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The man stands regal, casting his eyes upon the room with a touch of distaste as though he were a guard inspecting a row of prisoners. He doesn’t smile, and the inelasticity of his features paints it to be an impossible act. I wait with my hands folded behind me as he picks apart each mote of dust on the coffee table and the crumbs on the couch in the dancing shadows of the candle in my hand.
“You are welcome to stay as long as you need, cousin.” Pinning a smile upon my lips, I take his hand and force those deep eyes to meet mine.
They narrow, finding it distasteful to face me. “I appreciate your sacrifice. The creature I have been hunting has taken up residence nearby, and if I were to resort to survival as I usually do it would likely kill me.”
My grip tenses around his calloused fingers. “Are you safe here?”
“Is your family safe, you mean?” His expression glosses. A muscle works in the back of his jaw. “Yes.”
I’ve known him too long to ignore the signs of his lie. “If you plan to use us as bait in this little expedition of yours,” I hiss, “you should at least be honest about it. We might not have seen each other for a while - not that I care what you’ve been doing all these years - but you have no right to appear out of nowhere and dangle my family in front of some godforsaken creature’s maw just so you can-”
I pause. His hands pull out of mine and wipe themselves on the edge of his coat. Ever the fastidious murderer.
“Only so you can use its parts in those twisted rituals of yours.” My rebuttal is weak, and he knows it.
The man begins to pace across the floor, pulling a pair of gloves over his fingers. Each footstep on the wooden floorboards echoes in the house. I glance up the staircase in the corner, arms crossed. Could Keme have woken?
“Ah yes,” he coos, voice molasses, “the very same rituals that protect the people and state by providing me with the abilities to do so. Rituals that, in the very same process, rid the world of another pitiful creature that could pose a threat to the rest of us. Would you rather I leave and remove your only line of defense against this beast to better satisfy your sense of morality?”
I take a deep breath. “No, Manohara. You know that I don’t.”
The corners of his lips twitch, as though trying but unable to produce a smile at his victory. “My intent is not to use you and your family to my advantage. I know you may not believe me, but I would never risk your life unless absolutely necessary. You’re my cousin,” he adds, “and I would rather not lose another member of our bloodline.”
My fingers tighten into fists at the words, but I suppress the venom that dances on my tongue. Manohara is insufferable company and an influence that I had hoped my son would never have the misfortune of encountering. But if there truly is a creature lurking nearby, then he is the best line of defense I could obtain. Having him here may save our lives.
Manohara looks me over with a flat expression. “Where should I sleep?”
It is dangerously easy to pick out their words between the layers of drywall and flooring. My toes tap inside a pair of ragged boots, the pen clutched by white fingers. An unfinished sentence waits on the page, but my attention is tuned to the whispers above me.
“Can you do magic?” Keme’s melodic voice is unmistakable. I close my eyes, feeling the breath press in and out of my lungs. The question shouldn’t come as a surprise, yet it still pushes a weight in my heart.
Manohara’s dry laugh is an eerie sound even with the sun hanging high. “I wouldn’t call it that. Organic energetics is a science easily misunderstood, but a science nonetheless.”
“How does it work?”
My teeth press together. Such eagerness. Hadn’t I warned Keme of how dangerous that was? Did my words mean nothing?
“Your mother wouldn’t want me to tell you, I’m afraid,” my cousin muses. A sigh escapes my lips, and I can’t help but foster a sense of satisfaction that the man is an honorable one. I had gone out of my way to make the limits of conversation with my son clear. Manohara would find himself without a place to stay if he chose to cross them.
Keme groans. “Well, then what are you hunting?”
“Nothing you need to worry about. It’s just a routine investigation. Speaking of,” he grumbles, barely loud enough to hear, “I need to get going.”
I tap the tip of my pen against the desk as my cousin’s footsteps descend down the staircase behind me. He steps up to the door and frowns, shouldering a heavy coat.
“Make sure to lock and bar this once I’m gone.”
I push back the chair and stand up, extending my arms in a stretch. With a sigh, I turn to look at my cousin. His gaze is dark. Commanding. The gaze of a trustworthy man nonetheless. A year ago he wouldn’t have hesitated to explain everything to my son. I wonder for a moment what must have changed, before offering a shrug.
“Make sure to come back,” I say with a halfhearted grin.
As he slips out of the door, he isn’t smiling.
“It hasn’t been going well, has it?”
I look up at Keme with a frown, setting down the knife and bread. He takes a sip of coffee, steam rising from the liquid’s surface. It isn’t enough to mask his expectant gaze. I scowl. “You shouldn’t ask questions like that.”
He presses the cup into the table and raises an eyebrow. “And why not?”
“You might not like the answer.” I tap the cutting board with my fingernail.
“Would I ask if I didn’t want one?”
My grip tightens on the knife, and he clutches his coffee cup. I can taste words boiling on my tongue, but just as I am about to release them, the door swings open in the other room, cuing an onslaught of rain. It closes moments later with a heavy thud that shakes the entire house. I shoots Keme a warning glare, and he reluctantly look into the abyss of his coffee as I scurry to the opposite room to meet my cousin.
My jaw unhinges at the sight. “What the hell is this!?”
Manohara staggers towards me, arms outstretched. His coat is sheared into ragged strips. Underneath a dripping layer of clothes, crimson oozes across his chest. I rush forwards to help him, supporting his weight on my shoulders. His coat is heavy with water, but I have a feeling it isn’t all from the rain. As I set him on the couch, my hands come away slick and red.
“Keme! Get some bandages and alcohol!”
His footsteps dart throughout the house. I wait anxiously, trying to support my cousin’s head. Every inch of his skin seems to be caked with mud and gravel. His eyes are closed.
“Manohara, stay with me,” I hiss, pressing a finger into his neck to check for a pulse. The vein is idle under my finger. “Dammit!”
I drag the coat off of his shoulders and rest it in my lap, fingers digging into every recess. Most of the pockets are empty, but eventually I reemerge with a thin glass vial in my clasp. It appears empty, without any filaments or reflections to indicate the possible contents. I glance at Manohara’s limp mouth. He told me once that the items he carries should never betray their contents, for fear of a stranger finding them and using them inappropriately. I look at the vial, then back at him.
The ways of his magic are too ornate for me to try and understand now. What I do understand is luck, and this man has more of it than anyone I’ve ever known.
I yank the cork off the vial, releasing a sharp and pungent odor that burns my eyes as soon as it escapes. Cringing, I press the spewing container to his lips, balancing his head in my hands. My fingers press the vial in place for several seconds before retracting it and jamming the cork in place. Keme appears by my side, eyes absorbing the mess of his uncle.
“Bandages?” I ask, barely taking the time to glance at him.
He holds them up to me in small hands. Young hands. I wish he didn’t have to witness this, but it’s too late to hide it now.
“Help me get his shirt off,” I grumble, ripping the sleeves apart. Keme does the same, peeling the cloth away from my cousin’s damp skin and revealing a deep gash in his side. “Alcohol.”
Keme hands me the bottle and I swab the bandages with it before wrapping them tightly around Manohara’s wound. It is too deep for me to cure easily, assuming he wakes up at all. The city is too far to call on for a doctor at this point. I place my finger on his vein again, hoping for some sign of life.
Again, nothing. I glare at his chest, where his heart should be beating strong. A jagged cut slices across the skin, blood tracing rivers in the coat of dirt. It isn’t like Manohara to be beaten so easily. Whatever creature he must have been hunting posed a greater threat to him than he must have anticipated.
The bandages are more to make me feel better than to do any real help. His life is hinged on the slim chance that the vial I forced into his mouth contained some healing ointment of some kind and not a poison, or worse.
“Well, this answers your question,” I grumble, glancing at Keme with a scowl. “Satisfied?”
He frowns, eyes glass as they absorb the dying man before them.
Manohara has slept for two days. His heart beats occasionally, rushing to revive the blood and bring life to him again before weakening until idle. Most of the time he manages to pump air through his lungs. Sometimes he lies so still I think he may have actually died, until some organ reboots and tries to goad the rest of the body into joining.
Keme watches his uncle, but only out of the corner of his eye. I don’t think he ever anticipated the oddity of magic. He used to be so eager to learn - too eager, and so I refused to teach him.
I watch my cousin’s body torment itself. The vial has warmed in my hands, now empty. Periodically, I drained its remaining contents into him with the hopes of doing some good. Whether it is because of the vial or not, Manohara is not yet dead. He isn’t quite alive either, but he has climbed out of the depths of limbo before.
My head rests on the floor, a thin blanket between my skin and the boards. A candle flickers on the table by the couch, illuminating my cousin’s perpetual countenance of distaste. I glance at the door. Locked and barred and locked again. Whatever beast did this to my cousin is likely still alive.
“You should get some sleep, Mom.” Keme looks at me with shadowed eyes, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. I prop myself up on my elbows and smile at the child.
“Go ahead. I’m going to stay a while longer.”
He nods, then slinks up the stairwell. I listen to his footsteps as they creep along the house. It’s a shame he had to be introduced to true magic in this way; not all of it is as brutal as it can appear. But perhaps it is for the best. Despite our family’s reputation, some of us need to be wary of the powers we inherit. It’s better for Keme to learn that now.
Sighing, I relax into the floor and stare at Manohara’s limp form. His chest rises and falls steadily, the lungs awakened by some primordial instinct. I let the rhythm of his breath lull me to sleep.
“Asgre! Let me in!” The door quivers on its hinges as a fist beats it. “Do not tend to that creature’s wounds!”
I blink, scrambling to my feet. “Manohara?” That was his voice. I glance to the couch, and my body tenses. His body is gone, leaving only a weighted indent in the cushions and an enormous bloodstain. The candle is extinguished, leaving the room in pale shadow.
The door shakes again, and I stare at it. He’s outside? The locks are intact, and the bar untouched. How did he-
“Open the door!”
Staggering forwards, I rest a hand on the metal padlocks. My hands fumble as they slide the bar out of place, slipping on the wood. I pause, wiping my hands on my shirt. They’re damp and slippery, but I don’t take the time to wonder why. I force the bar up and unlatch the locks. The door swings open to reveal the potent silhouette of my cousin, scowling.
“Manohara?” My voice sounds distant and unfamiliar. “What’s happening?”
He curses. “Did you feed it the contents of a vial in one of its coat pockets?”
I blink, taking a step back as he storms into the room. His eyes find the bloodstained couch with ease. I close the door behind him, then frown at the question. “Yes.”
He spins on me, raging under a crystalline glare. I can taste the fire fueling his rage, but as he looks me over, something dissipates in him. The chiseled scowl melts. My cousin takes a step towards me, resting a hand on my shoulder. “Sit down.”
His expression is placid. “You’re dying.”
I blink, staring at Manohara with an open mouth. Dying? My hands were so slippery. I rub two fingers together, feeling the warm liquid that paints their surface. Blood? I don’t remember being injured. I don’t feel any pain, or bruising.
I don’t feel anything.
Keme? I look past Manohara to the stairwell. The voice was so distressed. Footsteps stumble overhead, and something tumbles down the stairs. Manohara spins towards it, pulling a dagger from somewhere in the folds of his clothing. I stumble after him. Keme lies motionless at the foot of the stairs, blood oozing from his head. My cousin crouches over him, clutching the weapon as he digs in his pockets for something else. I stare at the crumpled body of my son.
Another figure appears at the top of the stairs, adorned in a tattered coat and bathed in blood. Manohara?
I look over at the man crouching next to me, attending to Keme with a small vial of black liquid. He pours it gently into my son’s mouth, whispering as if to coax it into functioning. I don’t recognize the magic.
“What creature were you hunting?” I ask, glancing between the two images of my cousin.
The one by my side casts me a scowl. His voice is stern. “A Kriemhilde. It has taken your heart. I’m surprised you’re still alive.” Glancing down at Keme, his grip tightens around the dagger. “Watch the boy.”
My cousin stalks up the stairs to face the creature, dressed in a copy of his own skin. I have heard of them before. The Kriemhilde who can adopt the body of another to conceal themselves. Creatures that steal organs to keep themselves alive while in an unfamiliar costume. When was the last time I had even cared to remember the creatures my cousin hunted? I had been taught these things along with him. I simply chose to ignore them.
Manohara wields the blade and his vials like a demon. I can hear screaming and hissing, but my eyelids grow too heavy to support. My body stops trying to hold itself up and crumbles to the ground. The floor is a cocoon. I let my bones seep into it. Everything is so light, as though I could fly. Why hasn’t Keme woken up yet? Maybe he’s just taking a nap. It sounds like a good idea. Maybe I should take one, too. But no, something important is happening. What was it again?
A voice is chanting something. Blood soaks my skin like a blanket. Keme is cold next to me, but the voice is warm so I listen to it as it gurgles incomprehensible words. A pale blue light hovers in the air. Softly, the world goes dark.
Pain fills me and burns me. I am imploding. The world igniting around me yet I am unable to voice my screams.
My heart is gone.
I am woken by the smell of tea. It is a sharp and familiar one that brings a smile to my lips. Shuffling in a cocoon of blankets, I blink the sleep from my eyes. Manohara stands a few feet over from me, setting a small cup on the coffee table. I smile at him, but he doesn’t look my way.
“I’m glad you’re awake. I was worried.” Straightening, my cousin walks over to a chair propped opposite the couch where I sit. Something about the room feels strange and alien, but I don’t bother to seek out the source of the peculiarity.
“You? Worried?” Odd words to come from his mouth. “Did something happen?”
His fingers tap the armrests of the chair in an anxious rhythm. “Yes.”
My brow furrows, and I look around the room. The candle flickers happily near the tea. The door is bolted and barred as I like to keep it. I frown as I scan the floor, noting a number of deep stains in the grain, though other than that, the room seems as tidy as usual. I squirm in the blanket, trying to shift my position, but a hot pain erupts in my ribcage. My breath catches in my throat.
“Careful. It’s still new.”
I blink. “What’s still new?”
My cousin, too fidgety to remain seated, leaps to his feet and starts to pace the room. His footfalls are heavy on the stained boards. His eyes refuse to meet mine. “Your heart.”
A laugh escapes from my lips, though it feels forced. I wrap my arms around myself, fingers rubbing the sinews of the blanket. “No, seriously. What happened? And where’s Keme?”
He freezes, feet anchored to the ground. I can see the sigh in his shoulders as he closes his eyes. “Dead.”
I don’t laugh this time. Twisting in my seat, I glance up the stairwell, ignoring the jolt of pain from my ribs. The same dark stains paint each stair. At the top, a large limp object occupies the hallway. My blood runs cold as I turn back to my cousin. “Don’t joke around like that. Where is he?”
Manohara meets my eyes, his tears unmistakable. “I’m sorry, Asgre.”
“He was dead before I reached him. You saw the wound in his head. He had lost too much blood and suffered far too much damage.” Manohara shifts in his seat, hands folded. “The solution I fed him merely preserved the physical body. I knew you still had a chance of survival, since your heart had not given out despite its energy being stolen. Since Keme had been alive moments ago, his energy was still within the body, and by preserving it with the solution, the energy still remaining in his body could be enough to heal you.”
I listen, eyes sore from crying, voice hoarse from attacking my cousin at the news. My son is dead. Nothing seems real anymore. I lie limply in the couch, wanting it to swallow me whole, wanting the memories to fade.
“I killed the Kreimhilde. Then I immediately transferred Keme’s energy to your heart. It was enough to revive the organ and keep you alive.”
He saved my life. Keme saved my life. That’s not how it is meant to be; a mother should die for her children, or at least pass before they. This is unnatural. The heart that beats within my chest is his in every way except the physical. But of course, an organ is just comprised of cells. It is the energy that drives them to function that marks their differences.
Manohara stares into his hands, eyes closed. Magic in this world is so brutal.
“What now?” The words are hollow on my tongue.
“You could return to life as usual, but because of the cross-contamination of your energy and your son’s, you will likely die within the next several years. In situations like ours, where we have lost some of our own soul, it is better to continuously fill the gap.”
I look up at my cousin with a scowl. My cheeks are scalded with tears. “You’d have me hunt with you? Stealing the organs of things like that monster just… Just to hide from death?”
“You always had a talent for magic,” he muses, watching me with a distant eye. “I could take you as an apprentice. The Guild will welcome anyone willing to face rogues.”
My eyes widen, and I take a quivering breath. “I could become one, couldn’t I?”
“Yes. So could I. So could any of the Guild. The difference is that we don’t kill the innocent for our own survival, while the rogues are so desperate that they do.” Manohara frowns at me. “The chances of it happening to you are very slim.”
“And the chances for you?”
He shrugs. “I’ve been hunting for years and equated death more times than I care to count. There is a high possibility that it will catch up with me, but for now I prefer to prepare against that.”
I stare at him. How can the man be so collected?
“I have to report to the Guild by tomorrow morning. They will want to know that the Kriemhilde is dead. You are welcome to join me.”
I glance up the stairwell to the dead body of the creature and the corpse of my son. What is left for me here? My whole life has been built around raising Keme. No other particular passions took my fancy. All I wanted was for him to have a good life despite the absence of his father. Without my son, this life I have created for myself is meaningless.
“My son deserves a proper burial,” I say, words dry.
Manohara nods. “We’ll leave at dawn.”