33: The Mask
It was a bright, sunny, spring afternoon. I was basking in the delightful warmth of the rays, seated on a stone bench in the Naga compound’s garden. The garden, as always, was well tended, and filled with beautifully growing plants. My favorite spot, the bench where I was sitting, allowed me to see the whole expanse of the arrays of vegetation. The manor was to my back, but as it was on a slight hill, I could see the gentle rolling hills for miles and miles. It reminded me of my childhood home; and in fact, I could see far off in the distance the dense forest beyond where my old home village lay. Now, home was this garden, and my newfound friends.
My best friend and I, Dean, had been selling Spate for several years now, which was effectively bottled happiness, to the underground community to supplement our financial resources. Kane Marsa, the leader of our gang, had been very pleased with our efforts. We’d been rewarded with increased responsibilities, further trust, and he often came to us for counsel. He’d been coming around less and less though, and I told myself he was just busy.
I sat on the bench, plucked a nearby flower, and turned it in my fingers. I was careful not to focus my magic and drain it, and the stem remained bright green and sturdy. I was getting better and better at controlling my magic every day that I practiced it.
I knew that the stronger I got, the more control I needed, so I’d taken to practicing on the plants in the garden. It was a peaceful, yet productive, hobby. The stronger I’d gotten since discovering my talent was alarming. I was afraid, deathly afraid, that I would hurt somebody if I lost focus. I was seventeen now, practically an adult, and I’d never had an intimate relationship with anyone for fear of hurting them.
I shook my head, physically removing the thoughts from my brain. I didn’t have time for romance, not when I had responsibilities to tend to. Love was just a complication, even if I had met anyone I wanted to be with – which I had yet to do.
Usually, I was quite busy. Marsa had been consulting us, and including us – especially me, for whatever reason – in the daily business of the Naga. I wondered if he was grooming Dean for leadership. He was a natural. He inspired loyalty and genuine compassion from everybody he was around, although he hid a dark side of himself, a torrent of anger, a result from some kind of trauma in his past. He’d only alluded it to me, and I doubted he’d even mentioned it to anyone else.
But he concealed it so well, only I was really aware of it. It didn’t bother me. I had just as much darkness in me as he did. Though Marsa usually had us working with him, lately, he hadn’t been calling on us. I had heard the rumor that he’d fallen ill, although the details were all wildly different. It depended on who you asked. Some said that he’d gotten a cold, others said he was poisoned, and some even said he’d just found a woman he liked and refused to leave her bed. Whatever the story, I selfishly didn’t mind the bit of peace I received from not tending to his business.
Not that I didn’t like Marsa – quite the opposite, actually. He was my savior as well. I knew that in order for me to join the Naga, Dean had struck some sort of deal with him. I didn’t know what exactly, but I knew that it must have been an expensive sort of agreement. I’d been granted immediate induction into his gang, been given food, lodging, and effectively, a new family. I’d been given a home. I was so grateful, to both of them, for taking me in when I was abandoned. Although, I didn’t blame my sister for leaving; at least, not anymore. When she’d first left, I’d blamed everything on her. If she hadn’t been so powerful, then the King wouldn’t have wanted her, and she wouldn’t have left. Father wouldn’t have spiraled downwards, a vicious cycle in his drinking and gambling that led to his death and my life as a thief and drug dealer.
However, I was still thankful. The flower that I had been turning in my fingers, absentmindedly playing with while lost in thought, had started to wilt. I sighed. There was still a lot of work for me to do.
I looked up, and noticed Dean there, a sad look sitting oddly on his handsome face. I blushed, surprised to see him and a little embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed him approach. I suppose I had been too lost in my thoughts to notice anything besides what was going on in my own head.
“Marsa is asking for you,” Dean said quietly, noting the flower that I still held in between my fingers. “Needs to see you immediately.”
He held out a hand, always the gentleman, to help me stand.
I accepted it and joined him in walking down the path towards the manor. I allowed myself a last minute glance over my shoulder at the garden; something about Dean’s mannerism told me I should appreciate the calm and tranquility that I felt in this moment. A black bird flit from between a few trees, startled by our sudden movements. I watched it fly away, wings sweeping along in an upwards draft.
All too soon, we’d reached Marsa’s chambers. It was the largest suite in the manor, as it should be. He was the leader, after all. Dean knocked on the door with a fist, his knuckles white.
“Come in,” said a weak voice.
It sounded like Marsa, but it couldn’t be him. I’d never heard his voice sound like anything other than a deep bass of confidence, authority, and respect. Not this whiny, pain-filled drivel. My unease grew as Dean opened the door, allowing me to enter first.
“I hear you wanted to see me,” I said, approaching the bed.
Marsa lay within it, the sheets stuck to his body like a second skin. He was gaunt, not the strong, terrifying-looking man that I knew. I breathed deeply to mask my gasp of shock. It must not have worked, because Marsa noticed my discomfort and smiled sadly. He must know how rough he looked.
“I’m... dying,” he said softly, barely able to speak. He licked his cracked lips slowly, the effort it took plainly visible.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said, holding back tears, the sobs burning in my throat. “But I have heard the rumor where you’re stuck in bed with a lass.” I gave a false laugh.
I heard Dean sniff from his position at the doorway.
Marsa gave a quiet bark of a chuckle, a faint echo of the belly-laughs he used to give. “While I am... stuck in bed,” he said slowly, achingly. “I can’t find the lass... but she might be in here... somewhere.”
He turned his head to look me as squarely in the eyes as he could. “Please, sit.”
His eyes pointed towards the chair next to the bed, indicating as best he could what he wished. I complied, the wooden chair stiff and uncomfortable.
“Renn,” he said, “Must ask... something important.”
His words were whispers, murmurs, the effort it took to force the breath from his lungs causing pain. He winced. I leaned in closer to hear better, afraid of what he might say. The edge of the wooden seat dug into the backs of my thighs.
He licked his lips again, wetting them to ease his speech. “You will... my successor.”
I looked up at Dean, who wore a sad smile on his face.
I shook my head, disbelieving. “Your successor?”
“You’ll lead... when I’m gone,” he wheezed.
This incited a bout of coughing, his frail body seizing on the mattress. He recovered, tears in his eyes from the effort. Dean and I watched silently, each of us needing to help, but unable to.
“But...,” he continued, his voice gravelly, “I have... a favor... to ask.”
“Name it,” I said desperately, leaning so far forward on my chair now that I barely sat upon it.
“Take... the pain away,” he said softly, agony in his glazed over eyes. “No time... left... don’t want to be... this...”
I glanced at Dean through the edges of my vision, pleading silently for his support. But he looked just as helpless as I did.
“Please... Renn,” Marsa asked once more.
I nodded; I owed this man my life, so I supposed it was fitting that I take his. I gestured that Dean leave the room. He met my eyes, wary, and then he quietly clicked the door shut behind him so that Marsa and I were alone.
“Is there anything you wish to say before...” I choked, unable to finish the sentence.
He shook his head. Inhaling deeply, he said, “Just... honor alliances. Lead... to peace...” He closed his eyes, gathering his strength to continue, “Long live... the true King.”
He sighed, weary, and settled himself into the bed as best he could. He nodded ever so slightly; he was ready.
I took his hand in mine, feeling the bones wrapped in his papery skin, so different than the strong, effortlessly capable hands that I knew. I focused, awakening the part of me that knew only to take. I reached out, mentally, and found Marsa’s internal energy. What would normally feel like a bright, compressed star, was riddled with disease and grief. His energy was weak, flickering. Mentally, I called to it, coaxing it from the physical prison of Marsa’s body. The weak, dim energy flowed easily from him into me. I felt its heat grow in my limbs, a sensation like I had caged a small fire inside my fingertips that burned throughout my whole body.
I chanced a glance at Marsa, just before his life energy was spent, and I saw an expression of peace fall over his face. Then, the last bit of energy hopped over from him and into me. I watched the light leave his expressions, felt his hand instantly grow cold, even though I held it tightly.
He was gone. The whole process had perhaps taken a second, maybe two, and he was just... gone.
My hands shook as his life energy dissipated as heat into my body. The tremendous sense of a cup too full, threatening to overflow, surged through me. This was dangerous, the taking of a life. I’d absorbed his essence – what was I to do with it? Could I release it? Would my body become accustomed to it? I didn’t know. I’d never done anything larger scale than a plant, which didn’t have even a quarter of the energy of a full grown man – albeit a sick and dying one.
Woozy, I couldn’t stand, and instead, leaned my head forward to rest on the mattress, my head inches from Marsa’s limp arm. My head swum with vortices and torrents of light, heat, and energy. It was all I could do to stay conscious. It wasn’t painful – no, the contrary. The heat was pleasant, the power surging through my body made me feel invincible. I knew it was false; my body was still mine, the power inside me was temporary, but while it was rushing through my veins, there was nothing but blinding energy. I was both nothing and everything, all at once.
After several minutes, I finally felt the heat begin to dissipate. I gingerly tested lifting my head from the mattress. I was able to sit upright, though a slight wave of nausea overcame me. I blinked my eyes hard.
Experimentally, I called out to Dean. My voice was scratchy and sore, as if I’d swallowed boiling water. I coughed, trying to satisfy the itch. It didn’t work, but Dean came racing in, eyes large as he took in the scene.
After he saw that I was physically unharmed, he calmed, raking his hands through his smooth, black hair. “Is he...?”
“Yes,” I answered. I straightened in my chair and twisted to look Dean squarely in the eyes. “Tell the Naga that Marsa is dead.”
I turned away and witnessed a shadow flit over the window across the room. A large black bird had lit there, cawing at us. It could’ve been a blackbird, a crow, or a raven. I had no idea for sure, I was certainly no ornithologist. It could’ve even been that bird I’d noticed in the garden. But it didn’t matter; his presence was a sign, a black omen of death.
Was it the personified version of the Rynish goddess that Marsa loved so much, here to take his soul skywards? I hoped for Marsa’s sake that it was. I didn’t know if I believed in that kind of thing. I’d never had use for religion before. I sat up straighter to see the garden beyond the window, beyond the raven – or whatever it was. I wondered if Marsa’s religion would bring me peace, as it had for him. He always preached balance, love and hate, life and death, both sides of the coin. You couldn’t have one without the other. I glanced at Marsa’s lifeless body, and wondered what would become of his soul, and if we even had one.
Dean looked at me, concerned, but said nothing else. And yet, he did not move to spread the word as I’d asked. Staring at the raven in the window, a thought occurred to me. I was no longer Renn; she was left behind in her father’s cottage seven years ago, mourning his death and her sister’s disappearance. That wasn’t me anymore, and this new woman needed a new name.
“Tell them The Raven leads them now.”