Death can be beautiful. Ariana thought.
An old crumpled woman feebly bound to a chair after a long life seems to have come to terms with the end of her life just as an observer of a wilting flower knows it will never bloom again. Will my death be as beautiful?
Ariana thought about death a lot, because she’s cursed. The priests of their land, Narkaia, bound her to her twin brother, Rowen, when the royal twins were teenagers. Rowen had a brutal side. She knew the rigidness of the mountain floors and what it felt like to bleed just as she knew the softness of her bed and what it’s like to feel small, relaxing breaths. The priests bound her to protect her. For what happens to her, happens to Rowen and what happens to Rowen happens to her.
“You are needed in the Circle Room. Come away from the window and join me.”
Ariana turned to see Kenni, a warlock and a friend. He reached out his clawed hand to her. Ariana took it. She found comfort in his scales, yellow eyes, and long muscular tale. Although it was unwise to admire his handsome face, which was more human than lizard, she often did.
Kenni has lived many hundreds of years. Ariana was only twenty-four.
He led her to the Circle Room. The walls were stone as were the floors. No light penetrated it, and many warlocks were around a large cauldron that took up most of the space.
Kenni brought her right to the rim. “Once more,” was all he said.
She held out her hand that they may cut her. The blood fell into the whirling air of the cauldron. For a moment her brother appeared. He looked a lot like her. They both have the same long blonde hair that was nearly white. They have the same red eyes, the same startling white skin with deep markings going vertically from their foreheads down to the inside of both eye brows to their chins, and one horizontal marking that went across their faces just underneath their eyes. This time Rowen was smiling and wasn’t covered in blood.
Ariana turned away. Her brother was fornicating. It made her nauseous as she remembered the reason for his exile…
Ariana was in a stately room. She was lying on the couch reading the grimoire Kenni had given her to sate her thirst for knowledge of his warlock ancestry. She hadn’t noticed when Rowen entered the room.
“Sister,” he said with devilish eyes—eyes she has abhorred since they were toddlers in separate cribs. She never had fear of nightmares, shadows, or monsters. Her brother was her nightmare, was her shadow, was her monster. There was no room left for anything that wasn’t real.
“Brother,” she casually said as she continued to twirl her hair as she went back to the grimoire, though, now she only pretended to read it.
He sat beside her feet. “I want to tell you a story. Put the book down.”
She did so cautiously, but she was always cautious in his presence. She sat up, so her feet wouldn’t be touching him.
Rowen had a sword at his hip, but his hands were in his lap. “I had a dream more vivid and real than anything you will read.”
“What was the dream?” She said breathlessly as air seemed to evade her lungs.
“In the dream I was in my room, stuck there by the poisonous rain thundering down against these mountain walls. It was late. With nothing else to do, I lied in bed sharpening my blades. To my surprise there was a knock on the door. I didn’t have time to respond before it opened, and Florence came in.”
Florence is a playmate. Playmates aren’t illegal in Narkaia so long as they work for themselves. Florence is Rowen’s favorite girl. “She was naked before she even got to the bed.”
Ariana swung her feet to the floor. “I don’t want to hear this. Surely this is the kind of talk for bath houses and not for sisters.”
“Oh, but it concerns you. Wait for the best part.”
She looked at him sharply.
He only smiled. “The dream was entertaining—it certainly was how I would spend a night of poisonous rain. Imagine my surprise when Florence’s naked body turned into yours. Your face, even.” She ran for the doorway, but he was ahead of her. “It got me thinking about how I cannot hurt you because of the priests. Would raping you hurt you? It would certainly answer a cosmic question about sex and violence wouldn’t you think?”
Ariana backed up until she hit a wall. “You’re not that kind of monster. You’ve always seen me as you do everyone else—a vessel that bleeds!” She ducked as he swung at her. She ran behind the couch, but he grabbed her by the hair.
Rowen felt the same stinging sensation, but it was nothing.
There was a letter opener on the credenza behind the couch. She grabbed it and stabbed her own leg. Rowen wailed, and she took off running. She had to circle to the only exit in the room. Again he was there first.
“Ariana…so fair they say. So kind-hearted. So beautiful. But your meekness makes me wonder if my dear sister is a virgin. Or have you cavorted with warlocks or Narkaians?”
“Does it matter?”
“If you’re a virgin I would feel your pain as you do. What man can say that?”
“I’m not one.”
He drew his sword. “If it’s true, name him.”
“Raziel, Steward, and Kenni.”
Rowen actually seemed shocked. “You could have at least picked a more attractive warlock. Tokein at least doesn’t look like an animal.”
“Tokein has sharp skin.”
“What if I were to summon them and ask if they’ve been to my sister’s bed?”
“Do it.” She was confident they would lie for her.
“And what will you do? Tell them I tried to attack you? Will you post guards outside your room like when we were kids?”
“I can’t kill you, so what am I supposed to do?”
She pointed the letter opener at her stomach. “Leave and never come back, or I will kill myself.”
“You would give up your life to take mine?”
She pushed the blade half an inch in.
Blood spilled through Rowen’s clothes. “I don’t understand the ‘normal’ mind.” He was still looking down at his stomach.
“We don’t understand you either.”
“Perhaps I’m like the poisonous rain. While it could make us sick, it’s needed for this land. Maybe I’m poisonous, but maybe there’s good reason for it.”
“Tell me the reason. I’ve so longed to know.” Her hands were shaking over her stomach.
“Fear only attaches itself to those who have something to fear. If more people were like me, they would know no fear. They would be the fear. Isn’t that freeing?”
“There would be no fear if there were no monsters.”
“Are you calling me a monster, dear sister?”
“Yes.” It felt good finally admitting it, so she said it again. “Yes.” She had nothing to fear any longer. Either he would leave their home, or it would end with them bleeding to death on the floor.
He glared at her. “I’m your brother. We’re blood. We’re family. We’re connected forever.” He left as swiftly as he entered.
She was shaking. Her blood looked almost purple against her dark blue gown. Kenni later found her on the floor. Once she told him what happened, a search party gathered…
“He’s killed her.” Kenni said in the Circle Room.
“Was the same message left?”
“Yes. ‘Dear sister’ was carved into her stomach.”
“I thought playmates were warned not to accept him as a client.”
“Word may not have made it to far lands. And he is charming. Most playmates envy him.”
“None I’m afraid. It’s just a room with pretty things.”
“There must be some way.” She said angrily.
“This is the way.” A claw cascaded comfortingly over her shoulder.
“Five girls. Lohan, Ecca, Ashian, Lora, and whoever this girl is. By the time we find the woman’s body, he’s in another land.” Ariana turned to Kenni. “Isn’t there a better spell?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Pull him, through space, here.”
“That is dangerous.”
“But he knows what spells we are willing to use. Each time I cut myself to see him, he is cut and knows. He knows we haven’t changed our methods, so why would he?”
“I would have to have counsel with your father.”
“Then do it. He’s already reconciled his son’s fate.”
Ariana stood on the balcony carved into the mountain. The red sky was ablaze, signaling night. She looked out thinking about blood. How many times had he cut her before the priests protected her? How many times did she feel close to death? She knew he cut some of his playmates and that they let him because he was charming.
For a long time she thought he would outgrow it, but maybe that was more of a prayer.
“Ariana.” It was Kenni again. “Your father has agreed to do the spell.”
“Whenever you decide.”
“Now. Let’s do it now.”
“Are you rested enough?”
“He is searching for another woman to kill to punish me for banishing him, so yes.”
“As long as you are strong enough. The spell is a harsh one and not to be taken lightly.”
“Am I not serious enough?”
“Then let us begin.” He beckoned her forward as he turned toward the mountain. His tail moved behind him gracefully.
They went to the dungeons. A cell had been prepared for Rowen. The ritual would take place inside it. When he came through, he wouldn’t be able escape. The floors were dirt. The bars were made of the bones of priests. Evil cannot cross them. No one was there beside her and Kenni. He alone could do the spell, and only he was needed to protect them from Rowen when he came through.
A circle was dug into the dirt. She knew the spell and stood inside the circle. Rowen left none of his possessions behind, which would be needed to track him. A blood relative was their best hope.
“Don’t leave the circle until I tell you.”
He raised his clawed hand at her. His yellow eyes glowed. Wind picked up in the circle. It was gentle at first but quickly became fierce. Her yellow dress whipped out behind her. The wind started slashing at it. She could feel the cuts on her skin, and hoped it wasn’t warning her brother.
She felt a pulling sensation across her entire body. It felt euphoric at first as she gave into the spell, then it felt brutal. This wasn’t part of the spell.
Ariana could feel a force pushing her as it pulled her. It was like she was being crushed. Bones broke in her body—her cheek, her arm, both hands, a rib, and finally a leg which sent her falling to the dirt.
Immediately the wind disappeared. She looked up at Kenni. “Why did you stop?”
“The spell would have killed you.”
“But why? Did Rowen do something to counter the spell?”
“No, the priests did.”
She almost laughed in irony. “Being bound was supposed to be an honor. To shadow my brother and prevent him from doing harm was said to be a great service to Narkaia. All it did was curse me.” She stood unsteadily to her feet and left the circle.
Kenni, with a healing touch, reached for her.
“Why didn’t it work?”
“You are linked by more than blood. The spell didn’t know which being to call, so it tried to call you both, but it isn’t meant to call more than one soul.”
She looked hopeless.
He tried to reassure her. “We’ll catch him. He will remain in this cell for the rest of his life. You will die an old lady.”
“What a curious thought.”
Days had passed. Ariana was fully healed, which meant so was Rowen. He must be on the hunt for another woman. The idea made Ariana restless, so she ventured deep into the mountain on her way to the labor district.
“Diven.” She nodded at the creature who was native to this land. He, like all his kind, are tan or brown with large heads. They have rolls that stack to form a body and no legs. Before the warlocks and Narkaians invaded this land, the creatures’ overlord ordered her servants to be mutilated at birth so they could never rise against her.
Once the warlocks defeated the overlord, the mutilations stopped. Still, in the labor district, most creatures roll around on boards with wheels and use their knuckles or sticks to push themselves along.
“We heard you weren’t well.”
“I’m better. I should be back to help with the work as soon as Rowen is found.”
“Very good, Ms. We have lots of land to make.”
Ariana made it through the labor district and into the market place. Stones made up patchy floors among the dirt. Shops were scattered along the winding corridor.
She went in to see the post master. He was behind the counter. “Leweed, I’ve come for something special.”
“Then you shall have it.” Leweed is another warlock. He’s very tall but hunches greatly. He has one eye and extremely long fingers. His skin is gray. He’s one of her favorite warlocks. Leweed works here because his powers as a warlock aren’t as great as others, and his interests lie elsewhere.
“Kenni has thought of a way to further spread warnings about Rowen with haste. We need paper made from the trees soaked in the poisonous rain.”
“Yes, yes very magical indeed.” He folded his long fingers together. “But…I am sorry to inform you…but I must inform you that we have it not.”
“How can you not have it? Poisonous rain is frequent this time of year. Surely the trees have shed.”
“They did. But…well…before your brother was wanted, he came and bought every sheet. I had no reason to suspect anything you see.”
“When can you get more?”
“Next season?” She was shocked. Seasons in Narkaia are long.
“The trees will shed as long as there’s rain. But now pieces are all you will get until the new season.”
She was sick to her stomach. Hundreds of women could be butchered by then. She, not really understanding where she was going, turned to go.
“Ariana!” Leweed called after her. “You do have a letter.”
She walked back and took it. On the front it said: Ariana
It was from Rowen.
She tore through it at once and read:
Dear sister, have you given up yet? I promise you will know peace if you stop searching. You have my word I will never see our mountain again. Live your precious life, and I will live mine.
I suspect your stubbornness won’t allow this, so I will give you another option. Come to me. I will be at the only inn seven lands east of our mountain. I will be here for one night. Come alone, or I’m gone.
You have no reason to want to come to me except for this: A priesthood can unbind us. Think of what that means. I’m waiting, but I won’t wait for long.
Ariana dressed in a light blue hooded gown. She had just been to see Kenni who was working on another way to find her brother. This was the only time she had ever lied to him.
She walked out of the mountain, across the bridge over the lava river, and into the forest. The trees moved without wind as did all the plants in some way or another. She knew this had to be done. Being unbound from her brother could mean he could be killed without her having to die. It meant he wouldn’t be able to know what moves they were making against him. It meant she was free from nights when she woke up to her arm or breasts bleeding because he had cut himself while with a playmate.
She felt this was the only way to save women and the only way to save herself. She had every intention of trying to arrest him after the priests unbound them. If not, she would kill him. Her dress hid many blades.
It was a long walk into the forest before she met Anton—a warlock whose company wasn’t well respected. He had sharp teeth, glowing eyes despite the solid black coloring, and was otherwise human looking.
She threw a drawstring pouch at him. He caught it and smiled. “Take my hand, and you will appear in the land where your brother is.”
Ariana stepped forward. His grip was unnecessarily tight, but instantly she was no longer in the forest. She was still outside, but the land was foreign to her. It was shabby. The lane was muddy. The shops were wooden and dilapidated. She turned around and around, trying to get her bearings.
“Are you lost?” An elderly woman came up to her.
“An inn, do you have an inn here?”
“We have but one.” She looked at Ariana’s gown. “I’m afraid it’s nothing fancy.”
“I don’t need fancy. I just need to know where it is.”
The woman pointed over Ariana’s shoulder. “Down the lane there, to the corner on the right.”
“My pleasure, Ms.”
Ariana was down the lane in a hurry. Her brother was due to leave in an hour’s time. At the end of the lane she saw the inn. It wasn’t as shabby as those around it, but it also didn’t stand out. She walked through the simple door. The man behind the counter asked, “A room?”
“My brother is expecting me. His name is Rowen.”
“Number 4. Just down the hall on the right, there.”
She found herself in front of the door seconds later. She hesitated to knock, but the door opened anyway. “Brother,” the word escaped her.
“Dear sister.” He smiled.
“Surely you know that endearment is sickening now.”
“Why? Because it was written on flesh? Can it have no other meaning now?”
“You must know my answer.”
He opened the door wide to let her in.
“How can the priests unbind us if you don’t come in?”
She stepped through the threshold. He closed the door quickly behind her. “Are they here?”
“Any moment now.”
“Then I’ll wait outside.” She moved to go, but he blocked her.
“Are you afraid of me?”
“Yes.” She didn’t quite meet his eyes.
“There’s no need sister. The dream has passed. I only want to be rid of you as you want to be rid of me.”
She moved to the other side of the room and suddenly had a terrible feeling in the pit of her stomach. I’ve been a complete fool. “You’ve tricked me, haven’t you?”
His smile was charming but cruel.
“You value your life too much to kill me, so why am I here?”
“To break the binding.”
“But if no priests are coming…”
“There is another way to break it.”
He stood up and went to a closet. The door had notches of wood taken out of it. He reached in to grab something. What emerged was a woman, bound and gagged. She was crying. Many of her restraints were soaked in blood.
Ariana was relieved. “You haven’t killed her?”
“No.” He took a knife from a sheath. “You will kill her.”
She stepped back. “You know I won’t do that.”
“You will if you want to be rid of me. They bound us together because we are so unalike. If you kill, you will be no better than me, and the binding of the priests will break.”
“Why would you think I’d do this?”
“To protect Narkaia. One life. One life is a small exchange for your freedom, isn’t it?”
“Come with me. Come back to our mountain. We will ask the priests to undo what they’ve done. I will see that you are banished instead of imprisoned. You have my word.”
“Your word is meaningless. It’s because of you I kill. I never took a life before the day you threw me out of my home. I know you only came because you thought you’d finally get a chance to kill me without killing yourself. I’m not stupid, dear sister.”
But I have been. She thought to herself. She wanted so badly to believe priests could fix what they did so long ago.
“I have a surprise for you.” He pushed the woman to the floor. He opened a door that led into an adjacent room. “Come see.”
She moved slowly. She had her arms tucked in each sleeve to better retrieve a knife if she needed to. When she walked into the room, she nearly screamed. There were four bodies there. All were women of varying look. All were naked or partially naked. There was so much blood it was hard to see them or the room.
“Take one life, and you will have a greater chance at stopping me.”
She lunged at him with her knife. It landed in his shoulder.
The shock surprised him but not for long. He backhanded her, and she fell onto the floor next to the bound girl. Blood from Ariana’s shoulder gushed out. A welt appeared on her brother’s cheek.
A loud crack in the sky took their attention. Sheets of poisonous rain were coming down. He laughed. “Now what are you going to do? Kill her, and I will leave you in peace until the rain stops. Don’t and tonight will be a nightmare you never knew could exist.”
She got to her feet and ran. She jumped across the bed and out into the hall. The man behind the counter was gone. She ran for the front door, but was restrained around her waist by Rowen. He pulled her back so hard she went flying down the hall, landing ungraciously.
“It’s a small inn sister. Where are you going to go? Did you bring help?”
“I don’t need it.” She ran up a staircase. At the end of the hall was a window. She crashed her way through it and landed on a lower part of the roof. The poisonous rain was coming down on her. The muddy streets were empty.
“Come back inside!” He screamed.
She looked at the trickles of water on her skin. The rain felt tingly. She looked up at the dark sky with her piercing red eyes, and let the poison wash over her.
“Sister, please!” She was startled by where the voice was coming from. Rowen was now in the street, carefully hidden under protective robes.
She smiled down at him. Maybe he’s the poison, and I’m the counterweight—the lesson to be learned. He is the sickness and I the antidote.
She jumped from the roof.
Her eyes met her brother’s in her last moment. This time, she was the one to smile. Blood ran from and along her body for the last time. It pooled in the streets of this dreary land. The rain pushed it along as it absorbed into the mud.
They were found in the morning when the poison rain washed away. They remained preserved in a funeral chamber for weeks before Kenni found them. Ariana was brought home. Her brother’s body was burned in disgrace in a field lands away. He is forever lost, but their mountain misses her as an echo misses a whisper. The mountain knows all about the lady in blue. Her fellow people and friends mourn her loss. The priests celebrate her sacrifice. They say death becomes her.