A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 1, Line 3) Sun and Strangers - Part 1

Koryn City… it’s been troublesome from the start. Even before the Tears of Dealth and the Blood Queen’s reign, it was never content to suffer the rule of a far-off Guardian. The populace scorns the noble class and revolt for independence every few decades. One would think they’d be good at it by now, considering the number of times they’ve attempted a coup.

The only Guardian the city ever tolerated was Kessila, possibly because she outlawed the practice of exiling the Realms murderous lunatics and criminally insane onto their streets. I suppose we’ll never get the truth now that she’s gone and the people of Koryn refuse to speak ill of the dead.

- Personal correspondence between an unknown Gardaran aristocrat and an unknown Crematian ambassador.

Time is a funny thing. Like the flow of a river, it appears continuous and uniform on the surface, but the deeps tell another story. Clear waterways breed swift and smooth currents, but rough beds littered with obstructions create eddies where the water slows and flows backwards.

The five years Esther had spent in Koryn City as a conservator and huntsman made her previous life feel short by comparison. She’d lived a lifetime in those five years, and she took solace in how time had shaped her into someone unrecognisable. At one-and-twenty, she hardly resembled the terrified girl whose visions ripped her away from courtly life.

However, not all were the natural changes in appearance that come with age.

Survival in Koryn City called upon having gall, guile, and grit in abundance, and the years of hardship had stamped the qualities into her features. A permanent crease rested between her brows from squinting at the sun and strangers. Her hands were roughened from fending off beggars and thieves. Seeing death and suffering daily had hardened her eyes.

The most shocking change concerned the way she dressed. Gone were the small ruff’s, petticoats, and gowns that were plain yet beautiful. In their place, she and her ‘sisters’ spent a lot of their time wearing the conspicuous crimson habit and hooded cloak conservators were famous for. Over the years, Esther had taken to wearing a red piece of cloth over her lower face to hide her identity. It was easy to make enemies as a conservator, and the people of Koryn had long memories.

The ensemble warned unsuspecting passers-by of her corrupted blood, and it did its job well. As much as she loathed wearing it, it deterred harassment while she performed what some believed was the most sacrilegious job in the world: saving someone’s life.

“We are the cure for death // And the conservators of life,” read the proverb inscribed upon the lid of her dowsing compass. The words were Esther’s sisters, dutiful shadows more familiar to her than the sound of her voice or the feel of her breath.

The proverb wasn’t etched into the brass casing of an ordinary compass. Instead of a dial pivoting on a brass pin over orienting lines and declination marks, the bone-white needle floated in a pool of Esther’s blood and pointed towards the person whose death she’d foreseen hours ago.

She strode down the street on steady legs, barely noticing the people eyeing her embellished crimson habit and cloak. Some held their breath as she passed and most looked away, but all stepped aside. Those few who dared to peek under her hood saw nothing more than a band of crimson cloth covering her lower face and the focused expression distinctive of an active conservator. Her cynosure’s life depended upon the swiftness of her warning, and the weight of their mortality branded her face.

Oriented by her dowsing compass and the magical pulling sensation behind her eyes, Esther slunk deeper into the west side of Koryn City. The houses became more dilapidated, the pedestrians more ragged, and the beggars more numerous, but she walked on without fear. While harming a conservator was a corporal offence few dared to risk, her confidence stemmed from the dagger sheathed at her hip and her willingness to use it.

She turned a corner that followed the dried-up river repurposed as an open sewer and there it was; the door from her vision. A ruined old mill lurking above the crumbling shantytown cast a thick shadow over her target, which was the same faded russet colour she’d seen hours ago. Her heart raced, and she stowed her dowsing compass away.

As she strode closer, the eye-watering stench of the sewer overwhelmed her senses and scrambled her stomach. The only thing forcing her forward was another of the conservators’ dutiful maxims: “Life is hard for those who prophesy death // But the burden must be bore // So none need fall into the dark.” It was the maxim Vessany told her after her first vision. It was the one she chanted to herself the most often.

Her body thrummed in excitement as she honed in on the door. Its hinges were soiled with rust and a thin layer of paint peeled around a deep crack running diagonally down the middle. Taking a deep breath, Esther knocked three times, hard and fast. She never liked to linger while delivering her warnings.

An elderly man pulled it open and the hinges creaked like old bones. He squinted at the visitor through the crack, and upon seeing the mass of crimson cloth, he gasped and slammed the door shut in her face.

Esther sighed. It wasn’t an unusual reaction; people feared the potential of death, so they often denied conservators entry. She understood the fear, but the old man’s haste to lock her out stoked the embers of her temper. Closing her eyes, she quietly recited another conservator prayer:

“When blood and death are in the air // And fate casts out her evil snare // Listen close to fate’s cruel whim // To bring silence to death’s great hymn.”

She had a duty to fulfil, and nobody would get in her way.

She knocked again and received no answer.

“Greetings. I’m here for Mavias Undercroft,” she said, keeping her voice soft and light. Unthreatening.

The old man whimpered and slid shut another lock. “Y-you have the wrong house.” He sounded desperate, like a cornered animal.

Gaining lawful entry wouldn’t be easy.

“Sir, I can assure you I have the correct house-”

“No! You don’t!” His voice rose in pitch as hysteria gripped him. “Leave, you daughter of death! You are not welcome here!”

Esther told herself to breathe. You can handle a stubborn old man

“Sir, you are legally obliged to allow me entry. I have a duty to perform-” The clink of another lock slamming shut cut her off. As it clicked home, her temper evaporated. “Oh… Fuck it!”

With a roar, she kicked the side of the door where the locks were mounted. They burst apart and the door was so fragile, even the eroded hinges on the other side buckled. The rotten wood snapped as the dislocated door flew into the old man. He cried out and tumbled to the ground amid a rain of splinters and peeling paint.

“You should have opened the fucking door,” Esther hissed, dropping all priestly pretences.

“Please, leave,” the old man stammered from the floor. “You have the wrong house.”

Esther took a deep breath and focused on the pull of her conservator’s sight behind her eyes. It pulsed and hummed, excited by the proximity of the cynosure whose blood called to hers.

“No,” she said coldly, walking deeper into his home, uninvited and unwanted. The old man whimpered and cowered away as the hem of her robes brushed against his skin.

Esther followed the pull of her sight towards the kitchen where an elderly woman and a boy on the cusp of manhood prepared a meal by the hearth. The woman looked up from her baking and met Esther’s gaze defiantly, daring her to say the words, but Esther wasn’t here for her. Her sight cooed as her eyes scanned over the boy. He is the one, it whispered. He is the one who’ll die. As the vision foretold, he was of scrawny build with milky, blinded eyes.

As soon as Esther looked at the boy, the elderly woman cried out in despair. “No! Not him!” She pulled the boy close as if her embrace was enough to ward off death.

“Grams, what’s going on,” he asked, looking around wildly as if his eyes were still capable of sight. A pang of sympathy played on Esther’s nerves, but she buried it quickly. She was there to deliver her warning, nothing more.

“Mavias Undercroft?” she said.

He nodded while his grandmother clung to him. “Don’t you dare, you weeping woman, you sister of evil,” she spat.

Esther’s stomach cramped with guilt, but she forced herself to say the words she’d learned to hate. “Mavias Undercroft, I have foreseen your death. In three days, a wagon you didn’t hear coming will crush you while you cross the Harver-Whaymen bridge.” His face paled as he realised what was going on. “To turn the tide of blood and avoid this fate, cross the river on the south-side bridge. Take my advice and live. Ignore it, and you will perish.”

With her message delivered, Esther turned around to leave.

“Why,” the boy called after her. Esther should have ignored him, she should have kept on walking, but she didn’t. She knew what he was going to say, and some twisted part of her needed to face him when he said it. “Why tell me? Why tell any of us?”

Esther detected a trickle of bitter anger mounting within him, not with physical observation, but with another sense entirely. Her conservator’s sight was useful for more than tracking the location of her cynosure.

Mavias stood taller and fought to keep from flinching. “The neighbours will have seen you. They’ll know why you came here. Now they know the blood force targets me.” He dropped his head towards the floor as all resistance left his body. His voice became nothing more than a whisper. “I’d rather die than live with the shame.”

“Then die,” Esther sneered, her fury making her dispassionate. “Take the Harver-Whayman bridge and let the wagon crush you. The stigma of the blood force doesn’t follow you to the grave... Or so I’ve heard.”

She fled from the house, believing that by the end of the week, she’d read about his death in the newspaper. Because of the blood force fallacy, many cynosures preferred to waste their second chance at life in order to ‘die like a hero.’

It was utter bollocks, of course, but it was the harsh reality of her line of work. However, it wasn’t a conservator’s job to ensure their cynosures listened, only to deliver the warning in time. So as she left their house and disappeared down the winding streets of Koryn City, she tried to forget about Mavias Undercroft. But secretly, oh so secretly, she knew that if he died, his name would stain her soul forever.

As some said, ’red be the colour of death, the devourer of souls, and the mark of the damned…’

She tried to ward off the pain, reminding herself that it was the nature of her job to dance with death. It’s unavoidable, she thought, and I don’t know why I expect things to change. After all, life is hard for those who prophesy death...

In the second half of this chapter: What Esther hoped would be a peaceful afternoon in the city takes a deadly turn and will the arrival of a stranger spell disaster?

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