A young woman has made a dire mistake--or is it really a new beginning? I would deeply appreciate any feedback on this story as I plan to submit it to the Conium Review Innovative Fiction contest!
Saelyn woke with her mouth tasting of blood and knew she could not go another day without seeing the Priestess. Her own crystals, oils, and smoky shadows had done little to relieve the chaos brewing about her. Saelyn’s body was unscathed, though her mind was deteriorating. At night she went to sleep feeling watched and heard the echoing sound of claws scraping on the walls. Pots and pans in the kitchen crashed together, furniture dragged across the floor, and yet when she rose at dawn she found not even a spoon out of place.
A turn of the moons ago, the field tiller had ripped Saelyn’s mother’s thigh open; not long after that her father had developed a rasping, liquid disease of the lungs that would not heal; animals throughout the village were dropping dead with mysterious sickness. All the while Saelyn heard the words she had spoken over and over again in her mind, heard herself cast that curse a hundred thousand times. She remembered every detail of the objects Priestess Dimaeda had given her to complete the spell--the blue sheen on the blackened feathers, the feel of the soft ridges in the translucent rocks, and the heavy scent of the rare vage-leaf. An alien weight had settled upon her shoulders and she hadn’t the faintest idea of how to cast it off. Dimaeda had given her the tools and Saelyn had gone forth with them, conjuring a wave of destruction she could never have anticipated.
No, she told herself as she locked the front door to her home, already shivering in the blasting cold of early morning. It cannot be me. I could never create this much power, this much destruction. My magic has never been strong. I asked the gods for me and my own to remain protected.
The walk through town was long and frigid. Dunes of grey snow surrounded her, their tendrils blowing over the path, grasping claw-like at her boots. As she walked she listened to the cutting wind and her own thoughts circling deeper into the maw of anxiety.
It wasn’t me, she would say to herself.
It was, a dark voice would whisper in response.
No. It couldn’t have been. I do not have that kind of power.
Yes you do.
By the time she reached the temple, her hands were numb, the exposed skin of her cheeks red and raw, and her eyes had grown sore from the brightness of the rising sun. She felt her throat and lips parched and wondered how she could have forgotten something so simple as her canteen. The thought of seeing Dimaeda’s face tightened her chest as if a landslide was crushing her.
When she first stepped inside she was blind for a moment, the contrast of darkness was so sharp. After a few pounds of her heart, flickering candles helped her eyes to adjust. The temple was eerily empty and the vaulted ceiling overhead ascended into a black emptiness. Only the sound of whispering torches competed with the moan of wind outside. She held back the cough rising in her chest, her throat clogged with heavy incense smoke. Her own voice echoed again in her head.
Turn around. Leave here. You don’t want the truth. You know Dimaeda will only try to rope you in again.
Saelyn pressed forward through a long corridor to the back of the temple where she found acolytes praying to the deities of old.
“I need to see Dimaeda,” Saelyn said, her words trembling.
One of the acolytes sat up and turned to look at her. The young woman’s white hair was a sickly yellow in the candlelight. The psychedelic haze in her eyes made Saelyn’s stomach turn with dark curiosity.
“You’re the one who cast the curse,” said the white-haired girl.
Saelyn gave a faint nod, her black eyes small and anxious as the acolyte stood.
The smoke of incense billowed even thicker within Dimaeda’s chamber. The candles were more numerous and a strong scent of herbs flowed from the pot in the fireplace over which the Priestess crouched. Though her hair was dark, her frame small and thin, Dimaeda Rustes was no crone. When she stood she was straight-backed, her skin smooth and supple, gold-irised eyes clear with knowledge. Saelyn couldn’t tell if the handsome woman was smirking or frowning as she pointed for her guest to sit upon the mat on the ground. The acolyte dipped her head and left silently as Saelyn settled herself on the thin cushion.
She hushed Saelyn with a wave of her hand and sat upon the furs across from her.
“I already know what you have done. I’m glad you’ve finally come to see me.”
Saelyn’s mouth watered as if she might vomit. The weight on her shoulders grew heavier and she could not meet Dimaeda’s eyes.
“Do you know what happened to the man you cursed?” Dimaeda asked.
“N-no. He lives far away.” Saelyn’s skin prickled with nervous heat. She removed her headwrap. Greasy black hair fell forward and she self-consciously tucked it behind pierced ears.
“He has lost all that was his own,” Dimaeda said, not without a hint of pleasure. “His home crumbled in flames. His working partner was caught and killed by a snowrunner. He lost an eye during a tavern brawl. And these were only the things significant enough to pass through the villages and over my ears. If this is the physical manifestation of your curse, we can only imagine what turmoil must be eating him from within.” Dimaeda had let a smile creep onto her lips. The otherworldly vibrance in her eyes made Saelyn want to turn and run. “You have power which you cannot begin to comprehend, Saelyn. Power that can be useful.”
“No. I don’t.”
“You know not what you have called forth.”
The tinder inside Saelyn caught fire and she clenched her fists against her temples, nearly screaming when she next spoke. She could almost feel the rope around her neck again, the hard hands clenching her arms until they were bruised. “He deserved what he got. He stole me, sold me. He destroyed me. I should have slaughtered him when I escaped!” The heaviness upon her neck and shoulders increased again, wrapped around her neck like muscled coils. The panic rattled from within her, making her bones tremble, her stomach fill with acid. “I hope he dies frozen and bleeding in the snow!”
“It may be so, if that is what you ask of your demon. Let yourself see it, Saelyn. Let yourself see what you have created, and I can promise you we can accomplish great things together.”
Saelyn’s heavy breathing hitched. She looked past Dimaeda to the mottled mirror against the eastern wall. Her fists unclenched as her hands went down to rest on her knees. A vibrating tingle of fear crawled up her sternum, locking her throat closed, the coils tightening. She could see it now, the thing resting like a scarf of smoke upon her shoulders. Three glowing red eyes stared back at her from the mirror and shimmering translucent claws draped over the swell of her breasts. Saelyn’s insides went to ice. She hardly heard the Priestess’ voice through the ringing in her ears.
“You have called it forth, and it belongs to you. Now, you have a choice to make. Will you go on pretending it is not there, while the world around you dies, or will you stay here with me, and let me teach you how to control it, to use it?”
Saelyn tore her eyes from the mirror and stood with jerky movements, so quickly she nearly lost her balance. She turned for the exit, ready to leave the temple and its sick worshippers with their smoke and tricks. She never wanted to look upon Dimaeda’s knowing face or become a victim of her dark magic again.
“You can use it, Saelyn. The thing need not be your enemy,” Dimaeda said, a hint of desperation in her voice--not for companionship, but for power. “Tell me, what is your decision?”
As she grasped the leathery drape Saelyn stilled. Her breathing evened out and her panic faded. The voice whispered, its many layers creating a echoing assemblage of words in her mind.
“Neither,” Saelyn looked back to meet Dimaeda’s eyes. “I will do neither. This village will not suffer my curse any longer. I will not let you use me, Dimeada. I will build my own home. Far away from here.” She passed through the curtain, through the hallways, ignoring the fearful gazes of the acolytes. When she stepped outside of the temple and into the day, the weight on her shoulders was more a comfort than a curse, and the fire inside of her burned so furiously she no longer felt the cold.