The rhythmic beat of her heart echoed in the darkness.
It was a song of its own, each echoing beat sending a ripple of color and distorted images washing over a landscape of black nothingness. Terra floated in the middle of it all, eyes half-lidded as if drugged and body heavy. In the distance, she could hear the faint whisper of music and a deep, lulling voice. It drew further and further away, as if it was the sun in the sky and she was sinking into a bottomless pit. If she looked up, she could see a pinprick of something she couldn't name.
She turned from the light and gazed into the darkness beckoning her. Terra reached out into the reflective, glowing pool below her, a pool that bore distorted images and fractured whispers. When she finally touched it, let her fingers kiss the onyx surface, she watched, apart from herself and trapped at the same time, as the black liquid surged up. It curled around her wrist, sucking on her skin.
It drew her down, the inky depths rising to her elbow and then to her shoulders. Then she was ensnared.
There was no way to stop, no way to slow the fall from heaven. From the darkness color sprang forth, so sudden, so forceful, her eyes burned and her mind screamed in resistance. Terra whirled in a circle, watching as the world around her shredded and twisted and bled a thousand colors. At her feet, grass grew. Around her, trees lunged for the sky as if deprived of sunlight for a millennia.
Heart skipping a beat, Terra watched, caught between shock and awe, as the world reasserted itself into something alien but familiar. Thick, lush forest surrounded her, the wind cool but not overly cold against her feverish skin. Overhead, a shadow glided. Looking up, she spied a blackbird as it circled, wings spread wide and proud. It dove seconds after, lighting upon a sturdy branch of a tree. It cawed one, then twice.
The soft whisper of wind chimes rang sweetly in the air. When she inhaled, the scent of burning wood rolled into her lungs. She caught an undertone of spiced meat and inky, each scent contrasting yet an undeniable part of the picture rising around her. As the world steadied, as the ground evened out, she could hear the pounding, festive beat of a hundred drums and the ringing laughter of men, women, and children. Like ghosts, the people became to appear around her – translucent at first, but becoming solid.
Overhead, the blackbird watched.
Terra eyed the creature, held its gaze. A wind ruffled her hair, sending the long tendrils of midnight hair into the wind. She held up a hand, shielding her face, as she watched a group of children run into the open field that was rapidly filling with dancing people and drummers. The children were blurry little things, each wearing billowing pants and robe-like tops. They were all boys, she noticed. Five in all, each with dark hair that stood out from the light blond and golden brown of the surrounding people.
When she turned, she spotted two more boys– older than the five in the field –sitting on a porch that wrapped around the oddest building she had ever seen. It was one floor, the porch covered and upheld by beams of sturdy wood. A railing went around most of it save for a section of long, narrow stairs. As her gaze shifted to the boys, she noticed the man standing directly behind them.
As this man turned, his gaze rising to hers, a voice whispered, "…you are safe. Inhale, free your thoughts and mind. Find the line between yourself and your spirit, feel it pulse…"
Even as she reached within, finding a silver tether that wound around her, she could not shake the hard, violet gaze narrowed on her. Her mouth was dry, pain blooming behind her brow, as a chain of silver snaked around her wrist and arm. It was pulsing, cool and silky against her skin. As the man stepped around the boys, neither who seemed to notice her, the chain pulsed once, then twice, and she was hauled backwards into cold water.
She tugged at her arm, feeling the weight of the chain wrapping around her palm. Closing her fingers around the thin, fragile-looking links, she lifted her gaze to see fire. The place from before was gone and she stood in the chaos of the city below her charge's home, watching, sickened, as buildings caved in. She could smell the scent of charred flesh, could hear the shrill hiss of arrows as they whipped past her. She could see them, each pointy projectile seemingly moving in slow motion.
When she turned, House Davanar was on fire. The castle was burning, archers stood on the battlements with bows ready and arrows singing. Terra ran, tripping over a torn and bloody skirt. She found her way to the courtyard, stomach heaving as the bodies of her allies, of her household, were strewn across the ground. Men in black armor marched, long blades gleaming and slick with blood.
She couldn't breathe. Terra saw Cia, small and pale and unmoving. As she reached her, a hard voice cut through the chaos of her mind. Arms wrapped around her– and there was blackened flame-like hair whirling around her, the scent of leathers and wild surrounding her –as a voice called to her. The vision surging up around her was wrenched away, torn from her like an infant torn from a wailing mother's arms.
"Terra!" Someone was screaming even as a man called her name. Pain was blooming in her hands and arms, her chest was burning, and someone was screaming. Then the voice was back, calm despite the scent of death and burning wood. "You are safe, Terra. Calm your soul. Come back to us."
"Ra!" The higher-pitched voice caught her attention and Terra turned in the arms of an unfamiliar man, gaze seeking the ghost of the child she was meant to protect – there, Cia was right there. Terra reached for her without hesitation, pulling the young girl to her as she ran shaking, too-hot hands over cold flesh damp with fallen tears. "You're okay, Ra! It was just a reading. You're okay!"
She was still sitting in someone's lap, arms looped around her. When she drew in a breath, her throat hurt. Had she been the one screaming? Blinking, working backwards, Terra worked on piecing together all that's happened. Terra couldn't understand a word coming out of the young girl's mouth.
All she could hear was the resounding echo of a bell, the whistle of flaming arrows in the sky, laughing children, baking bread—
"Let her breath!" Another set of hands were grabbing her by the shoulders, a woman peering into her face seconds before something cool and hard pressed against her lips. Her mouth opened without her bidding and chilled liquid flowed across her tongue, bursting with flavor and energy. Terra swallowed gratefully as she heard Celina murmur, "What happened, Romano?"
"A vision," he whispered, his voice unnaturally loud to Terra's ringing ears. She felt his hand on the back of her neck, warm fingers kneading the muscles there as he said, "She went deeper than I thought she would. She was seeing, Celina. A warning was issued…"
Celina eased her down onto her back until her head rested in Mano's lap, instructing her to keep her eyes shut when she tried to look between the two of them. A wet, steaming cloth passed over her brow and eyes, the water gliding down her cheeks as Mano said, "I'm certain of it. It isn't good to try and tempt the Fates, not when something like this happens. Any spell is better than the Siren's Call in this matter."
Cia was running a hand through her hand, voice light as she asked, "What do you mean when you say she was 'seeing?'"
"Sometimes, if a person is sensitive to the arcane, a reading can draw them into what we call a Saeva," Celina was lighting more incense, the pinpoint of the burning stick a wild fire to Terra's eyes. The gypsy waved the thin sticks through the air as Romano muttered what distinctly sounded like prayers. Terra closed her eyes, seeking the dark of her mind as Celina continued, "Saeva is my people's word for 'Spirit Visions,' where the spirits of the world give us messages and visions of something to come."
"Does this have something to do with the spell we'll be doing?" Cia was steadfast, demanding answers yet terrified of the answers. Terra knew she was frowning, could hear it in her tone of voice. Terra focused on her breathing, eyes closed and brow furrowed. She could still hear the children laughing, hear music and the scent of baking bread. Her mouth watered. A damp cloth was pressed to her lips, and Terra silently sucked the water from it was Celina replied, "It is possible that the warning is related to the spell.
"Love spells have the potential to be volatile. A spell's power depends on the one casting it, the one who is a part of the potion and the one who is the target of the spell in question." Celina paused, the sound of the chimes in the room echoing as she moved about. Terra's brow furrowed, eyes cracking open. Blinded, she closed her eyes once again as the gypsy woman continued, "Given the fact your servant was drawn deeper, I am inclined to agree with my brother. Using the Siren's Call isn't a good idea."
The siblings spoke amongst themselves, their words slipping past Terra as she tried to focus on the ringing in her ears and the scent of fire. After a time, Mano helped her sit up. His hand lingered on her back, rubbing steady circles as a cup of water was offered. She sipped from it as Cia asked, "What would you have us do, Lady Celina? The future of our people depend on the spell in question."
"I am aware of this," Celina was sitting across from them, Cia tucked against her side while she rested in the embrace of the only man in the room. When her arms began to shake, he steadied the drink in her hands. Terra felt the woman's gaze on her seconds before Celina said, "What did you see?"
Terra frowned, thinking back to the odd vision that had occurred. She slowly related the two opposing sides. She spoke of laughing children and what looked like a foreign compound. A household, of a sort. Then she spoke of the castle, of the fire and the destruction. After a moment, she continued, "I don't know if it is a response to what will happen if we use a spell. I can't see how using such a thing can cause either outcome, if either of them are truths and not some side-effect to…whatever that was."
Cia seemed uncertain. Terra turned her gaze on Celina as she relaxed into Mano's hold, voice even as she said, "As many times as you have done this, has anything ill ever come out of your work?"
"There is always a risk of danger," Celina folded her bracelet-laden hands in her lap, expression even. Terra kept her attention sharp, noted the relaxed shoulders and the half-lidded eyes. Celina's entire posture was of someone without concern and the woman continued, "Magic is unpredictable. Because of this, our work is done with care. Spells are powerful. The one I have for this convention of yours has been picked out with care. It is powerful, I assure you of that."
"Strong enough to last through the convention and these foreigners return home," Celina gestured to the cauldron as she rose to her feet. She grabbed another incense stick, lighting it as she said, "For the alliance to stick, the spell will have to behave as if the attraction is natural. It will have to set in, gently. Once these people leave, whatever attachments formed will lessen. If she does marry this man and travel to his home, the spell will continue for some time. For it to work indifferently, however, requires you to be willing to sacrifice everything. It will require commitment."
"Then let's do it," Cia put both palms on the ground, voice strong as she said, "It is my God-given duty to defend this land and its people. If I must use magic to get it done, then so be it! If Ra's vision is any indication of not using the spell, the vision of fire is the result. To protect our lands, sometimes underhanded methods are all we got."
Terra closed her eyes, clearing her mind before saying, "Then let us proceed, gypsy woman."
"Very well," Celina went about the chamber, gathering herbs and flowers and other clear containers containing liquids Terra didn't want to guess at. She was mixing it all into the cauldron, Romano at her side, as she said, "There is an incantation that must be used. I and Romano will speak first. The two of you will speak after me. I'll need something of yours for this to work."
"Like what?" Cia rose to her feet after Terra, the two of them stepping closer to the two as she asked, shy and scared, "Like blood or tears? Or hair?"
"Blood, tears or hair would cause a different effect than what we want," Celine threw in some herbs, stirring it in as she continued, "An object you are associated with is what we need. A piece of clothing, jewelry, something you have held close to you. The more important it is, the stronger the spell. These are things you have left an imprint in, something that isn't as binding as blood or hair."
Celina paused and then smiled. She gestured to the charm wrapped around Cia's wrist, and Terra watched as her young charge held her arm protectively to her chest. "That bracelet of yours is a good example. It is worn from use. That alone would suffice for what we intend to do."
Cia placed her hand over the bracelet, eyes wide. "Ra gave this to me!"
Terra eyed the small bracelet, the beads worn and chipped. She placed a hand on the girl's shoulder as she murmured, "It's okay, Princess. I'm almost done with a few new ones. You can have one or two of those if you'd like."
"The ones with the stones?"
"That one has stones, too."
"The new ones are blue stones," Cia seemed ready to jump out of her seat, her eyes wide. Then she eyed the bracelet wrapped around her wrist, expression sad as she continued, "The ones on this are almost dead. They don't shine like they use to. I'd rather retire it to keep us all safe than let it waste away in a little box."
"Then let us use it," Celina said, breaking through the conversation.
She held her hand out and, after a moment, Cia dropped the worn, frayed bracelet into the palm of her hand. The gypsy woman broke the bracelet, dropping one bead after another into the water. The gypsy held on the frayed rope in her hands as the black and red, needle thin hairs unraveled above the cauldron.
As smoke billowed upward, Celine began to chant. The entire thing went quickly, the second time her brother murmured the words with her. Terra held Cia's hand, standing in front of the cauldron as the ludicrousness of the situation dawned on her. As the poem-like chant came closer to an end, Terra exhaled, repeating the words with Cia as the siblings spoke it a final time.
"Blood-Stained Lord, Come And Play
Within My Heart, You Will Stay
Near And Far, I Attract Them All
Short And Fast, Lean And Tall
Lords And Men Of Every Race
Of Every Learning, Of Every Faith
Overcome By Willful Desire
Only I Can Quench Your Raging Fire
Now With The Siren's Everlasting Song
Bring My Admirer, Ne'er Will He Be Gone"
Terra watched as a soft, glittering smoke whirled around the cauldron. It lazily rose from the contents within the cauldron, swirling through the air in misty, cloud-like spirals. It was silent as the gypsy worked. Terra watched the light-colored liquid bubble, heard it sing as it began to glow.
As Celine finished, she tapped the spoon on the side of the cauldron three times. She then scooped out the amethyst-colored liquid, carefully pouring the shimmering liquid into a small, glass vial. Celina turned to them, eyes hard and face unsmiling.
"The power within this vial is infinite, the possibilities endless," The gypsy handed the vial to Cia, closing the princess's fingers around the glass container. Terra watched the two of them, her gaze shifting to the seemingly innocent vial resting in the princess's hand. "Put this potion in his drink. For him to fall in love with you, he must drink it and kiss you."
"He has to kiss me?" Cia asked, eyes wide.
"Yes," Celina smiled, brushing a strand of hair out of the princess's face. "It won't be too hard. Once he drinks it, he'll steadily become interested in you. Your bracelet will see to that. It is connected to you, empowered by your energy. He will find himself interested."
Terra doubted it would be so simple. They all rose to their feet, stretching and shaking off the stiffness filling their limbs. Terra ran a hand through her hair, the thick, black tresses catching around her fingers as Cia cradled the vial like it was a priceless heirloom.
Celina showed them to the door, pausing them at the threshold as she said, "One last thing, Princess. These potions don't always work the way you want them to. Once this potion is consumed, there will be no way to reverse the effects. It must run its course. I advise you to remember that."
They left, then. The door to Celina's shop shut without a sound, the building as good as non-existent. Terra smoothed out the creases in her dress, inhaling clear air with a happy smile. As they made their way back to the castle, Cia asked, "What is the purpose of rhymes, anyway?"
The princess turned, walking backward as she continued, "I doubt a spell has to rhyme to work, Ra, so why does it have to be so pretty sounding?"
"I know little about magic, Princess," Terra smiled down at the younger girl, watching as the pout sprang up. Cia turned on her heel, marching ahead of her as she said, "All things considered, things are looking up. Even if you don't know anything about magic, we have the chance on making sure everything falls into place."
"You're certain of that?"
Cia looked at her for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I am. By the end of this convention, I will be married. I will sacrifice my own happiness and save us all."
'Sacrifice,' Terra mused over the word as they made their way into the castle courtyard, a sense of unease coiling in her stomach as a flock of jet-black, large birds flew overhead. She watched them pass, their massive forms elegantly circling the city's walls. As she guided past the high walls of the battlements, ushering Cia inside, she felt the heat and smelled smoke. As she closed the doors, blocking the outside from their sights, Terra knew only one thing with certainty:
If they weren't careful, the kingdom would burn.