Sixteen years ago …
The Dragon’s Eye shimmered overhead. Anagata the Augur shifted uneasily. It was unnatural for a child to be born under the red star. Had it been any other person’s child, he would have refused to perform the ceremony; but Vapan had insisted. And when Vapan wanted something it was difficult, nigh impossible, to refuse him.
The townspeople and some of the farmers gathered in the small square of Tolslovel. Grey stone houses with soft edges and broken backs ringed the square.
Dragon bones rattled in the beaded bag hanging from Anagata’s waist. He walked to a platform, one of the two that occupied the square. The other was merely a well, but this platform was a mystery beyond memory. Intricately cut, glossy black rock made up most of its surface. Inlaid jewels glittered against the darkness and mapped out the night sky in four different panels, one panel for each of the seasons.
Anagata walked to the Portal of Zarada, also known as the Window of Autumn, and, after a glance at the clusters of stars in the sky, knelt before the constellation under which the child would be born.
It was the stellar arrangement of Nagah. The Dragon Formation.
“Please Vizvatma, let this child be a boy,” he muttered before settling into the ritual. He deepened his breath and chanted. “May the Gods show me the light of the Vizvatma. May the Vizvatma illuminate the darkness.” He repeated the mantra, trying to touch the universal spirit, to channel its wisdom and energy for the child’s divination.
People bowed their heads and pressed their middle fingers to the center of their brows.
A scream shattered the night.
Anagata looked uneasily towards the house of Acala and Adri.
Tinny bells rang. It was coming.
Anagata peered into the sky and watched the events unfold there. His eyes burned with the dryness of intense concentration. His neck pinched.
The mid-toned bells rang and shortly after the deeper ones intoned.
It was here.
As the bells shook the air, streams of light hacked at the darkness in the sky. It was the ill omen he somehow knew would show itself. This child promised to be trouble. And the town couldn’t afford trouble. Anagata fingered his bag of bones as Vapan approached the ceremonial platform.
“It’s a girl-child.”
“Are you sure it’s a girl?”
“That’s what I just said.”
“The mother comes?”
“Yes, Acala is preparing her.”
“We start then.” Anagata turned to the others. “Let us be the light and the water. The seed is Vapan, son of Tarska, and the earth is Claire the Stranger. Together they form the child. I will read its future. You will judge her as one of us, as water to our water and light to our light, or as Other.”
“We are the sun and the rain. We make plants grow tall and vibrant. We cull the weeds,” the regent of the town said; his one voice signified the voices of all in these matters.
Claire, dressed in the crimson robes of birth, hobbled to the platform. She was barefoot and unadorned, as tradition would have it.
Anagata suppressed a shiver at the sight of the baby’s alabaster skin. It was a pale as the mother.
“You will lay it here.” Anagata pointed to the constellation of Nagah.
Claire clutched the child closer and searched the crowd.
Wincing, she laid the fragile bundle on the bare stone. The infant cried.
Anagata performed the ceremony with practiced ease. He shook the bones and cried out, “Vizvatma,” as he upended the bag, sprinkling the child.
“The Blades of the Vizva cut the sky at the child’s birth. And now the bones foretell that this child is of fire.”
Shocked gasps sprinkled through the ground.
Then Anagata felt something strange take hold of him, as though strings fastened to his joints and the Gods, by tugging on these strings, animated his flesh. New words bubbled to his mouth to replace the ones ready on his tongue. “However. The sun is fire. It nourishes. Your crops just. As water does. If the next child of Vapan and Claire is water, fire and water will balance each other.”
He struggled to release his own words, but they stayed locked in his throat. Hadn’t anyone noticed it wasn’t him speaking? Then something asked in his voice, “You accept the child?” But it didn’t sound like a question at all.
Claire was kneeling by the child and appeared, if it was possible, even more pale. Almost translucent.
Anagata frowned as the crowd vibrated with discussion. His lips were sealed shut, barring him from saying anything else. The child mewled incessantly. Her shrieks had nearly pierced his skull when he showered her with the dragon bones. He looked on with disapproval at the mother. Claire quivered where she knelt next to the infant. Sweat emerged on her forehead and her muscles quaked as if from some tremendous effort. Her people obviously had no constitution, Anagata thought. Probably had to do with her light skin.
Silence settled and one person after another approached the pot, placing one of two stones in the vessel. Black was yes, white was no.
“Yes, yes, yes. Black, black, black,” Claire chanted.
Anagata glanced at Vapan. He had sense enough to not beg for acceptance. Vapan would understand if they chose to shun her. He would even take the infant to the secret place in the woods so that she could join the other unwelcome strangers in the life after life. Vapan was a proper Tarskan, not at all like Claire the Stranger. Anagata tried to remember why they had accepted Claire among them in the first place. And what had possessed Vapan to bind himself to such a woman?
“It is done,” the regent said, breaking through Anagata’s thoughts. Together, they grabbed the pot, heavy with stones, and dumped the contents.
The stones were black. Each one.
The dark swarm was a miracle. There was no other way to explain it.
“Finally.” Claire moved to gather up the child.
The woman had no respect for tradition.
“Wait,” Anagata commanded. He took the black blanket of acceptance and swaddled the child. He fumbled in his pocket for the amulet of protection, given to all accepted children, and slid the leather thong over the babe’s head before passing her to Claire.
Placing his hand on the infant’s head, he asked the Universal Spirit for the child’s true name. “This child shall go forth as Murin.”
The crowd paused. He could feel everyone struggling to not look up at him at the odd ring of the name, the alien tone of it, the way he trilled his tongue with the R and the altogether strange cadence of the word, unknown to them, unspoken before now. Anagata looked in confusion at the child. “It is the will of Vizvatma,” he murmured.
Sixteen years ago, in another place…
Young Torek moaned and tried to push the images out of his head, but the other mind was so much stronger. It pulled at Torek, and drew him deeper into the dreamfast until he was flooded with memories that didn’t belong to him.
People exit the boats en masse. A veritable army.
But now that I’ve seen her, they don’t matter. Her slight stature, rigid with confidence. Her brilliant aura, which surrounds her like an inferno. I can smell her magic, even from this distance. She waits on the deck of the ship. She holds herself and tries to see into the shadows of the island.
“You have nothing to fear,” I whisper in the space of her mind.
“It is you who should fear.”
Oh, how she snarls!
“Show yourself, Dragon,” says the Princess. “I’m here to rid the world of you and your murderous kind.”
After days of dancing around each other, she entices me into a small clearing, and I cannot resist.
When she sees me, color flushes her pale skin. “Why are you in human form?”
I glide forward to be closer to her. Sighing, the heat of her magic comforts me. “I want to please you.”
Our eyes link, we connect and we both feel the surge of energy.
“What’s happening?” she asks. Her skin glows.
“We are syncing. You see my life, my pain and joy in your mind. And I see yours.”
“I don’t want to see,” my enchantress whispers through clenched teeth.
“But I want you to.” I close the distance between us. Wipe the tears from her cheeks. And then it happens.
Her change of heart.
“Stop,” Torek muttered aloud. The blanket twisted around him and bound his limbs. “What do you want from me?”
Watch and learn, a voice in his mind said. This is your destiny.
Torek whimpered as another wave of images pounded into him.
She shows me the words and we chant them together. We laugh as the party tries to wander into the woods on their killing errand, again and again, only to find themselves back on the beach.
One curses. “Where’s Niamh?” He is a younger boy. Her uncle. The curse silences my beloved. Her eyes sink to storm-cloud grey. She looks at me, chills me with sadness.
“Why are you showing me this?”
I told you already.
“I have no destiny. I’m going to die in this prison camp.”
You will not, the voice said. Freedom is coming. Quiet now, you need to see the rest. The rest of what I know. And then you need to find her.
No. The child.
My insides tremble. “Must you go?”
“I have to do this the right way. No more hiding.”
“Your father will not forgive you.”
“I have to be sure,” she said.
I touch my forehead to hers. “Did you ever think you could love a dragon?”
“It doesn’t matter what I thought.”
She leaves me there, on the island, staring after her until she disappears, until I can’t even see the wake of her magic. Fishermen intercept her small boat. They talk of slaying her, of rewards.
She escapes to the land bridge and the island that looks like a ball of flame.
We sync one last time, and this is when I hear a second heartbeat. This is when I feel our daughter growing.
Torek jerked upright. The thin wool blanket scratched at his skin. He paused and drew a deep breath. Calm down, he tried to coax himself. It couldn’t have been real. No voice had really invaded his dreamfast. But he couldn’t shake the sharp clarity of it from his head.
His father’s snores sifting through the dank morning, and Torek watched breathe just to find comfort in the up and down motion of each breath.
His father’s eyes wobbled beneath their lids.
Torek frowned. It must be nice to dream. Real dreams, not fact-finding, mind-bending dreamfasts. He shook away the disappointment and joined his mother at the doorless opening of the hovel they lived in.
Looking out into the grey morning at the other hovels, his nose twitched at the familiar stench of urine and feces. His jaw clenched at the slow shuffle of the early risers dragging their feet to the bathing tents and the feeding tent.
Cool wind rushed about the camp and cut into everything. The roof had gaping holes, which invited the rain inside too easily. No matter. They didn’t spend much time in the shack. The guards preferred to keep their captives working. After all these years, they still managed to fill his days with hand-hardening, heart-hardening tasks.
“Good morning, Torek,” Astasiana said softly, keeping her eyes on the detention camp.
“Nothing good about it.” Clouds sat heavily over them and grey perched on every surface. “I haven’t seen the sun in five years.”
“You’re rather hyperbolic for being 10,” she said. “In any case, you know why.”
He snorted. Yeah, he knew why. Now.
Two Seduman guards walked by the distant fence, which was made out of bits of rock stacked hip-high. This meager fence marked freedom from captivity. Torek had balked when he first saw it. “That’s supposed to keep us in?”
But just beyond the fence, nothing seemed to exist, even though he could hear chatter, carriages and other sounds of life. The sounds of normalcy amid the dank atmosphere were enough to make some people insane.
There was also the intensified stench, the false sounds of torture mixed in with real, and the people who left for an oddly timed meal and never returned.
“I hate this place.” Torek paused. “I hate myself for being here,” he said in a lower tone.
Astasiana spun around and dragged him into her arms. “Don’t ever say that.”
The heavy cold of his mother’s bracelet-shackles touched his cheek.
“It’s impossible to be happy here.”
“It seems that way, I know. But you have to fight it. By giving in, you’re giving them what they want.”
“What am I supposed to do, Mother? I don’t even remember what colors look like.” He pulled away from her.
“Patient? If I’m lucky enough, maybe someday someone can erase this place from my memories.”
“Torek,” she said in a warning tone.
“Well, you couldn’t have been a normal parent? If you and Dad had been average people, not Guardians of the Pearl, not Darkness Hunters, but just average people, we wouldn’t be here. In hell.”
“This is hardly hell, Torek.”
“You like the home these dragon-haters have set up for us?” Torek shifted his glare away from his mother’s face to the fence. “If you had just taken the bribe, we wouldn’t even be here.”
She slapped him across the face. Torek gaped at his mother, who had never, in all his life, struck him before.
Her lavender eyes narrowed with anger. “I am a Darkness Hunter, Torek. James and I are Guardians. As are you. We do what is right. Regardless.”
Once again, he felt like the child who had his home and his future torn from him. “Sorry.”
She leaned against the doorframe, and he metal around her wrists clinked as she folded her arms across her chest.
Torek glanced at the bracelets. Magic shimmered and collected at the places where the metal connected with her skin. He swallowed the bitterness rising in his throat.
After a time, she said, “They denied Extradition again.”
“How do you know?”
She nodded and said, “With my father and brother. The exchange was rather exhausting.”
“I’m pretty worn out, too.”
“Oh?” She wasn’t listening. Her voice had that distant, vague tone to it. He took a deep breath and said, “Who in all the hells of Raia would dream of dragons in a place like this?” That got her.
“You can’t dream.” Astasiana grasped his arm. “Tell me.” Her cheeks flushed and her voice rose. Torek hadn’t seen her this frantic since the Sedumans branded him.
Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything about it. After all, it was just some pushy dragon who thought he could dole out destinies the way cows doled out shit.
“Fine. I was in my trance. And sometimes–” He paused. He was about to confess to his mother that he was doing exactly what she had told him not to do. “Sometimes I try to touch other minds.”
“You need to know the other person’s name. At the very least.”
“I’m just telling you what happened.”
She scrutinized him. “Go on, then.”
“I reached out and before I felt the abyss, someone snatched up my mind.”
“He talked to me. Showed images,” Torek said in a flat voice. “Even knew my name.”
“He said—” Torek began, but his lips soured on the next words. “He said it was my destiny.”
“Tell me everything,” Astasiana said.
He did, and when he was finished, she drew him into her arms again and stroked his hair.
“What does it mean?”
“It means you are a Guardian.”
“Torek, why do you resist this so?” She pulled back to see his face, but he refused to look at her.
All being a Guardian had ever brought his parents was trouble and pain. Why would he want to be a part of that? If he ever did get out of the prison camp, he’d run as fast and far away from destiny as he could. And he’d make sure to never cross paths with anyone named Murin.
Author’s note: I’ve been working on this book project for years. It used to be called “Fire and Blood”, but that seemed a little pretentious and esoteric, so I’ve moved to a new working title of “The Killing Ritual”. A long time ago, The Killing Ritual used to have a prologue. Everyone told me this was like drinking a dram of poison (i.e. no agent love), so I took it out of the manuscript. But I’m still partial to it, and want it to exist somewhere in the Universe. Why not here?