“What will it be today, my lady?” asked Mari, in the same monotone that she had asked every day for the past 5 years.
“Powder and flickies. Please.” I answered. Unnecessary to use polite terminology with an indentured, but I was ever the lady. And how could I not be? Gazing into that crystal, gold-border mirror – one of many in my Grandmother’s villa. That mirror alone probably contained more wealth than most would dare dream of ever possessing.
My eyes were closed, content little smile on my face. Mari dragged a comb through my thick, bed head. My head tilted, eyes now open, gazing at Mari as she delicately lined the eyelids of my small, brown eyes, winging them with a flourish; powdering my soft round cheeks until they were a courtly pale.
“Yes, my lady?”
“How are you?” The same question that I had asked her hundreds of times before
“Fine, my lady.” The same answer I had received a hundred times before.
“Yes, my lady?”
“What do you feel?”
“Nothing, my lady.” Of course she felt nothing. Look at her: blank expression, dead behind the eyes. The only life on her face came from the small prism on her forehead, encrusted bronze, purple vein-like fissures connecting it to the flesh. I can remember thinking: is Mari a slave? Mari, like many others in territories under the rule of the Ilosian empire was given a choice when money became an issue. To escape economic turmoil, be that a debt, or even just providing for your family you could surrender yourself into indentured servitude, for a negotiated period, for a negotiated sum. So yes, I was correct: Mari was a slave.
“Ambrosia!” called my Grandmother in that sing-song tone, laced dry and cold.
I sighed. I had told her I would answer to Sia, and Sia alone!
It did not take long for the sharp face of my Grandmother to pop through the doorframe; eyes squinted, lips hanging low. She was not angry; this was her face.
“What?” she repeated.
“I hoped you would bring me to court.”
“Training. Stupid girl. Wipe that muck off your face and get your mail on.”
“30 minutes, yes? Maybe 40?”
It was sunny. Of course it was, they did not call Ilios ‘the land of the eternal sun’ for nothing. The thick heat poured in thick layers, wind was scarce. Even at night, the suns leftovers could be felt.
Grandmother had set up training dummies on the rooftop garden, the place most noble families would set up a shrine, an area for entertaining, or to sunbath. Not my Grandmother.
“Glove on, quickly-quickly.” She barked, “and where is your mail, girl?”
I snickered at her and shrugged, “I must have lost it. My dress will have to do.” I replied, swishing the azure skirt left and right.
“Hope you have no objections to it getting a little crispy…!”
I chuckled. Out of nowhere she took my hand, her expression was grim, “most women do not have the opportunities that rest on your lap right now. They do not want us to have power. But we have power, we have power flowing through our veins. One day you will take my seat, you will be one of the 4. The lesser families, the common folk – they will think of you as a God.”
I nodded firmly, not entirely sure who they were.
“I… I cannot fight. Grandmother… women are just better at –”
“I did not raise you to utter those words. They want you to believe that those with your power fill one of two roles. Men, pyromancers. Women, healers. Nonsense. Utter nonsense. Who made the glove?”
“Who made the glove?”
“I did. When I was barely older than you are now. And they took advantage of me. They gendered my invention!”
It became clear that they, were the other members of the 4, who ruled Ilios. Grandmother never talked about them much, a quiet grudge it seemed.
“I am sorry, Grandmother. The last thing I want is to disappoint you.”
“Impossible. Stupid girl. Now shut up and listen, alright?”
I complied. Sliding the fingerless leather glove on, up to my elbow. The orange crystal that was embedded on a small iron plate in the centre started to hum. I gulped. This had never gone well.
“Now – allow me to demonstrate!” Grandmother announced heroically. She flung her cloak off and swooped her hand. Fire emanated. A smooth sphere which fired off two smaller blasts, scorching two dummies on the chest. She flipped her hand and the ball dropped to the floor, turning to a loose, whip shape. She spun and decimated another dummy in one stroke.
The three, crackling straw-shapes soon burned away to ash, which floated listlessly in the windless air.
“Now,” she said, trying to disguise breathlessness, “you try. I do not expect such a… magnificent display. Just a flame. Produce a flame, toss it. You can do it.”
“I will try.”
Eyes closed tight, I accessed my blessing, hands glowing blue. A flicker bounced from the orange crystal. I drew breath. An eruption of dazzling flame spouted. It enveloped my hand, singed my nose and forehead. Grandmother’s jaw swung ajar.
“AHHHHHH, OW-OW-OW!” I screamed, flinging my hand hither and tither, hoping to shake the flame.
A cool wash. Flames doused. Hand wet and dripping.
Grandmother was grinning, holding a dripping jug, “you my dear… are something special. I can feel it. Gods, I can see it!”
I tried to smile, tried to believe her. My eyes were stuck-fast to the stone floor, tears rolling down my cheek.
“I need a win” I whispered as I strode through the streets of High-Wall, past large estates, villas, orchard trees, seasonal colours, pinks, reds, blues, streaming fountains, statues of our Gods. The heat of the stone was underfoot. Ah, I miss that feeling.
I stopped at the steep steps that led to the lower reaches of the city – the descent, it was commonly called. The literal gap between the rich and poor.
Yes, I needed a win. And my illegal clinic in Low-Wall was just the place for it.
Rewarding as it was to help the less fortunate, as I passed ‘the cage’, where the unskilled indentured were held, I wondered could I do more? Could I abolish this? For the briefest moment I saw the open space, cramped bodies, clay pots full of mess. Hideous.
I shivered and took a right into the residential area. A priest from the great manse was spouting some religious rhetoric about how wonderful Ilios is. I heard a piece here and a piece there as I bumped and shuffled my way through the mucky crowd.
“A shining star.”
“A beacon of hope for all”.
“Where hope will never die.”
Really? Here? Where a beggar is prodded with the sharp end of a guard’s spear, where farmers are so close to the poverty line, that organised crime is used to stamp out, or rather, slit out, the competition?
There was a time when I would have walked these sand-soaked street, hunched in a cower, fearing this rough-faced men, with their scabby scowls, exposed arms, regretting my decision to walk amongst them. Now they recognise me, and I them. There are nods, near-smiles, respect. The Moonboy gang (yes Moonboy, try not laughing in the face of a group of scary men who call themselves that!) had taken a liking to me. They were the knuckles of a poultry farmer, a bit of a power grabber that figured if he has the noble back-alley healer in his good graces, well, that just had to be a good thing! And what did it mean for me? It meant a hut in the bum-crack of nowhere, cleaners and a man at the door. A big man. Scary too.
I had barely put one foot in the door when a blood-curdling howl erupted in the alleyway next to the clinic. A woman screaming for help.
I tossed a pristine white sheet over the bed in the middle of the room and made for the door, holding it open expectedly. The screaming woman sped past me, striking my face with her shoulder, then stopped with a skid before making apologetic whimpering sounds. She was supporting a hunched man who was groaning and weeping weakly.
“Get him onto the bed. Quick-quick!”
He hit the table like Deiren spuds. He was a normal looking denizen of fair Low-Wall; no muscle-mass, dry skin around the lips, cracked, ready to drop like crumbled stone.
His shirt was torn and stained crimson. Right in the belly.
I quickly tore the cheap shirt wide open. The woman finally managed to speak a few rrushed words.
“They took our food and – and – he tried to stop them! But-“
“Shush. Let me take a look.”
Two wounds: a clean slit that was oozing neat little streaks of blood, pouring towards the groin. Easily fixed. The other was more problematic. The guilty party had clearly stabbed twice, and on the second jab, twisted the knife. The wall of the wound was covered in multiple lacerations of different sizes, spewing a generous stream of red.
I accessed my blessing, extend my glowing middle finger and index finger, tucking the rest in. I look at the woman and smile glumly.
“This is going to hurt, but it will help. Pop this in his mouth and hold him down.”
I tossed her a thick cut of rope and she obeyed. His face recoiled when I slid my two fingers into his neater wound, and he bit down hard, tears streaming from his eyes. I rotated my fingers, closing openings in the flesh, and pulled them out – good as new.
“He is going to be fine. Phantom pain will be a problem for a few days, expect him to break out in sweats, not sleep so well and such. But he will be fine.
“We don’t have anything that to give you. They took everything.”
I raised my hand in a shooing motion and smiled warmly.
“Look – he isn’t going to wake up any time soon. You stay with him, hold his hand and keep talking to him. I need a walk.”
There we are: a win. I basked in the sun’s rays for a moment, catching my breath. Then I didn’t. A thin black line formed down the middle of the sun, casting a line of shadow through the streets of Low-Wall.
Then it burst open, spreading darkness. Torn into the sky, a black, gaping, pulsing hole in the sky, highlighted weakly by the sun behind it.
A rock emerged, lazily floating towards Ilios. Then another. Huge boulders, caked with rich, shimmering ore dropped one after the other. I watched as the weak Low-Wall homes were battered, pummelled, then reduced to nothing within seconds.
Screaming. A crowd scattered through the straights aimlessly. Then another boulder.
Another. And another. I was frozen. The lady from the clinic was crying in my ear, nails in my shoulders. Shaking me.
Then another. Another. More screams.
“Go back inside.” I said without feeling.
A few sobbing villagers ducked in gaps, crouched behind debris. I summoned them with a shout, waved.
The darkness sat still for but for a moment before illuminating in a dazzling purple. Swarms of winged beasts emerged, as if from a portal.
“INSIDE NOW. And you! And you! Get in here – get in here, now!”
Other-worldly beasts of feather and scale flapped and screamed screams that would run the blood of the Gods cold.
Some followed my orders and entered the clinic, others simply followed the crowd, until a few dozen poor souls were crammed inside my hut. The air filled with crying men, screaming until hoarse, snotting children.
“Where is my mummy?” said a small boy pawing at my leg.
“My brother!” said another.
“My wife, I need to –“
“SILENCE” I announced. “You. And you. And everyone in here. You can live if you shut up. I cannot help anyone else. We are full! Now, SHUT YOUR MOUTHS – and pray.”
Some complied, with clasped hands. Others held their face in their hands or leaned on the stranger next to them. All were silent. We were left only with the screams, the cries – the howl of beasts from beyond. I closed my eyes and accessed my blessing. The door. The walls. The ceiling. All flicked blue, the same blue that emanated from my hands.
I kept my breath steady. This would be hard to hold. In the middle of rapid flaps and squawks was a beast the pinched the air from my lungs. The Cockatrice. Just like the tales my grandmother would tell me: body of a Wyvern, head of a cock. The beast that could kill a man stone dead with a simple look of its cold, black eyes, or hush an entire village with a puff of its breath, slowed its descent into a hover. It dropped.
It was on the roof facing us. Its eyes met mine.
Not dead. Good. It inhaled. Chest puffed. It exhaled. Chest relaxed.
Green fog sprayed until the air was thick with it. Hold, Sia. Hold. I breathed, deep. It had not got through my barrier. Not yet.
Moments passed. Minutes passed. Still, through the crack in the window, all I could see was green.
More moments. More minutes. I was buckling. Knees on the floor, arms limp. I had never held a barrier for more than a minute. And then the green fog lifted, and there it stood. In front of the hut, pacing. Its eyes met mine once more and it stopped. Instead of releasing its foul breath once more, it walked. Towards the hut. Low, almost ready to pounce.
If the tales were anything to go by, it would not be able to release the fog ever again.
I dropped my barrier, opened the door, and closed it behind me. My body moving faster than my mind. I had never felt smaller. I was a short woman. Tall men, fat men, men of all creed, were always reminding me of that fact. I never truly felt it. Not until now. Not until this feathered and scaled horror of legend stood not three paces ahead of me.
Yes, I felt small. But it lasted a moment. I stood firm, arm stretched, hand shimmering blue – feeling tall. For the cockatrice, was frozen. No struggling, no writhing, no fight at all. The mighty beast glowed the same blue as my hand.