Name: Helene Mezher
Genre: YA High Fantasy
My fate was woven from dripping wax. By way of dying candlelight, I had practiced with my wooden spear as an eight-year-old with stick-arms should. I had begun the quest to reclaim my destiny, yet no measure of self-taught defense protected me from the soot of my city, and the ashes of loyalty burying my doorstep. Upon my emergence from the surrounding woods, the fragments of my city-ship were lit in crackling-red clarity.
Incense burned on every street corner, and crops shriveled like the women who tried birthing life. Livestock died within weeks, while laments wailed for the dead and those stamped by the plague. My spear propelled me through the disease-ringed roads, its familiar scent imparting a hint of hard-won security until I discovered the throng of bodies amassed around my house.
As the sparks of lightning flared through the night, so did my familial mob, carrying herbs, tonics, and staffs ablaze. Cousins who had bathed with me when I was younger, and aunts who had embraced me within their chests, bore the solemnity that razed families to dust. My relatives came seeking the dark shield of glory, and there was no escape. I was the ember of the evil, they said, and they would quench their city.
The moment I surrendered my weapon, they rent it to halves and shoved me towards the front door with their callused strength. If I had not noticed her presence, I would have fallen and exposed my back to their desperation. She kept me on my feet, her eyes complete with the salacity of greed.
Robed in sleeves of gossamer silk and with a sash that uplifted her breasts, our Oracle, Rhea, waited at the forefront. A voluptuous woman with a self-righteous attitude, she held her staff like it was an extension of her body, carved of the finest cedar, an eagle at its pedestal, and motioned for me to allow their entrance without a word of acknowledgment. Her movement triggered their eruption.
"Why must we wait?"
"The halfling deserves no pity!"
"Let us begin the purge now!"
"My children," Oracle said, her voice like the whip of flames in an empty grate, "Stop."
At once their chants faded, as if imprisoned within the rotten brigs of our mast-less city. With her authority, Oracle held their keys, much as she held the decrees of the future, written within the hearths which only she could read. Her power was the burn I could not heal, and even I fell prey to its heat. I did not deal in forecasting destiny.
She followed me inside, and I tried to ignore the thud of her staff.
Sigils decorating skin bared for ritual, my would-be murderers trailed into the house after us. Almost thirty people blurred in my vision, and among them, a traitor whose presence--whose support of this ceremony--was poison to my veins. Father, bearing his dirty nails and slouched posture, perpetual fixtures on his small, sinewy frame--he held the four bird cages while his eyes avoided mine. Unlike my sister, who numbered one of the unfortunate sleeping in an earthly tomb, and unlike Father, Mother was strangely absent.
Someone lit the wax towers on my table until they wept orange and yellow. The candles cast shadows on the walls that crept like the pervading whispers of the mob, saturating the house with the untold monstrosity of our ritual. I closed my eyes in an attempt to distract myself, but the smells rendered my imagination futile. Despite the incense and candlelit vanilla, the stink of days-old excrement clung to those present, a blessing for the coming purgation. When I brought my hands to my face, I realized they still smelled of wood--the wood of my broken spear and a past that I could control. I held myself tight to this reminder.
In final preparation, Father deposited the cages by Oracle's feet, kneeling in servitude before scuttling in retreat. His form melded into the dark circle without offering the explanation that I deserved. It was then, though, that I understood.
I remembered the fire on his face when we washed the blood from my skin. The solidarity in his embrace that bound my bones with strong-armed courage. The smell of dough which clung to his unshorn beard, warm and sweet. And I knew that he had deceived Mother. There was no emergency council meeting. He had planned to exploit her lack of interference.
His betrayal was the most monstrous shadow.
Oracle tap, tapped her staff to cease the whispers. In the absence of action, the intruders noted my every breath, my every shake. I straightened my back, though fear was my crutch, its knobs thudding my shoulders.
"We are gathered here today to pay a bloody tribute for our city's cure. Lenaea"--she paused until everyone glared, their gazes as hot as the flames behind me--"daughter of Andrea and Petros,"--she indicated Father, who shrank from the attention--"and prisoner to the light, was destined to live a half-life. My mother's mother decreed this ruling at the conjoining of the moons, when Lenaea entered this world and all was revealed. We call on the Others now to distribute their judgment."
Oracle released one of the birds from its cage. Immediately it pounded its wings, searching for freedom. For a moment, it seemed a mighty beast, flapping feathers with an inky sheen, and a beak of some proportion. Then the truth was revealed: it would never find peace. An arrow pierced its throat before it flew five feet. Father had brought his finest bow, and knew precisely where the death mark lay. I stared into the candlelight to stave an outpouring of tears. I knew what it meant to be caged until my wings broke.
Energy pulsed in the room, a palpable heave of murmurs, menacing laughter, and torches at the ready. I could smell their excitement, their sweat palpitating like a heart-drum for the violence they craved. My fellow citizens, the women who worked in the mornings and voted by night, and the men who raised their children and baked bread with love, had clustered together, a circle of faces that no longer accepted mine among theirs. The table dug into my skin, reminding me that this was real. I could not wake from this nightmare. When Oracle closed her eyes and lifted her hands, prayers began.
"Grant my daughter strength, Healer."
"And mine courage, wisest of all."
"Mastermind of the senses, I am your slave."
I blocked their prayers from my mind--I was a captain of the vessel that sailed for enemy shores; I was a phalanx of the fifth that ran my spear through life; I was nothing when Oracle gasped and shouted, her nails diving into the bird. I fisted my hands, for I knew what was coming, and I could do nothing to prevent the unseen from unfolding. My life would douse the residues of death within the foundation of our city, and heal the sickness while I lay crucified.
As if he longed to see that vision, Father edged closer. My stomach churned when I noticed the eagerness tainting his face. With my broken nails, I clutched the table; it was solid but sure, a buttress of support.
While Oracle rummaged through the bird, reading the future in its entrails, I tasted the stench of fresh blood and incense, and the noxious perfume of their collective anticipation. Rhea made noises--distraught, disappointed, doubtful--I could not read them well. I knew little beyond the thump, thump dirge of my heart, and the murmurs of a mob thirsting for my death.
(All conversation ceased when Oracle let out an agonized cry that reverberated through the thatched house. The flames danced, their fingers reaching for the sky. Every candle caught fire, a flash of sunset smudged light that flared and steadied, as sound as the stone pillars of our theater. The features of those surrounding me were brought into clarity, alight with astonishment.
The fire had introduced another change: one in me. Power thrummed through my veins, gifting me with a strength I had never experienced. Each flex of my muscles and each twitch of my eyebrows pushed the wings of fire closer to the surface. I wondered if the others could sense it, this magic flowing through my blood, whispering to me of the flames' secrets.
Then Oracle smiled, sharp teeth and shadowed holes. I no longer doubted that she knew what had happened. A precocious child, I had never believed in her prophecies until that night. I resented her, for I did not understand these mysteries. Most children wanted to be told they were destined for something greater, something special. I did not. That was a double-edged blade waiting for when I least expected its twist.
This power was a rapier of force.
"My children," Oracle said, "we are alone in this decision. I could not read the Others' message, so I recommend no course of action."
As if in response, the flames roared.)