I’d like to mention before you read on that this is a graphic piece involving gore and death.
Ophion stopped to set up camp. After tending his horse and starting a small fire amid a circle of stones he walked around the clearing to stretch his legs. He had been riding for three days with little sleep and both he and his horse were exhausted. Today would be an early night and tomorrow likely a late morning, but they needed to rest. It would do no good to his patients if he could not take care of them.
Mora, The Lady of Death, had been visiting him ever since this plague began. She spoke to him of power he could gain, power she would give, to turn the tide against the illness that ravished the land now for months. The spirits were angry, she told him, restless and in need of discipline. There was only so much she on her own could do, but if he helped her…
A hiss broke through his thoughts. Looking down he saw a small garden snake amid the dead branches. It was late winter, almost spring, but perhaps he had woken the animal from its rest, or it wanted to move closer to his fire. He stepped aside to let the serpent pass, but it only stared at him.
He could kill the snake.
Not that he had anything against it, he was fond of snakes in fact. But to begin practicing necrocræft one chose, killed, and resurrected a creature to become their Familiar. Mora had told him before he left the last town that he was ready if he desired.
The last few weeks have been difficult. He had lost more patients than he saved, and it was no guarantee the stable patients would stay that way after he left to yet another town, another tragedy. It was a dark magic, this necrocræft, one punishable by death in the kingdom of Triumphe. But there was already so much death here. If there was any way to prevent some of it, even if at the end it cost him his own life, would he not do it?
Mind made up he went to rummage through his bags. No point in delaying this. He would sleep after, letting himself rest after the journey and the magic he was about to try and perform.
He wanted to kill the animal with as little suffering as possible. He had medical tools in his bag, but they were either small knives or a large saw, and trying to cut the head off a serpent with something used to cut through bone was overly harsh. Finally he settled on a cooking knife. He would have preferred something a bit larger, but it was the closest thing he could find that would do minimal damage.
The snake had only moved a few inches during this time, crawling over towards the fire. It did not seem to mind him, and did not even turn its head when he knelt down on the cold ground beside it. His horse, several feet away, was not paying him any attention, probably already sleeping while standing.
Ophion took a deep breath. It was just a small garden snake, barely as long as his arm. It could bite him and slither away if he was not careful, maybe spook his horse if she woke, but it was not much of a threat. He put his left hand before the snake’s head and waited. Still no alarm from the creature. He moved his hand closer, then touched the top of the head. Its tail flicked but nothing more.
He raised the knife and placed it close to where his thumb rested over the snake, just above touching the neck. At least at this angle he was not looking the animal in the eye, and maybe the snake did not see the blade. Would it matter? Did snakes have any concept of knives or how they could kill?
Another deep breath. He pulled his hand back and then slowly let it descend so that it would be in the same place. He did this two more times, making sure his aim lined up. The forth time he chopped through the animal.
Blood. The tail seemed to jump away, twisting and writhing while what seemed like a never-ending stream of blood poured from it. The head just sat there under his hand. He backed away, falling into a sitting position in the grass. The blood quickly flowed up to him and began to stain his clothes. He was used to blood, especially during this plague, but this was too much. This was the amount you would find in a person, though perhaps someone young..
The body of the snake stopped moving only to begin growing. Scales became skin, the tail split in two. The head changed as well, growing larger and with hair so soaked in crimson that you could not tell what color it was supposed to be.
A child. The snake that he had beheaded had transformed into a young girl right before his eyes. She lay in a pool of her own blood, eyes open and staring straight at him.
Mora appeared, already kneeling in the blood. The Lady of Death looked kindly to the child and took off a large shawl to cover her body.
“Ah, dear Ophion,” The Lady said softly. She took the head onto her lap, stroking back the girl’s hair. She made no move to close her eyes.
“I killed a child,” he whispered. Shock had frozen him to his spot and he watched the display like it was a performance. If he allowed himself to grasp the reality he would go mad.
“A fay child,” Mora corrected. “Living in these lands outside of Triumphe, but still within Clandestina. There is wild magic in the air here. She is not fée, but perhaps her parents are.”
“What do I do?”
At this the Lady looked up at him, puzzled. “You bring her back, of course.”
The Lady placed down the girl’s head and moved her body so she cradled the child. Her dark clothes were stained even darker, and the blood shone on her pale skin. Taking the severed head she placed it back on to the neck. With a finger she drew a circle around the girl’s throat, where the severing had taken place, drawing in the blood.
Once she pulled her hand away there was still a corpse, but at least it was in one piece.
“Here,” she said, laying out the child.
Though it was said as a suggestion he obeyed as if it were a command. He crawled through the blood and looked over the girl. The shawl covered her from collar down. She was ten, eleven years old at most. It was hardly the first time he had seen a dead body, but never had he caused it. Even losing a patient after doing all he could was nothing to compare to this.
But he hadn’t known. It was a snake, just a snake. Some other realms had shifters of form, but not this one!
Wild magic, Mora had said. Untamed spirits that probably leaked from Faery into these lands.
“How?” he asked, as if he could harm her further. She was dead, what else could he do to her? But he did not want to hurt her any more. God, oh, God, why had he done this.
“Take your own blood,” Mora said. “Have her consume it.”
“But, but you said I needed an animal, My Lady. This is a child!”
“So you will leave her like this?”
He turned around to pick up the knife he had used to kill the child. The child. He did not even know her name. He did not even know her hair color, so stained was her body. He needed to wash the blood out of her hair. He needed to clean her up, give her some clothes. He needed to return her to life and never again do anything this sinful.
The kitchen knife was covered in blood, none of it his own. He found a clean patch on his attire and tried to wipe it away.
His own blood. Blood for blood. If he slit his own throat would that be enough? What did he have to give to bring this child back from the dead when he had been the one to put her there?
“A severe injury,” Mora said in reply. Had he spoken aloud or was the Lady more knowing than he thought. “One that may, without proper care, risk your life.”
He raised the blade to his throat, but changed his mind and lowered it again. If he did not live long enough to even try the cræft it would be useless. Instead he moved the knife to his wrist. He was not a surgeon, but he understood the body. If he cut deep enough this might kill him, but it would take some time.
He cut again. More blood. He put his wrist above the girl and blood dripped around and into her lips.
Before he could ask what next he felt her. It was like his body housed a second soul, filling his chest and making him light and dizzy. A heartbeat that should not exist began to thump in his ears. He reached out, with both his mind and his hand, and through the planes of existence found the girl’s soul in the land of the dead. She waited for him, smiling, and so very curious about the magic he was doing. Without hesitation she placed her hand in his and suddenly reality was around them again.
The soft thump of her heartbeat still filled his body as his own began to slow. He was still bleeding from the wrist, adding even more red to this clearing that looked as if a massacre had taken place. Before he lost consciousness he saw the girl open her eyes and smile.
I had not expected such a long and graphic scene when I began this. I knew Ophion had killed Eglė as a snake, thinking she was just an animal, and she turned into a girl after her death. He then, as you may know from Larkspur, adopts her as his daughter. This incident is mentioned off-hand in Delphinium, and I plan to expand of this even further in a novella called Famula. It is during the time of a great plague and in his desperation he begins to study necrocræft. Unlike Pierre, who is fascinated with death, Ophion is trying to do for good reasons. But dark magic is not to be played with.