Glossary of terms:
- Fyrnen (feer-nen): weapon derived from the wielder’s body; power depends on body and soul, said to link the two; damage to a fyrnen means grievous harm to the wielder
- Raiko has a fyrnen that takes the shape of a scythe.
- Black thread: a soul bond
- Temeer: a magic user whose power is imbued directly into their body, giving them preternatural strength, speed, and (rarely) the use of a fyrnen. They have long lifespans.
- Raiko: a powerful temeer
- Yoli: a girl who can see spirits, but has no detectable magical ability
Premise: After being pursued by an unnamed god for some time, Yoli has been kidnapped and taken to his realm. Raiko has gone in search of her.
They had been running for a mere handful of minutes before Yoli slipped her hand free of his, footsteps clapping to a halt as she gasped for breath. “I… I can’t…”
Raiko rounded on her with a reprimand on his lips. His breath caught. Bathed by the thin light of the hall, Yoli’s skin was as white as bone. Dark circles bruised her eyes. Her hands shook as she clasped them together and stepped back. Placing distance between them.
Worry twisted inside him, a slick blade between the ribs. She’s afraid. She’s afraid of me. That was wrong, that was all wrong.
“It’s only me, Yoli,” he said. “Just me.”
She shook her head and edged back another step. “No. No, it—you did this before. I’m not—I’m not falling for it again.”
“Yoli.” He gentled his tone, battling past the rising tempo of his heartbeat. “It’s really me.”
“Don’t. D-don’t come any closer.”
“Yoli.” Raiko started moving closer, but the fear flashing through her eyes made his steps falter. “I came here to find you. So we can go home.” He held out his hands and she flinched. He stopped.
“I’ll protect you,” he said. “I promise.”
Slowly, she reached out, looking ready to spring back at a moment’s notice. Her fingers brushed his palms, curled back. Locked around his with surprising strength.
“I.” Her voice was frayed. “I don’t know if you’re real.”
“You said that before. Y-you said…”
“Look for the thread, Yoli.” He turned his focus inward, willing the dark link into view. The black thread spanned the gap between them in a way hands never could, delving through skin and bone to wind around something deeper, more vital than the thrum of a pulse or the delicate architecture of their DNA. He waited as Yoli sought out her end of the thread. Her eyes widened.
“Oh,” she breathed.
He forced a smile. “Told you.”
“It’s really… it’s really you.”
“’Course it is.”
Yoli’s mouth worked. “It made itself look like you.”
Fury curled through him. He struggled to keep his voice level. “What?”
Tremors radiated through the clutch of her hands in his. “M-Malcolm. My warden. It… changed its face.”
“Did it hurt you?”
Yoli said nothing. Raiko forced himself to look, really look, and to see. To see the lank, unkempt hair, the glassy gaze. Bruises ringed her upper arms, her wrists. A white dress draped her form, shapeless and trimmed with scalloped lace. A childish dress, something to be worn by a porcelain doll. Behind glass, covered in dust. Untouched.
The memory of a barred cage shadowed the back of his mind. He willed his fingers to slacken, mindful not to grip too hard. “I won’t let them—”
She gasped and looked at the floor. Where there had once been marble, they now stood ankle-deep in dark, icy water. Yoli’s grip tightened. “No, no, no—”
Inky tendrils of water shot up, coiling around Yoli’s ankles and dragging her down. Her hands slipped out of his, fingers clutching, nails biting. The water climbed up her calves, over the dress, over her shoulders. She scarcely had time to utter a cry before the water swallowed her without so much as a ripple. Gone.
Raiko fell to his knees and plunged his hands into the icy murk. “Yoli!”
Raiko was on his feet in an instant and whirling around to face the intruder. A boy – no, not a boy. Not a child of any kind. To call such a thing human would be to stretch past the boundaries of truth; it was a crude copy, a puppeteer’s farce. It stood before him, humanoid but stunted, its body a slender dandelion stem in proportion to its bulbous, withered head. Its skin was sour-milk white, its eyes lambent and huge. A wrinkled scar of a grin slashed across its face.
“Who are you?” Raiko demanded. He summoned his fyrnen to hand. “Where is she?”
The puppet eyed the scythe, its grin stretching into a sneer. “A fyrnen? How amusing!” Its shoulders rose in a stiff, jerky shrug. “The girl was so dull. Always cringing and crying. For something with such strong Sight, I hoped she would be more sport.”
Raiko’s knuckles whitened around the snath of his scythe. “You’re Malcolm.”
“Ding! Got it in one.”
“Tell me where she is,” Raiko said in a low voice, “and I’ll kill you quickly.”
Malcolm cocked its head. “You seem confused.”
It raised its hands, joints clattering like the knock of bone on bone, and the water lapping at their feet began to churn. Wavelets gathered together and sprouted stalks, sinuous and twisting, each tapering to a jagged point. They rose from the water, serpents uncoiling from the darkest pits of the sea.
Malcolm’s withered lips parted, revealing lines of red, glistening teeth, small and fine and sharp. “I am here to kill you.”
There was no time to react. Before Raiko could move, the dark serpents rushed him, blurringly swift, each one keen to rend him apart.
She woke slowly, clawing her way from the depths of unconsciousness to find herself seated at a table. Dishes covered every inch of the linen-draped surface, an opulent feast fit to sate the hunger of an army. Her gaze roved across steaming vegetables and gleaming fruit, roasted birds and pastries wafting the scents of cinnamon and clove into the air. Her stomach hollowed out. Saliva wetted her lips.
“Are you hungry?”
Yoli startled. Seated on the other end of the table was a tall, pale figure. Lit by an ethereal glow permeating the hall, the figure’s features were aquiline and composed. Stone grey eyes regarded her.
“Hello,” he said. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
A shiver skated down her spine. “Who are you?”
The figure lifted a goblet in one bone-white hand. “Oh, little doll. You know who I am.”
Her heart stilled. “Death.”
The dark god smiled. “Indeed.”
Pain pounded through Raiko’s body from a dozen different points, but none eclipsed the agony radiating from his right hand. Sprawled on his back, icy water sapping the energy from him, he gritted his teeth as the tether of Malcolm’s magic bound him fast. It was a cunning spell, the cornerstone a wickedly sharp stake spearing his palm. Blood pulsed from the wound to salt the water. The dark serpents stood around them, motionless, sinewy forms casting shadows like the bars of a cage.
“Bo-ring,” Malcolm said in a singsong voice. “I really thought you would put up more of a fight.”
Raiko bared his teeth and strained against the spell, but the stake held fast. Agony ripped down his arm. Tutting, Malcolm kicked his left arm so the palm splayed out, the scythe threatening to roll from his grip. Mustering all his strength, Raiko gripped the snath and swung, but it was a pitiful effort, lacking power and momentum. The puppet side-stepped the blow with a lazy air, knelt, and twisted the scythe from his grip. “Naughty boy!”
“Don’t.” Fear swept through Raiko. “Don’t you dare—”
“Have you ever seen a fyrnen broken?” Malcolm said in a speculative tone. Its little hands crabbed around the snath and gave an experimental bend. Every muscle in Raiko’s body pulled taut. “It’s quite a dramatic show. I’ve broken a few fyrnen in my time, and let me tell you – the screaming that follows is delicious. Tastes like a symphony.”
“I’ll—” Raiko choked off the threat as the puppet applied more pressure. With each bend of the scythe, the fibers of his very being began to shred from within. “I’ll kill you—”
“This is a tough one, I’ll grant you that,” Malcolm continued. It eased off and Raiko sagged into the water, chest heaving. “Very strong. You’re tough, but you must have a strong soul, too. All the best fyrnen do.”
Slinging the scythe over its shoulder, Malcolm knelt beside his outstretched hand. The stake plunged, metal biting through flesh and rending ligaments, pulverizing bone to lodge in the floor under the black water. He screamed as a second layer of spellwork unspooled over the first.
“I did have a question,” Malcolm said, conversationally, “about the girl. Indulge me, will you?”
“Go to hell.”
“You are slow-witted, aren’t you?” said the puppet. “We’re already here.”
Malcolm paused, raising one small hand. It snapped its fingers and feathers unfurled in the air. A meagre handful, each one snow-white stippled with dried blood. A few tertiaries, a few secondaries, one or two primaries. “Now, tell me. How did that sniveling little human girl come across such lovely wings?”
Raiko had thought he knew anger, before. He had thought the fury boiling through him when he found Yoli curled up behind bars, when she told him about Malcolm – he had thought that the genuine article. That he had crashed up against the boundaries of rage.
He had been so wrong. Raiko threw himself against the stakes, filaments of spellwork creaking and snapping apart as hatred blotted out reason. Teeth clenched, a roar building in his chest, he poured all his energy into breaking the bonds. Getting his hands around that little monster’s throat.
Malcolm took a step back, smile fading. It closed its fist and crushed the feathers out of existence. Its hands curled around the snath.
“Behave,” it snarled, “or I’ll break you.”
Raiko ignored it. The first layer of spellwork buckled, shattered. The second began to crack.
“You must be hungry,” Death said. “Please, eat.”
Yoli stared at the platters, at gleaming pomegranates and sweating cuts of meat. The emptiness was a void in her stomach. She had never been so hungry. Her hand reached out of its own accord, fingers grasping for the red globes of fruit. Already she could taste the seeds, feel them popping between her teeth—
She drew her hand back. “I’m—I’m fine.”
“Oh? It’s very good.” Death tipped back the goblet for a drink. The metal clinked against glass as he set it down. “You mortals are frail. If you starve yourself, you will expire.”
“What about you?” she asked. “You aren’t mortal. You don’t need any of this.”
“I do not need food or water to survive, that is true. But there is pleasure to be had in it, and besides…” The god trailed off, eyes flicking pointedly at an empty plate before her – one that had not existed at the start of their conversation, she was certain. Her stunned reflection watched her from the polished surface. “…I would like to set you at ease.”
She might have laughed; she had never been more afraid. Even with Malcolm terrorizing her – slipping past the bars of her cage wearing Raiko’s face, hands gentle and comforting until they weren’t, until they bruised and bit, coaxed out her wings only to rip feathers one-by-one out at the roots – even then, she hadn’t known the buzz of fear humming inside her head now. It was the fear of Death, older and more potent than any other in the world. The fear of the end, and what came after.
Her hands shook as she braced them on the edge of the table. “I want to leave. Please.”
“I am sorry, little doll,” he said, “but you cannot leave. This is where you belong – here, at my side. It is what you were made for.”
“I wasn’t made for—for anything,” she stammered. “I’m nothing to you. Just a human.” Her mind jumped from thought to thought, shaking her off before she could get purchase. She has lost… someone. “Where is…”
The dark god frowned. “You are hungry. Eat, and then you can rest. Forget your troubles.”
She picked a pomegranate from the pile. Fingers closing mechanically around a knife, she began to saw into the red flesh. She was starving. If she didn’t eat now, she would surely die.
“You will learn to be content here, I think,” said Death. “Once we cut your ties to the mortal world, you will truly begin to flourish. You will become what you were always meant to be.”
“Always…” Yoli mumbled. The pomegranate split, showering seeds onto the plate. Juice bled over her fingers, sticky as sap.
“Eat, little doll.” Death watched her, eyes intent. “You truly are a work of craftsmanship, you know. A patchwork soul of the purest elements, all wrapped up in a human shell. Do you bleed, I wonder? Does your heart beat?”
Yoli paused, lowering her hands as if moving through treacle. Her heart. Something about her heart, or something deeper, more fundamental. “Sometimes it beats. When I tell it to.”
“Extraordinary,” Death mused. “Your soul was cobbled together from spare parts, more or less. Discarded pieces here and there – the brightest jewels, dug up from the dreck and fitted seamlessly together. Truly remarkable. It seems almost impossible that a mortal could accomplish it, much less anchor it to another mortal form.”
“Oh,” Yoli said, more to fill the space than to reply. Her mind raced. With Death’s focus diverted, she no longer felt half so confused. “I… I do bleed. Malcolm… Malcolm tested that.”
Death grew solemn. “I know. It told me. That little monster was my own attempt at spinning together a soul, you know. But here, working with dead refuse… it was quite impossible. But I persevered, more out of curiosity than anything. The result is, of course, stunted. A wreck.” His lips thinned. “At least Malcolm is strong. That much can be said for my handiwork.”
“I see.” Her heart, her heart. Every time she thought she had the shape of the thought, it slipped out of her grasp. “I… had no idea.”
“It is just as well.” Death stood, pushing out his chair, and crossed around the table. Yoli sat utterly still as he neared her side, setting one hand on her shoulder. His touch was like ice through the white lace. “I am Death. I cannot bend the laws of my realm. I cannot make life.”
A strange sensation shivered into Yoli’s chest, a vibration resonating through her bones. Strange, but familiar – the tuning of one soul to another. Her unnecessary heart knocked against her ribs.
“You are very nearly perfect,” Death said. His hand moved down, coming to rest on one shoulder blade. “But there is one flaw in your design. A flaw, I fear, which must be… excised.”
“The thread,” Yoli said.
“Bring out your wings, little doll,” said Death, “and I will be swift.”
She uttered the name, scarcely more than a breath: “Raiko.”
“I told you to behave!” Malcolm hissed. “Do as I say, or I’ll—”
Raiko redoubled his efforts. Strands of spellwork unraveled.
Malcolm bared its small, sharp teeth and put immense pressure on the scythe. Pain swamped Raiko as his fyrnen bent.