tiraknea on her right and a midnight black bird on her left shoulder. The tiraknea was comically large with awkwardly long limbs and teeth. Esther faintly remembered the same image hanging in the guildmaster’s office back in Porthpyre when she first met Vera.

Beneath the illustration, it explained tirakneas were the Blood Queen’s guardians, a connection which made sense considering their allegedly unusual circulatory system. Both books agreed that in all the myths and legends, tirakneas always appeared to play a single role: the harbinger of blood and death.

Sitting back, Esther covered her eyes. She no longer liked Edyta’s chances of survival.

Up Next: Esther runs into another friend and another snag in her plan to escape.

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