Everything was ready for the ritual.
The incense was lit, Binding wraps anointed in the proper oils and dusted with unfirth bone-ash. She’d taken care in preparing the room, clearing it of furnishings before drawing out the containment channels with the strange metal shavings she’d taken from the Belfrost mines—what felt like a lifetime ago now, though only a few years had passed. Mounds of marrow candles fought to hold back the darkness suffocating the corners of the room; unnecessary for the binding, but paramount to Ahmelia’s peace of mind.
Still, there was enough shadow pooling throughout the dilapidated cabin to coerce the old fears, and as she made one final inspection of the space she couldn’t help but glance frequently over her shoulder, hands fretting.
Ahmelia moved to the center of the room where the moonlight cast its silver glow through the large bay window. She felt her nerves begin to settle some, helped them along with a spark of flash. The alchemical resin bubbled in the glass pipe, hit her lungs with a sting that made her cough. Her empty stomach protested, but already she was feeling calmer. She abstained from taking another pull: too much and her Sight would be dulled.
Reluctantly, she snuffed out the pipe and returned it to its case within the folds of her coat. Tried to find a reason to stall further but knew there wasn’t one.
Ahmelia felt a burst of shame at her trepidation. This was hardly the first binding she’d performed, and by all standards it shouldn’t be a difficult one. Most of her past excursions had been battlefield affairs, where careful planning and contingencies were nullified by the savage urgency of direct confrontation.
Yet she could not disabuse herself of the horrid tightness in her chest or the war-drum kick of her heart. She feared something may have been forgotten, that perhaps she’d been too hasty, too consumed by her wayward emotions to see the error any other Binder would have noticed without fail; they were foreign to her, these feelings, and in this arena of the unknown she felt well and truly incapable; the first time since Belgrade.
Ahmelia scowled. She was being a drokk, letting things get all billy-bad. This was just like all the other Bindings she’d performed—better, for all her preparation. She’d never second-guessed herself before, so why start now?
The answer was a barb under the skin, one that had been twisting for hours, festering, tearing her open and bleeding out any shred of confidence she might have had. This wasn’t some town official, or a farmer’s wife, where the pain of failure could be blunted by the simple fact that she didn’t know those people. This was her friend—perhaps the only one she had: the Vindicator to her Binder, bound by the oaths of their klaerichood, with a bond forged in the crucible of the Great Work.
This was Vekka Moonswath.
Tears threatened; her throat spasmed with sobs.
“Stupid, stupid!” She slapped herself across the face, more than once, hard enough to smart her vision. Wet heat sprayed her fingers. She fell to curses as guilt whipped itself into a tempest, sudden and violent. How could she not have seen the signs, rooted as they were in the mangled landscape of her childhood memories?
The moods, the obsessions, like shadows trailing at the edge of light—a light they fed on with every passing day, until eventually there was no more; only darkness, swollen and taken of the form that had cast it. A malignant reversal of a universal logic: the caster had become the shadow. Impossible; yet she’d seen it before, played out like a Machian street performance, singular and tragic in its scope. And like those rag-and-stick puppets that danced to the whim of the hands inside them, something too had slipped inside Vekka: the hand of a puppeteer unequaled even by Machi themselves.
She had no other name for it, this thing that had made its home in her friend; what had corrupted her father and destroyed her family all those years ago. It was unlike the other unfirth she’d excised since joining the klaerichood and walking the path of the Binder: they had a feel to them, an emanation unique unto each that only a Binder could detect—and she was an exceptional one, attuned to the Horizon in ways she could not explain but had always felt, even as a little girl when such things were blessedly unknown to her still.
You’ve always got your eye on the distance, her mother had liked to say. It was always made in jest, an affectionate ribbing whenever her malleable attention would wander off.
They’d never taken her seriously, her parents; it should have made her angry—and perhaps it had when the wounds had been fresh. But now, with the years stacked to her back and surrounded by that terrible, familiar darkness checked by only the feeblest of light, it simply begot in her a great swell of self-pity.
I can’t do anything right.
She slapped herself. “Stop it.”
Nothing I do matters… it’s never been enough.
I just hurt people I care about. Vekka would be fine without me—
Ahmelia opened her eyes. She’d closed them at some point, fallen to her knees; they throbbed against the floorboards. The moonlight was a white spike digging up the corner of her eye. She blinked away tears, pressed her palms flat to the boards, then bowed her head. The wood exuded a sepulcher cold, the air swollen with incense. She took it in with shuddering breaths. Started to pray in hushed tones.
“…lift up Your servant, deliver us from despair, guide our feeble eyes toward Your glorious Light so that we might yet be reminded of the splendor of this Great Work…”
A deep voice joined hers, finding the rhythm in her stumbling recitations and inserting itself like a key to its lock. Warm hands engulfed her own; callouses scraped against her knuckles.
The last whispered words faded in the candle-lit gloom, leaving in their wake a silence born of such necessity that even the wild Rullenroot held its breath in observation of this moment. The pulse of hearts was a current between the two prostrate klaerics, connecting them in ways no words ever could. Vekka’s rhythm was strong, certain; Ahmelia found her place within it and let the flow wash over her splintered nerves.
Finally, Ahmelia raised her head to look upon her Oath-Sister. Vekka was still lowered, her thick dreads twisting like the gnarled roots of some great tree about her head and burly shoulders. She was wrapped in her Vindicator vestments, though absent was her sword; a precaution, after the argument they’d had and the bout of frightening anger that followed, what had left the dining table in shambles, and confirmed for Ahmelia the devilry at work within her friend. Vekka was not known for her temper.
Leaving Vekka free, Ahmelia knew, was a decision that could have costly repercussions. Ahmelia was no warrior, hardly had the muscle for marching; Vekka, by comparison, was built for warcraft, her physical strength and blade-work the envy of more than a few Vindicators. If the Fiend sought violence, Ahmelia would have little chance of defending herself.
But the thought of restraining Vekka like some kind of animal turned her stomach. It coated her tongue like something sour, the taste of defeat… as if by protecting herself she was admitting that her Oath-Sister was someone who needed protecting from. That she was lost irretrievably to the Fiend. Just like Da.
A waver of hesitation. Perhaps an anticipation of continued silence—punishment for the outburst.
Following the incident, Vekka had fled and shut herself in her room; Ahmelia had listened through the thin wood to the horrid bawling and frenzied muttering, so antithetical as to affect a cruel mockery of her Oath-Sister, spoken in a tongue Ahmelia needed no assistance in translating: it was the language of madness; universal, and all the more sobering for the memories it beckoned—that of dank stone and cold iron; a pale face howling in the blistering darkness, all vitality and reason stolen; everything that had been her mother, stripped away until only a shell remained, to be poked and prodded by physics until her life finally unravelled and she was woven back into the tapestry of the Creator’s Great Work.
She wondered if her mother felt like she imagined Vekka did in this strained instance: consigned to a miserable darkness with naught but one’s own insanity for company.
She didn’t like thinking about her mother. Liked comparing Vekka to her even less so.
There was a pleading note to it this time; a flex of fingers against the backs of her hands that pulled her from the meandering thoughts spilling out of her head and forced her to focus.
“Dun be,” Ahmelia said. “Tha’ wun you.” The old fear pricked the back of her neck, and she asked, “‘Ow d’yah feel?”
“Tired. And cold… Scared,” her Oath-Sister added last, in a hush.
Vekka hardly moved from her position. If anything, she sank lower, calling to mind the hunched Resonants in Belgrade, all rags and bones, their bodies malnourished but their spirits fed off the vines of their faith. Despite the Vindicator’s impressive bulk, it seemed to Ahmelia that she too was starved… not of sustenance but something else. Perhaps something in her soul.
Strange; she’d never noted it before, but now it demanded her attention in a way that treaded familiarity.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this scared before.”
Ahmelia leaned forward to catch the words, so strained was her Oath-Sister’s voice. She brought her head beside Vekka’s. Their shoulders touched.
“Killing’s distracting work; killing for your belief is intoxicating. It hardly leaves room for anything else,” Vekka said. “It’s why I wanted to be a Vindicator: so I could be distracted. When there’s no steel in my grasp, no blood in the teeth… that’s when I’m reminded of how utterly weak I am. That’s when the fear sets in.”
Ahmelia swallowed the lump in her throat. Found her voice in its wake. “Yer nah weak. An’ there’s no reason to be scared. I… I’m gun’a fix this.” She unearthed a few nuggets of conviction, pulled her hands from under Vekka’s and grasped those brawny arms. “I wun let it take you.”
Vekka made a dry sound, like leaves scraping underfoot. It took Ahmelia a second to recognize it as laughter. She might have been offended, had it not been such a brittle thing.
“You needn’t reassure me, Ahmelia Valunkroft,” Vekka raised her countenance to the waxen glow of the moon. The smile on her lips was genuine, if pinched at the corners. The eyes were beset by bruising, red-rimmed from crying. There was a sense of something missing in them—or perhaps revealed.
Ahmelia winced as fingers brushed the admonished flesh of her cheek. Again she felt shame, this time for being caught in a fib, writ so plainly as it was across her face.
“I can do it.” But the tightness in her chest returned. She stood, determined to act before all the nagging uncertainties made themselves manifest in full.
Vekka snatched her hand. “Wait.” Exposed in the moonlight, Ahmelia saw Vekka’s gorge bob. The earlier joviality was gone, replaced with a pinched fear. “Don’t. Not yet.”
Ahmelia protested. “The longer we wait the worse—”
“I know.” A sad smile flickered across that broad visage. “Just… let me look at you a while. Please? I…” She trailed off, then: “It would give me comfort.”
Ahmelia assented, forced her fidgeting down. Vekka’s hand was a warm balm on her own; the skin tingled where the Vindicator’s thumb whorled its way across, drawing patterns conjured from an invisible language—one that made Ahmelia’s stomach knot in a way she’d not felt before. An odd heat spread up her body, bottlenecking at her neck and cheeks. Her eyes itched with gathering tears.
“I’ve always admired your strength,” Vekka said. “Your heart. It’s why I took up the oaths with you. Truly, there is no Arkaenite of your caliber. And it has been an honor to stand at your side for these years. I may not have always shown it, but…”
“Dun do this,” Ahmelia begged, the itch rising to a burn. “Dun squally like tha’, like it’s over. Yeh gun’a be okay.”
Vekka smiled. “Of course. I always am, when I’m with you.”
The hand on hers squeezed. Ahmelia’s heart fluttered, like leaves scattered on a hot breeze. Blood simmered under her skin, and her mouth was packed with sand. Struck by a sudden desire for nearness, she shuffled closer and sat beside her fellow klaeric.
She should have been afraid, concerned perhaps that she was being baited… but as she tucked herself against Vekka’s bulk, she couldn’t have felt more safe. This night wasn’t over—the unfirth’s presence smarted the half-lidded eye of her Sight like glare from the sun—but for the time there was a tranquility that bore signs of their earliest moments together. It was a comfort, Ahmelia realized, she was in dire need of.
And then there was that unspoken thing drifting between them… or perhaps it had been said, and she simply never paid it the attention it deserved.
She glanced at their hands, still laced together. “D’yeh like me?”
“Of course, Ahmelia.”
“No, I meant…”
Vekka stirred against her. A breath. Then: “I know.”
“Oh.” Ahmelia considered that.
“Is that… okay?”
She considered that, too.
“Mhm.” She nestled a little closer. Vekka’s head was a heavy warmth on her shoulder. The scent of hair-oils wafted over Ahmelia. The Vindicator’s cheek was surprisingly soft. “Vekka?”
“Why dinnit yeh say nuthin’ a’fore?”
“Because.” A heavy swallow. “I… I was afraid you’d be disappointed in me.”
“Oh.” She pivoted so their eyes met. “I’m not, though.”
Vekka blushed. It made Ahmelia’s heart kick; a nervous sweat took her, despite the chill of the cabin.
Broad fingers brushed at her messy white hair. Vekka’s expression, spattered in the flickering candle-glow, slipped in and out of the gloom. There was an air of unease about her. Ahmelia feared the worst…
…but then Vekka spoke. The words dispelled her trepidations and left Ahmelia with a different twist in her guts altogether.
“Would it be proper if I… kissed you?”
It was a simple enough question, yet steeped in a complexity divined from a near-lifetime of singular living that it took her off guard. Ahmelia knew what it was to feel attraction—but her proclivities and obsessions, coupled with a crippling sense of her Creator-given form, had always kept her outside the threshold of romantic love. To be invited in was… new. Disarming. And by Vekka, of all people.
“‘Kay,” she nodded.
Bodies shifted. Vekka shouldered back her heavy cloak, brought both hands to cup Ahmelia’s face. There was a flash of fear, a reminder of the danger lurking beneath the skin of her friend—how simple it would be for Vekka to break her neck.
Their lips met, and all her worries scattered in that moment.
It was a brief exchange, soft, tender, punctuated by an awkwardness born of chaste and holy living. It occurred to Ahmelia that this was Vekka’s first too, and she wanted to cry, saddened by the realization that her friend had been waiting all this time for her; fearful, perhaps, that the very tenets which governed her life would disallow the desires of her heart.
Ahmelia pressed a hand to Vekka’s chest. Sat back in appraisal. The Vindicator’s face was flushed, features pinched with worry, the slightest of tremors taking her body—yet there was a glow burgeoning in those dark eyes; like sun-lenses aligning to fully let in the light.
“‘If ever to love is a sin, I shall elect to cast off such chains and walk, unfettered, as the heretic’,” Ahmelia said slowly and with purpose, careful to capture the recitation in full, without the shortcuts and slips of her native tongue.
The glow spread outward; Vekka’s lips stretched into a smile. “I never took you for a poet.”
“Is nah me wha’ said it. Arkaenus did: Elucidations, 3:10.”
Vekka chuckled; there was an ache to it, like what bruised skin might feel like. “I think we must have skipped that passage at the Academy. Certainly, my parents were reading from a far different book.”
“Well, they ain’t ‘ere.” Ahmelia embraced her friend. “I am. An’ I wun let nobodies make you feel billy-bad again.”
Vekka made a strangled noise. She shook. “Thank you for this, Ahmelia. For everything. I could not have prayed for a better partner in this life. Whatever should happen next, I just want you to know how much that means to me… h-how much I love you. And if there is any regret I’ll carry with me beyond this coil, it will have been not trusting you sooner with who I am.”
Another kiss. Ahmelia stood up, Vekka’s hands tight to hers.
“It wun come to that,” she said, and for the first time that night, Ahmelia felt confident again, like a piece she hadn’t known was missing had been returned. She planted her feet in the center of the channeling circle, breathed deep of the cleansing incense, and made ready the sigils and evocations that would spur her Sight.
Tonight, she would face the nightmares head-on, without fear.
Vekka smiled up at her, radiant against the encroaching darkness.
“Let’s begin,” Ahmelia said.
Tonight, they would both be free.