A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 1, Line 2) Shaped of Shadow - Part 1

Gardara was almost decimated five hundred years ago when the Tears of Dealth fell. The year-long magical storm killed over half the island’s population and turned its wilderness into the corrupted, unnatural nightmare known as the deadlands. They’re the ideal breeding ground for the highly infectious blood-curse, the second remnant of blood-magery after conservators.

Only two types of people are brave enough to face the wilderness and blood-curse. The first are fools and the second are the prolific psychopaths known to all as huntsmen.

Excerpt from ′The Complete History of Gardara.’

Built into the cliff by the ocean, the city of Porthpyre stank of brine, fish, and storm soaked canvas sails. Gulls cawed as they flew around the harbours, searching the skippers, galleons, and barges for any remaining morsels of the day’s catch. Their cries were such mundane noises for Esther, yet on that day, they morphed into the screaming of sirens.

The two women raced through the darkened streets, driven by fear and pursued by death. It hadn’t taken Lordess Olga long to dispatch a small regiment of her personal guards to discreetly chase after the run-away family disgrace.

Vessany saw them first, even though she didn’t understand the significance of the altered Varson brand on their breastplates. Even after two months of experience as a conservator, she recognised the covert dance people used to try to outflank her in the hopes of herding her away from witnesses. It was a corporal offence to lay a hand on a conservator because they were the legal property of the Crowned Guardian, but that didn’t stop people from trying.

Vessany didn’t want to panic Esther, so she took her down the secret streets and thoroughfares even the most esteemed guards would have no knowledge of. In the poorer shanty districts on the outskirts of the city, many roads took them through shops and sometimes people’s homes. When land within the city walls was at a premium, Gardaran’s built their homes wherever there was space. So long as people could still drive their cattle through the rooms the homeowners left open for pedestrians, no one would tear the structure down in the middle of the night.

Esther followed mutely, holding back tears and trusting her companion’s knowledge of the city more than her own. An all manner of unsavoury people, whose eyes danced in greed at the sight of her soiled silken dress, backed away when they saw Vessany. If Esther didn’t know better, she’d say Vessany’s robes of crimson emitted a magical miasma that kept them away.

Her robes had no effect on the pursuing guards, who tracked them with fanatical devotion. On one of the few times they were forced to travel down an open street, Esther caught sight of their pursuers for the first time.

“Vessany!” Esther said. She couldn’t bring herself to use the honorific ‘Sister.’ “Those are my aunt’s personal guards.” A tall guard whipped her head around, searching for the source of the noise. She spotted the two girls and barked orders to her compatriot who they couldn’t see.

“Idiot, don’t speak so loud,” Vessany hissed. “Now they know we know they’re chasing us, see! Run now, as fast as you can. We’ll only be safe once we reach the guildhall.”

Fear beat a new rhythm into Esther’s body by striking against her heart. The crowd parted for the two girls because of Vessany’s robes, but they hardly moved for the armed guards. It gave Esther and Vessany a slight advantage, which was offset by the guard’s practised endurance.

Vessany dragged Esther into a meat market, where huge bovine carcasses hung suspended from hooks and live chickens rocked back and forth in small cages. As they flew past stalls displaying enormous slabs of expertly carved muscle, entrails, and body parts, Esther’s strength waned. The flesh displayed in neat rows on the countertops and the splattering of blood on the sawdust-strew floor took on ghostly shapes in the darkness. She saw a figure in the corner of her eye. It was a woman, reclining on a bed of sirloin steaks. Her hands dripped fresh blood, her eyes were empty, and an arrow made of bone protruded from her chest.

“Guardian Kessila-” Esther gasped, stumbling.

The figure raised a red finger towards her. “Y...youuu c-could haave s-s-sssaved m-me!”

The edge of Esther’s vision blackened as the woman’s deadened gaze held her in thrall.

Vessany, who’d run ahead, stopped when she sensed she’d lost her charge. One of the guards gaining upon Esther, who was staring blankly at a display of freshly carved meat.

“Run, girl,” Vessany cried. The guard reached out to grab Esther, so Vessany ran faster, grabbing a jar of what looked like pickled tripe on the way. She tore the lid off and gagged at the intense smell of meat and vinegar.

The guard grabbed Esther’s arm, who put up no fight. The middle-aged man had arms of tree trunks, so sixteen-year-old Vessany had no hopes of tearing Esther from his clutches. Instead, she tossed the fetid contents of the jar into his face. He reeled back in shock and screamed as the vinegar burned into his eyes, allowing Vessany enough time to pull Esther to safety.

“Why were you standing there?” she demanded, keeping a firm grip on Esther’s upper arm.

“I saw her,” she moaned quietly. “Guardian Kessila. I saw her.”

“You saw nothing but your imagination.” They emerged from the other side of the meat market into the fresh, sea-twinged air. “Now come on. We’re almost to safety, see? Don’t stop now.”

Their flight ended when they reached Porthpyre’s conservator’s guildhall, a dilapidated wooden building on the edge of the city that hid behind the charred remains of a burned granary. Vessany held onto Esther’s hand as they clambered over the building’s blackened bones to reach the back entrance of the guildhall, a half-broken door Vessany needed all her strength to pry open.

Esther’s entire body shook from fear and cold as she followed Vessany through the dingy hallway. They’d escaped their pursuers and reached the guildhall, but Esther felt no safer than when they fled through the streets. She couldn’t stop thinking about the image of Guardian Kessila that had seemed so real.

As the hallway opened up to a small parlour, an impenetrable wall of pungent spices cut through her fear. A balmy sweetness reminiscent of wildflowers in the height of bloom hit her first, closely followed by a spicy, stuffy sourness that tickled her nose. The two scents combined made her head rush, her airways clear, and her throat tingle. The effect was so cathartic, Esther paused mid-step, allowing it to embrace her and soothe her terror.

When her senses returned, she realised such scents could only belong to the sour rurik and sweet matari. On their own, neither herb was overly significant, but only one type of person would smell heavily of both: the huntsmen.

Both girls faltered as two well-armoured, wild-looking men — one young, one old, and both out of place in the dilapidated guildhall — came into view. The old man’s skin was tanned a deep brown and his dark grey hair fell wildly past his shoulders. Four jagged scars carved down the left side of his face from temple to chin, leaving the left side of his mouth paralysed in a permanent scowl. Most horrifying of all, his left eye was missing, leaving an unsightly pit he left uncovered.

The younger man was perhaps in his early twenties or late teens. His hair was dirty-blonde and fell to his shoulders, but he wore the top half in a braid to keep it away from his grey eyes. A strong nose dominated his face, and a permanent layer of stubble covered his cheeks and chin. If the older man was a few decades younger and unscarred, they’d perhaps look like twins.

The two huntsmen looked up in alarm as Esther and Vessany appeared in the doorway. The young man’s hand flew to the larger of two swords he kept sheathed at his right hip. With reflexes that weren’t dulled by age, the older man caught the younger man’s hand before it could reach the hilt.

“Mind ye manners, Esvian,” he said in a thick accent.

When the old man spoke, it caught the attention of a six and a half foot tall woman in the corner. She wore an embroidered ebony dress that swallowed every inch of her skin from toe to throat. Her dark brown hair was peppered with grey, which she’d pulled into a soft and simple twist at the base of her neck. Unlike the two men, the woman definitely belonged to the conservators guild.

“Sister Vessany? You are supposed to be at the Varson Estate.” She took one look at the blood on Esther’s hands and dress, and her eyes swelled with motherly fury. “I see.” She spoke with a subtle accent that followed a similar cadence to the older man’s, except it was more rhythmic and soft.

Esther flinched back as the woman approached slowly. “I am Syr rey-Taleen, a Guildmaster of the conservators guild. Have you injured yourself?”

“It’s not… It’s not my blood,” Esther stammered, barely above a whisper.

“Oh, child,” Syr rey-Taleen murmured. “Oh, my dear child. Come. Let’s discuss this in the guildmaster’s study, where we’ll have some privacy.” She nodded at the two huntsmen. “By your leave. I cannot promise how long I’ll be, but Sister Vessany will tend to you.”

Esther was just as reluctant to leave Vessany’s company as she had once been to join it. Syr rey-Taleen gently coaxed the stiff-legged girl up a set of uneven and unforgivably steep stairs into an even smaller room with four items of furniture: a desk, two chairs, and a large tapestry in hues of black, white, and red.

Syr rey-Taleen winced as the subject of the tapestry — a woman with blood-red eyes dressed in a crimson dress and ruby laden crown — regarded them without mercy. A dark bird rested on her left shoulder while a white and red tiger growled on her right side. The woman extended her arms to the Kingdom of Gardara that burned around her. Dozens of naked slaves bowed and sagged at her feet, held in thrall by her blood magery, while her decaying army of blood-cursed animals stood guard around her.

Esther took an involuntary step back. “The Blood Queen,” she stammered.

A well-bred fear gripped her heart. Every Gardaran child knew about the Blood Queen and her legacy. Esther would always remember the day her parents told her about the Tears of Dealth — the raging magical storm that ripped across the land, distorting it and leaving the wilds tainted and deadly — and how the Blood Queen took advantage of the aftermath to fell the former King and take the throne for herself. Even though she and her blood mages were later hunted to extinction, the fear ran so deep that many conservators often felt the deathly kiss of their hatred.

“Pray pardon for the decor,” Syr rey-Taleen said stiffly. “Some conservator guildmaster’s think such display’s constitute a sense of humour.” Syr rey-Taleen side-stepped around the desk and took the larger chair with its back to the tapestry. “Do sit,” she said, indicating the supplicant’s chair that faced it. Esther sat down, but couldn’t stop glancing at the Blood Queen’s reddened eyes.

“Let’s waste no more time. From what I’ve seen, I trust you heard a hymn,” she said.

Esther clutched at her skirts. “Yes,” she whispered. Even a floor above, the scent of rurik and matari from the huntsman was strong enough that Esther could still smell it. However, it wasn’t strong enough to clear her head and lift her fear. “I- I was waiting to meet Guardian Kessila. Then I heard bells and I…” she squeezed her skirts so tightly her nails dug into the palm of her hands. “I saw her die.”

Syr rey-Taleen’s mouth dropped open and her body stiffened. “Guardian Kessila is… dead.” The shock had hollowed her voice and robbed it of all strength. Yet within two blinks, she recomposed herself. “My apologies. I… We knew each other as young girls. But this isn’t about me.” She fluttered her fingers and curled them into fists. “Please, continue.”

The rules of etiquette Esther’s aunt had hammered into like a blacksmith tempers steel called for Esther to comfort the woman. But Esther’s nerves were shot, and she suddenly found she couldn’t stop talking. Words came forth in a torrent, and Esther described how real the vision had felt, and how she could have warned Guardian Kessila in time, but she had paused in indecision.

After she admitted it, she cried. “My aunt says conservators hear their hymns because they like watching people die. It means I’m monstrous.” Even with her eyes closed from crying, she heard the rustling of her bodice as Syr rey-Taleen straightened and squared her shoulders.

“Open your eyes,” she commanded. Esther obeyed. “That is not true.”

“But the stories say only monsters see other people’s deaths.” Esther whimpered. “So what does that make me?”

“It makes you my sister,” Syr rey-Taleen said, the strength of her voice and conviction sinking into Esther’s bones and rekindling her lost confidence. “There is no evil here, except those who believe blood hymns are evil.”

The two words — blood hymn — that had haunted Esther since she fled her family estate sounded so proud and strong on Syr rey-Taleen’s lips. It gave Esther the confidence to ask another question that had taken root in the darkest corner of her mind. “But does that make me a blood mage, like... like her?” She found herself unable to say the Blood Queen’s name out loud.

Syr rey-Taleen half-turned to glare at the tapestry. “No, thank the skies. Blood mages are extinct. The hymns and the blood scourge are all that remain.” Somehow, her use of the archaic term for the blood-curse, the infectious disease that ravaged the wilderness outside the city walls, made her seem more authentic and credible to Esther.

Syr rey-Taleen raised herself to her full height and delivered the words Esther would remember for the rest of her life, even though her opinion on them would change many times over the coming years.

“Hearing the hymns of blood does not make you a monster. You should feel honoured, for the gods saw fit to grant you visions of peoples’ death... and by extension, the pleasure of saving their lives.”

In the second half of this chapter: Just as Esther comes to terms with the new trajectory of her life, a shadow approaches with a dire warning.

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