The woods bordering Aspela and Dreyland were a graveyard. A battle took place here years ago, and the dead bodies provided nutrients to the vegetation cocooning the entirety of the forest. Each tree was covered in green, the brown bark hid beneath blankets of moss. Critters crawled over the earth and crows squawked overhead. Six people were trudging through the woods, their boots were caked in a layer of mud.
“You know why King Bartholomew sends you on the border patrol missions, don’t you?”
Oliver glanced over at the new vassal next to him. He had never left Bridgeport, and his talkativeness gave that away. The rest of the party had been silenced by experience and walked with quiet footfalls. The smallest creak from a tree rustling in the wind would make them clutch their swords tighter. “Enlighten me,” Oliver said, though he was sure he already knew the answer.
The boy brushed against Oliver’s arm, “I hear the king wants you dead.”
Oliver knew that already.
“Oi, Yorick!” Sir Geoffrey called. “Watch your mouth around the crown prince, spoiled brat.”
“What does it matter? The prince won’t have a head for the crown to sit on by the time the king kicks the bucket,” Yorick said.
Prince Oliver had the mind to cast a Rift spell at him and shatter the bones in his arm. Not because he was upset to be reminded about the death wish his father had for him, but because he hated his knights speaking so casually. He decided against it. That would be one less knight to fight off the enigma. “Don’t forget who blesses your sword,” Oliver told him. A blessed weapon was the only thing that could affect them.
The only female in their party, Yule, bounded over to Yorick. The way she moved looked odd with her thirty-year-old body. “Oh-ho, little Yorick, have you even seen an enigma before?” Yule plopped an arm around Yorick’s shoulders. “If you had, you’d be impressed Oliver has come back alive after facing them. You know what they say is true. The damned creatures wrap themselves around your deepest desires and hold fast until you lose the very thing that makes you human. Anyone with a corrupted soul would be better off dead,” Yule dragged her finger across Yorick’s neck, and he shuddered.
“Yule, you’re scaring him,” Sir Geoffrey said, “and scared men are useless in a fight.”
“We’re just having a bit of fun, Geoffrey,” Yule patted Yorick’s head. She froze when she saw Oliver had stopped walking. A wind tossed their cloaks to the side like flower petals. “What is it?” Yule asked. She stepped away from Yorick and readied her throwing axe.
“Company,” Oliver said. He clutched his grimoire and yelled, “Discern!”
A flood of light radiated around him before shooting out in all directions. The trees groaned as the magic shot through them. “Five of them!” Sir Geoffrey screamed. “Oliver,” he called.
“I’m on it,” Oliver replied. He inhaled and sliced his palm open with the blade attached to the spine of his grimoire. Blood seeped from his skin. He flung his hand, splattering blood over the ground, “Sanctify!” The spell rang out, deafening him. Even when the initial magic faded, a ringing remained in his ears. The magical barrier’s red glow settled six yards from them, sparking when the enigma tried to break though. “Hurry and kill them,” Oliver commanded.
Yule charged toward the barrier, flinging her axe at one of the enigma pressed against. Sir Geoffrey ordered the two other men forward, “Yorick, stay next to the prince and protect him should anything break through!”
“O-of course!” Yorick’s knuckles were white from grasping the hilt of his sword.
Oliver watched the blood seep down his wrist. The trees blocked the sun which must be making the enigma more active. They were smacking the barrier constantly, and each hit made more blood seep down Oliver’s hand. “They’re slow,” Oliver hissed.
“Let me tend to your wounds,” Yorick said.
Oliver scoffed, “Are you stupid?” Oliver saw Yule disappear into the trees to search the barrier for more enigma. “My spell only lasts as long as I bleed,” Oliver told him. Yorick was the only one in eyeshot, but the barrier seemed to be calm. Oliver surveyed the area.
“Did they kill them all?” Yorick asked.
Oliver was about to say yes when a ripple of pain shattered through his body. He couldn’t hold back his pained cry. He collapsed and his knees squished into the mud. “They broke it,” Oliver breathed. The cut on his palm opened more from the impact, blood gushed from it, and ran down his forearm like a river. That wasn’t possible, nothing could break his barrier besides another blood mage. Unless… “There are corrupted! One’s a blood mage!” Oliver said.
“Corrupted?” Yorick took a step back. “Why here? Shouldn’t the border keep them from entering Aspela?”
“Yeah, it should,” Oliver said. Where were the others? Since the barrier broke, he was sure it would only be a matter of time before they get overwhelmed. Once enigma were killed, it attracted others in the area like a wolf calling for help from its pack. They needed to get out of here and find the hole in the border before they all died. An enigma drifted through the trees toward them. “Shit,” Oliver groaned.
Yorick stood in front of Oliver. His body was trembling, “Don’t worry, Prince Oliver, I’ll protect you.”
“Run,” Oliver said.
Yorick glanced back at him. The hesitation was evident on his face.
“Hurry and get out of here!” Oliver shrieked. “It’s an order from your Prince! Go!”
Yorick took a tentative step before he took off running. He only got a few yards away from Oliver before the corrupted blood mage caught him. It touched him. “Ravage,” it whispered. Yorick only screamed for a second before his skin ripped open and blood splashed to the earth. His mangled body crumbled and Oliver cringed at the sight of his entrails oozing from his stomach.
Oliver pushed himself to his feet. He had to destroy the corrupted mage before the enigma tried to corrupt him. The corrupted mage was covered in red. Long vertical cuts trailed down its arms. Ravage was dangerous, but Oliver only had to keep the corrupted from touching him. Although, if it was strong enough to cast Rift, Oliver was as good as dead. Were the others dead too? The amount of blood he lost from the barrier shattering was starting to make him lightheaded. He staggered to the right and caught himself on a tree trunk. There was only one thing that would save him, but Oliver had never casted Rift powerful enough to incapacitate an enemy. If he used the corrupted mage’s, Yorick’s, and his own blood, maybe he could do it.
He clutched his grimoire. His mother wrote all the spells in the grimoire. The pages were filled with power, and that power was given to him. Oliver couldn’t doubt himself now. “Rift,” Oliver felt his body shudder. The cut gushed once more, and Oliver struggled to stay on his feet. The power released from him, ripping a crack in the ground. “Please,” Oliver whispered. The crack rippled closer to the mage.
The magic smacked the mage, and its body contorted. Oliver let himself fall to the ground, relief lapping over him. The corrupted blood mage made no sounds as the bones in his body tore themselves apart. Oliver knew people corrupted by enigma lost everything that made them human, but feeling no pain as all the bones in its body snapped and pierced its internal organs was grotesque. The corrupted mage became a pile on the ground. Oliver knew it couldn’t possibly be dead. It took far more to kill the corrupted. But, it couldn’t move.
Neither could Oliver.
His head ached, and the fog of the approaching enigma wafted toward him. Were Sir Geoffrey and Yule alive? Oliver let his head hang. His father would finally get what he wanted. Maybe he should kill himself before the enigma can corrupt him. Corrupted blood mages were dangerous.
The enigma was in front of him now. The black fog reached toward him. Memories from his childhood played through his mind. He heard enigma could play with your desires…
Father’s being mean again.
He doesn’t mean it, honey.
The sky was smiling, and his mother held his hand with a warmth Oliver missed. This was a familiar scene. He was beneath a sea of stars with his mother, the beautiful queen of Aspela. Oliver took her features. Her ash blonde hair fell over her shoulders in waves and her light blue eyes reflected the stars. Oliver was looking at her in awe. She was ethereal.
See that’s Pisces, it makes two fish… well, not really. November is the perfect time to see it because the stars aren’t hidden by the sun like they are in March and April.
Ready? Follow my finger, sweetheart.
Oliver followed the line of stars his mother pointed out.
Oliver, I have a present for you. Keep this and remember me. Be careful, Oliver. Your father is a ruthless man. Promise me you won’t let him discourage you. Your magic is a beautiful gift; don’t you ever forget that. You’re the heir to the throne, and you’ll make a wonderful king someday. I know you will. I love you.
He clenched the necklace around his neck. It was a small pendant and the metal felt like ice against his skin.
“You miss her, don’t you?”
Oliver closed his eyes. He knew what was happening. The enigma was trying to deceive him, but there was a piece of him that wanted to let it end. It didn’t take an enigma to make him remember and regret his entire life. If he were a better son, maybe his mother would have stayed. Maybe his father wouldn’t think he was so worthless.
Not that it mattered.
“Yes, I miss her,” Oliver said. All that was left was for the enigma to take him over. It was said corruption was painless. Peaceful, even. A million thoughts ran through his head. He saw his mother, his friend Elowyn, the constellations—felt himself drowning in cold waves, depths never-ending
Oliver opened his eyes to see a sword fly past his face. The sword hit the enigma and the fog dispersed. A young man wielding Yorick’s blessed sword swayed on his feet. There was a pool of blood on his thin white undershirt, oversaturated. The blood had run down his pant leg, and it dripped to the ground below with each of his inhales.
“Are you okay?” the young man asked.
Sweat formed in Oliver’s palms, “Y-you’re injured.”
“So are you,” he muttered. He limped over the corrupted blood mage writhing on the ground and brought the tip of Yorick’s sword through its wrist. The cut made the corrupted shriek before falling still. A cut to the wrist killed it?
The young man turned toward Oliver, but the motion sent his vision in a whirl. He passed out into the mud. The sun splayed across the boy. His skin was void of all color from how much blood he lost, and his sweat glistened in the light. His messy dark brown hair stuck to his forehead. His face was contorted in pain. Oliver attempted to move toward him, but he was still fatigued from casting Rift.
“Prince Oliver!” Sir Geoffrey ran through the trees and dropped beside him. “You used too much magic, you’re bleeding a lot,” he said.
“Where’s Yule? He needs help,” Oliver said.
Sir Geoffrey pulled a bandage from his knapsack and wound it around Oliver’s hand. “She’s checking if the others are still alive,” Sir Geoffrey told him.
Yule walked toward them, shaking her head. There was a stabbing pain in the back of Oliver’s mind. If he were stronger, the other blood mage wouldn’t have been able to shatter his Sanctify barrier, everyone could have been alright. Though he knew blaming himself was useless. Their deaths were the fault of King Bartholomew. He purposely sent Oliver out of the city with weak knights. If not to cause Oliver’s demise, to blame him later for their deaths.
“Yule,” Oliver said, “can you help him?”
“Of course I can,” she snapped. Yule’s knapsack was filled with various medical supplies, and they spilled out when she opened it. The young man’s eyes flitted open and closed, and Oliver had the urge to grab his hand—reassure him he’d be okay, even though Oliver wasn’t sure he would be. When Yule pulled his shirt up to reveal the wound, Oliver saw it was a deep knife wound. She handed Oliver a cloth and vial. “Douse the cloth in it and knock him out,” she ordered.
Oliver pulled the cork from the vial and upturned it on the fabric. “Um… I’ll knock you out now, okay?” Oliver met his emerald eyes and tried to give him an encouraging look. He wasn’t sure if the thought ever reached his expression.
“Breathe in deeply,” Yule said while Oliver held the damp cloth over the young man’s mouth and nose. Yule had a thin, knobby wire threaded through a needle, and pressed another cloth with a different foul smelling fluid onto the cut and surrounding areas. She grabbed an herb from the box at her side, crushed it, and put it around the cut after clearing the blood to the best of her abilities. When she poked the needle through his flesh, Oliver had to look away. His insides felt hollow from the thought that the person who just saved him could die without his thanks.
Sir Geoffrey fidgeted beside Oliver. “Hurry up, Yule. We need to get out of this area before more enigma show up,” he said. “Did we even find the hole in the border?”
“Then help me,” Yule grunted. She shoved a clean cloth into Sir Geoffrey’s hand, “Clear away the blood as I go.”
Oliver scooted away from them, looking in the direction the corrupted mage came from. If they returned the castle three men short without sealing the magic barrier, the king might actually kill him. The break had to be where the mage came from. He made sure Yule and Sir Geoffrey were still distracted before getting to his feet and sneaking into the trees. He didn’t walk far before the barrier came into view. It was blue like the center of a flame. People without magic couldn’t see this barrier which was the king’s excuse to send Oliver on these border patrols.
The hole was right where Oliver thought it would be. It was just big enough for a human to crawl though. Despite the bandage Sir Geoffrey tied around his hand, blood was still slipping through the fabric. Oliver held his hand over the hole. “Rectify,” Oliver was surprised the spell worked with how slurred his voice was. Sir Geoffrey was right, he had used too much of his magic.
Prince Oliver’s vision swirled, and he flopped into the mud with a squish. He held his hands over his chest to keep his wound and grimoire from being dirtied by the mud. The last thing he thought about before losing consciousness was the enigma. He gave in to its temptation so easily.
I’m going to try again.
Words and wounds, perpetually reforming again and again. If his heart wasn’t tolling in his chest, he wouldn’t have believed he was alive. He had fallen from his body, soul stuck inside but life devoid, swinging like a pendulum. A wind howled with the wolves in the distance and he was stripped from the afterlife, reattached to reality.
She walked hand in hand with death, sent it off like a long-lost friend after a warm visit. It was supposed to be tranquil to die, but all he could feel was agony. The slice in his stomach stung, and he screamed before darkness engulfed him again.
But this time he was still breathing.
“Stupid whore,” a stern voice, slurred and sloshed by the alcohol he drank too much of, shook the room. Declan cringed. Father hadn’t come home drunk in some time; mother didn’t have to take his abuse. Father went on, “Stupid, useless whore.”
Declan’s knuckles turned white, “Father, stop it.”
His sister grabbed his arm, cold fingertips distant on his skin, tiptoes. It was too late. He spoke up, and now the attack would focus on him instead. “You,” his father hissed, “you’re just like her. Can’t do anything right, can’t even be strong enough to join the knights of Dreyland.”
He was right. Declan didn’t have what it took. His sword skills were unmatched, but he refused to kill the man he was facing. The queen mocked him for being too merciful to a defeated man and used her magic to burn the man alive. If that was what being in the royal army was like, Declan didn’t want any part of it.
His father shoved him back, taking his silence as defiance. “How are you going to support your family?” he demanded.
“Isn’t that your job?” Declan dodged a punch and suddenly the walls of their tiny home felt even smaller. The dirt staining his feet looked like blood. “How are you any different than I am? You couldn’t kill a man either, could you? Or perhaps you couldn’t even win against your opponent!”
His father’s matching green eyes were burning, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” Declan took a step back when his father stumbled into the table and grabbed a knife. His mother had just used it to prepare quail she hunted while he was trying to prove himself worthy enough to join the knights. Blood was still on the blade. “I’m your father,” he hissed.
“I’m your son! You are never proud of me even though I’ve done everything to please you! What do you want me to do? Die?” Declan did everything in his power to keep his tears at bay. Why did he ask when he didn’t want to know the answer?
“Dreylandians that can’t follow direct orders from the queen deserve to die,” the knife met his skin but he was too stunned to feel the pain. He finally told his father what he had always wanted to, and received the only just punishment for speaking out of turn. His mother screamed at the top of her lungs, and that was far worse than the blood spilling onto the floor when his father yanked the blade from his skin.
Declan staggered back, hand clasped over the hole in his stomach. Warm blood oozed between his fingers. It was euphoric. “I’m sorry,” his voice was a mere whisper.
He looked at his mother. She was so small, so small that her heart almost didn’t fit inside of her. Declan didn’t want her to see him this way, didn’t want to see her heart shatter. He ran. The woods surrounding their house were the home of his imagination when he was younger. Declan knew every nook and cranny from his childhood adventures. He knew the perfect place to curl up and die. There was a meadow filled with wildflowers. But, his wound wouldn’t permit him to travel any farther. The briny taste of blood flooded his mouth, and his pounding feet came to an abrupt stop when his palms met the hard earth. He tried to push himself back to his feet, but another spurt of blood painted the dirt and his arms gave out.
Trees shielded him, and his eyes met nothing but rows and rows of overgrown weeds, stretching as far as he could see. How far did he run? Far enough that the fabric of his shirt around the stab wound was a smear of dark red. His vision blurred, and his head lolled to the side. He must be going crazy. Before him, a figure in black stood. A cloak they wore covered their face. Had death come to visit him?
He watched it come forward. Its bony, contorted fingers reached for something and wrapped around a golden thread. “Your lifeline seems to be unwinding,” a soft voice mused. The figure was right in front of him now. It was a beautiful woman with porcelain skin. Her slender lips curved into a smile, and she lifted his wrist. The golden thread was fading, fraying at the edges. “I’ll gather it before it breaks,” she said. She was wrapping it around her own wrist, eyes never leaving the dim glow.
“No, you won’t.”
“Vespera,” the woman slid away from Declan, letting the thread flutter to the ground before her. She turned to Vespera, “I’ve never seen you break the code before. It will be hard to stitch that one back together. Why do it?”
“He’s my brother,” Vespera said. Declan met her eyes. They were as cold as her fingertips were, distant. “My… father and mother are dead. If you hurry you can get their lifelines before another reaper beats you to it,” Vespera brushed Declan’s dark brown hair from his face. There was darkness closing in on him. “Don’t worry. You’ll be as good as new. It will be just like taking a nap, promise.”
Declan couldn’t understand what she was saying.
Vespera smiled, “I’m going to try again.”
The memory faded and Declan opened his eyes to see the sunlight filtering through the leaves. A man was dragging him across the ground using a makeshift cloth stretcher. The wound in his stomach was covered with bandages. Declan only wanted to close his eyes to block the sun, but when his eyelids fell, he didn’t have the strength to reopen them.