Rae stood alone in the center of a ring of Redwood trees. They towered over her as they stretched their long limbs toward the stars. A mottled cloak that mimicked the flickering of shadows hung to her ankles. The forest around her was silent as if it sensed the unnatural thing that she was resolved to do.
Her frail heart lay battered in her chest from the beating that stress had given it. The moon would rise to its apex soon and then the time would come to begin the forbidden ceremony. Her palms were already slick with a nervous sweat. She took in a deep, lingering breath and began to pray to her gods.
Naudiz, I am in need. Uruz, provide me with strength of mind. Teiwaz, I am a warrior. Her lips moved soundlessly to form the words of her mantra. Over and over, Rae recited until the moon was nearly in position. The shadows whispered to her as they flicked along the edges of her skin.
She closed her eyes with one last sigh and then she began the spell. “Shining bright with another’s light on this darkest night, the moon. Taken for granted, her white light falls, shadowed by the sun and revered by all.” Her milky skin began to shimmer softly in the darkness and the shadows coalesced around her, blotting out the stoic forms of the redwoods.
“I am one and I am whole. Luna, light the darkness in my soul. I call the power, three times one. Light the dark and call the sun.” As she continued the incantation, her entire body lit up like a beacon with the shadows skulking about the edges. She began to shake slowly with the effort of channeling Solara’s light. “Daughter of the Sun, I am not. The call of the shadows, I never forgot. I reject the light inside of me and call on the darkness to set me free.” The white light flashed once and then went out. Rae was left alone in the darkness and even the moon’s shine seemed to fade.
She turned slowly in a circle watching as the darkness surrounded her. The shadows twisted and curved forming the glyphs of the old language. Soon, Rae was at the center of a tangle of ancient magic. She stood statue-like as she prepared herself for the final incantation. The faded moon was directly above the clearing now and she glanced furtively up at it, wanting the timing to be exactly right. She paused a few more seconds and then began.
“I choose the path that haunts the years, the path free from pain and silent tears. I call the shadows from the dark. I give my life; I give my spark.” Her dark eyes blurred as she spoke the final lines. The shadow glyphs danced with anticipation around her. “I choose to accept the tainted ink, a symbol of the power I seek.” Her breath came in quick bursts as the light pours out of her and down into the earth. “I stand in the circle of Redwood Trees. I cast the spell and pay the Fee.” She collapsed as pain raped her body. For a few aching moments, the weight of the entire world fell onto her. From then on, it steadily got worse.
As Rae twisted and coiled on the ground, the glyphs pulsed eerily around her. Her body burned with a raging inferno of dark power. Screams cut through the air and her eyes poured silent tears. Around her, the shadows writhed in a primal dance of worship. Like ink, they flowed into her; becoming black glyph tattoos that swirled against the white canvas that was her skin.
The pain receded slowly and when it was finally gone, Rae lay prone on the ground. Her breathing was strained as she fought to stay conscious. Just as the sun was rising, she lurched to her feet. Her long black hair was slicked back with sweat and her muscles shook from the effort the spell had taken. The tattoos moved across her skin and covered her in an endless dance of whirling symbols. She knew that soon they would settle into their permanent positions and then her new power would be cemented in her immortal body.
Rae’s voice rasped as she spoke. “The choice is made. Ever-lasting, I have become.” Her tattoos shimmered darkly as if in response to her words. She sighed softly as they finally settled into their places and then raised her ink covered hands to test her new power.
At once, the symbols on her fingers flowed out to form a line of shadow-glyphs. Rae spoke them aloud and they began to coalesce until they formed the shadowy outline of a raven. The raven solidified and flew to perch itself on Rae’s shoulder. It rubbed its beak affectionately across her shadow stained cheek and, for the first time, she smiled, but it was only the ghost of a smile for she was merely a shell of the desperate girl that she had once been. With a loud caw, the raven launched itself from her shoulder. The shadows it was made from dispersed like thinning mist.
The black cloud buzzed like a hive of bees, joining with a large shadow that crept along the ground toward her. Rae watched it with curious eyes, head cocked slightly to the side like an exotic bird. The shadow rose, opening to reveal a ghostly woman with eyes like ice water and hair whiter than snow. She was classically beautiful with features that looked to be chiseled in stone so pale as to be transparent.
Immediately realizing who this must be, Rae’s eyes widened and she hurried to bow, almost letting her forehead touch the ground. The woman only observed her with intense eyes. Shadows spun and coiled around her, protecting her delicate skin from the dim light of day. Luna—the very goddess she’d tied herself to—stood before her in all of her midnight glory.
“Child, how do you feel?” Her lips barely parted as she spoke and her voice came out as if carried on a cool breeze. “Powerful? Energized?” Rae looked up at her from her position on the ground hesitantly. “Come now, rise and address me as one of my own children.”
She did as she was told, rising lightly and standing straight with her eyes tentatively meeting the Goddess’s. “I feel alive, my Lady. Power rushes over me, through me.” The new born shadow tattoos glittered in agreement, punctuating her statements with undulating movements. Luna’s pale pink lips turned upward in a false approximation of a smile.
“That’s good. I had hoped you would feel well enough to begin your service to me.” She stepped forward, towering over Rae’s small form with all the grace of a queen. Rae was forced to crane her neck to meet the Goddess’s unearthly eyes. “I have a very particular mission for you.”
“Anything. Just name it.” The girl’s face was eager beneath her tainted ink. She bounced lightly on her toes, mottled cloak dangling around her thin ankles.
“Twelve souls.” Rae’s eager expression disappeared in an instant, replaced with one of eager curiosity. “But they must be specific souls. Tainted like yours and willingly given.” The Goddess studied her for any sign of unwillingness; a quick once over assured her that Rae was perfectly willing.
“How am I to find these souls?” Satisfied with her new servant, Luna withdrew a small, circular mirror from the shallow pocket on the inside of her loose robe. It was made of polished obsidian and ornately carved dragon bone. A shadowy tendril arched up and whisked the mirror from its master’s pale hand, drifting forward to dangle the mirror in front of Rae’s face. She took it gingerly as if expecting it to zap her with some ancient power.
Instead, Rae was hypnotized by its reflective surface. Her face appeared distorted as if she was gazing down into a puddle of water. “The mirror will show you where you need to go and who you need to find. Let it guide you.” Luna watched her with interest, wondering if the child would indeed be able to succeed in this quest.
“If I may ask, Goddess, what will you use their souls for? Some enchantment?” Luna shook her head slowly.
“I wouldn’t waste souls on just any enchantment. Only something as important as complete and absolute power would entice me to do so.” Her glacial eyes took on a hungry light. “The souls will allow me to take dominion over the daylight sky. My sister has ruled there for far too long.” Rae gasped. The daylight sky? “Now, Child, this conversation has gone on long enough. I have things to attend to and you must be on your way.” The shadows clustered around her once more covering her form in writhing darkness.
The shadows compressed and then slunk low to the ground, spiriting her back the way she came. Rae breathed a shallow breath, releasing the nervous tension that had compiled in her back and shoulders. The tattoos that covered her fingers shivered from contact with the mirror. Even the ancient darkness feared the power of foresight. No one should know what will be, only what has been, they seemed to whisper. She dropped the mirror delicately into the inner pocket of her cloak and then set off at a pace indulgent to her sore muscles.
Out of the circle of Redwoods, the forest closed around her, bathing her in the smell of pine sap and greenery. She walked on until she came to a familiar spot—a tree that had fallen long ago and had since been covered in a spongy coat of moss. A pair of carved runes stood side by side, one signifying her name and the other the name of her greatest childhood friend. An achy heart stopped her from going deeper into the memory of the day they had carved those runes into the dead wood and the promise they had made after, the promise that had ultimately been broken. Instead, she sat—cloak covering the carvings from view—and rested.
Rae stretched out, cloak wrapped around her, on the mossy log. Her hood tamed her long, dark hair and the moss made for a comfortable pillow. The need for rest after the long night she’d had seemed imperative. The noise of the forest continued on around her, lulling her into that place between dreaming and reality.
She didn’t fear sleep, not yet.