She vowed to collect restitution. Personally. For Short Shots Oct 2020 - 1st place winner!
Original entry - unedited ▼
Burning sagebrush stung at Jessa's nostrils. She looked up from her sewing, through the open window. Thick, black tendrils of smoke were rushing toward them across the desert, driven by flames devouring drought-starved scrub. She cried out to her father and siblings, "Run!"
In front, at the center of it all, the orange-gold ring of a portal appeared, encircled by script of the incantation which opened it. A murder of crows took to the air, screaming souls of the damned burst forth, and he stepped through, conducting his symphony of chaos.
He has many names across many cultures, though none dared utter them - even his commander, Death, herself. He's the one Death sends in advance - to incite fear, to inflict pain, to exact punishment.
After he comes calling, Death's welcomed, even worshipped, as a goddess of mercy.
Some say he's the vengeful spirit of an ancestor. Others believe him to be daemon spawn, born of pure evil. Jessa knew it mattered little what he was: She saw him, and Death was coming for her next.
Except, her father managed to cast a portal seconds before Death appeared.
A fraction of a second was longer than her eye should've lingered. The image seared on her memory in the same hair's breadth of time it took for her sister to be incinerated, and their father to cast Jessa and Jerran to safety.
For one fleeting glimpse, Jessa paid the toll of her left eye's sight.
She vowed to collect restitution. Personally.
The siblings tumbled onto the pine-needle carpet of an unfamiliar wood. They began to walk.
Jessa couldn't see with her left eye, but didn't know what it looked like until she saw her reflection in a stream the next day. It was bluish white, with no iris or pupil. The skin around it burnt red in the pattern of a pentagram. She pulled her dark hair over the side of her face to cover it.
For days they wandered, following the stream, eating what berries and insects they could forage. Jerran didn't speak. He hadn't seen what happened outside. But, he saw Jileanne running, and crumbling to ash.
Jessa talked for them both, reassuring him they'd find someplace safe soon.
One morning, Jerran pointed to smoke rising from breakfast fires ahead. They followed the wispy plumes dancing in the sky, eventually reaching the road.
By midday, they could see the village wall. Soon, two horsemen approached, wearing partial armor, and tunics emblazoned with an unfamiliar sigil. Jessa checked to make sure her eye was covered. "What 'ave we here?"
"A couple o' pot-scrubbers, methinks."
"Well, what say you?"
"Please," Jessa implored, "we've been walking for days, and know not where we are. We narrowly escaped Valladur."
"I thought the whole village was wiped out. Burnt to the-"
"We were sent through a portal," Jessa explained. "We lost our family - our home. We've been-"
"The village up the road is Orroway," said the first man. He added, "Anyone caught begging will be locked away."
"Oh." Jessa looked at Jerran, and put her arm around his shoulders. "Do you know where an orphan might find help?"
The first man laughed. The one who called them pot-scrubbers said, "Try Widow's Field. Bunch of child-less old crows with dead husbands out there. They'll take strays who can earn their keep. Follow this road toward the village, but turn east at the next crossroad. "
The siblings arrived at the gate to Widow's Field an hour or so later. Peering through the iron bars, they saw two trees begin to shake. One end of a rope fell from each, and two boys slid down.
Before Jessa could speak, they ran the opposite direction.
"Maybe they're announcing us?" Jessa wondered. "I hope?"
The boys returned with a pail of water, a ladle, another boy and a girl. "Hallo." The tallest boy said. He was maybe a year younger than Jessa. The rest even younger. "Lookin' for th' field?" he asked, as he offered Jerran the ladle.
"Aye," Jessa answered. She paused to drink. "We seek refuge."
The tall boy unlocked the gate, allowing them through before locking it again. They took a few more turns drinking, to quench their thirst. "Thank you," Jessa said. "We've been walking since dawn."
"Aye, it's a thirsty walk." He gestured to the girl. "Shawren'll take you to the Widows."
The pale, wisp of a girl looked to be about Jerran's age - almost nine. "Follow me."
Shawren skipped ahead of them down the tree-lined path, until the house, barn and other buildings came into view. She pointed to a long, two-level structure to the left. "That's where we sleep."
As they climbed the porch steps of a three-level, dilapidated stone and wood structure, Jessa thought it looked ready to collapse without warning. Inside, the furnishing were sparse, but finer than she expected from the exterior.
"They'll be taking tea in the drawing room." Shawren beckoned them down the hall.
Three women, clad in black, sat upon three gilt thrones fit for queens, gathered around the fire.
"What have you brought us, child? Come closer so we may see," the oldest one spoke.
Jessa stepped forward, Jerran staying slightly behind her. "Come, boy, we must see you," said another.
"Hmmmm," said the third.
"He has a good, straight back," the eldest woman spoke again. "He'll be able to do chores and earn his keep for a few years."
To Jessa, she said, "You, on the other hand, are already old enough to fend for yourself. We don't have room enough, or food enough for a bli-" she caught herself, "- ah, a girl your age. Shawren, take them back to the porch to say farewell. Have Velmot show her out."
With teary eyes, Jessa hugged Jerran. "Be good, like Mama and Papa taught us." She had to peel his arms from her waist. "I promise, I'll come back for you when you're old enough."
She followed Velmot to the gate in silence, and winced when the lock clicked in place behind her.
At thirteen, Jessa was orphaned, blind in one eye and out in the world, alone.
At least Jerran would be safe.
Jessa knocked on doors, offering to scrub chamber pots for crumbs. She slept in trees. She foraged. She stole rabbits from snares, studying the traps, teaching herself to set her own. She stitched pelts together for a cloak, then a blanket. She sold extra meat and pelts for a few coins. In those first few months, she did what she must to survive.
As a Castor's daughter, Jessa always intended to become one. Her father nearly reached Warlock level himself, but she only had a few introductory lessons with him in the days before Death's General laid waste to their lives. She traveled from one village to the next, never staying in one place too long.
Lower-level Castors are readily found around the marketplaces of larger villages and towns. Jessa sought them out, to observe them. Picking up a few parlor tricks from one, more from another. She was soon able to put her new talents to use, affording her the occasional room and hot bath at an inn.
Those spells, however, were nothing more than entertainment. She studied every source on casting within reach, copied passages on the subject she found in three different archives, and notes and secrets others shared, once she gained their trust. One flash of her left eye oft convinced them.
She practiced some innocuous incantations deep in the woods - starting a campfire, conjuring a fully cooked meal, making a tree grow taller, draining energy from a shrub until it withered, nearly dead, then bringing it back to life. Still, she sought the right spell.
The next time she saw the General, she would cast him back to the hell from whence he was forged. Right after she blinded him.
For three years, Jessa traveled from town to village, to farm and forest, each time seeking the Castor who taught the last she met. Her abilities surpassed those of most Castors she encountered. But, she still lacked the one thing she needed - the right spell.
Everywhere she went, she wrote to Jerran, though he had no means of writing back. She needed him to know she loved him, and would return for him when it was time. She hoped it would be enough.
In Heilidor, she sought a Wizard named Perrezo. She went straight to the tavern.
He sat at a table alone, and appeared to be asleep. Jessa cleared her throat, and he opened his eyes. "Are you the Warlock Perrezo?" she whispered.
"Never heard of him." His eyelids lowered again.
She sat down. "I've been looking for you for months. You're the only one who can help me." His eyes remained closed. "Three years ago, the General killed my family, and left me half blind." He opened his eyes, and she lifted the hair covering her face.
"Where did you say you're from?"
He studied her face. "What you seek is not here." Before she could ask, he answered, "Yes, I read your mind."
He leaned forward. "Who you seek is hidden, far from here. She is the most powerful Sorcerress alive, cast out in exile for refusing to heal an evil lord. She hasn't been seen in twenty years."
"I'll cast the portal for you."
Jessa followed him to the edge of town, into the forest. He placed his palms together, arms pointing to the sky, and chanted: "Audite me qui antiquorum spiritus caelo, et lignum, aperire ostium domus tuae conficiet, sic ego potest sine via, sine tempore."
He separated his hands, moving his arms in a slow arc down to bring them together again, pointing down. His palms met in a clap, and a blue-green ring, encircled by the script of his incantation, appeared.
"Veldassae will find you."
"I don't know how to repay you."
"I'm indebted to your father." She was confused. She hadn't mentioned her father. "He trained me ."
Jessa stepped out of the portal, onto a rocky mountain side, covered in snow. She looked out over the valley below, marveling at how small everything seemed.
A moment later, a voice spoke. "Perrezzo knows better."
Jessa turned a full circle, and did not see anyone. "Veldassae? I need your help, to settle a score."
Behind her, a boulder rolled away, revealing the entrance to a cave. "Enter."
Jessa stepped inside, and the boulder rolled back in place behind her. A glowing orb appeared before her. "Follow."
The orb floated just ahead of her, through a series of narrow passages. It came to rest in the center of a chamber, then transformed - stretching into a column of light, then taking the form of a woman.
Veldassae stood before her. Jessa pulled her hair back from her face. "You have looked upon him, and survived? How can this be?"
"My father cast me through a portal."
The sorceress looked her over. "You're the only one to ever look upon him, and live."
"So I've heard."
"Which means you're the only one who can stop him. But, you'll only get one chance. If you fail, he may be permanently unleashed in our world."
"I will not fail."
"First, you must understand what he is," Veldassae explained. "He was the first Castor."
"What?" Jessa couldn't believe it. "How did he become ... this?"
"Centuries ago, when the first generations fanned out across the land, the only magic they knew was that of the natural world. They marveled at the miracles they beheld, and some began wondering how they might harness these powers.
"One young man became obsessed with the idea of wielding these powers for his own gain. He was able to conjure basic spells - to start a fire, to make a seed grow.
“But, it wasn’t enough. So, he called upon Death, asking to strike a bargain: grant him the power he desired, and he would serve her forever.”
Veldassae taught her the incantations she would need. “I wish you success.”
On the edge of the mountain, Jessa cast the portal. "Exaudi me antiquorum spirituum, hoc veris dominis super terram aperi porta, quod potest transire ad me et iterum domain." The orange-gold ring opened; she stepped through the gate to Hell.
The General was startled, none had ever opened the portal but him. Jessa delivered the next blow before he moved. "Antiquis reddentem mihi super oculos et latro caecitatem."
Howling in pain, flames erupted from his empty sockets. He conjured a fireball and threw it, but missed. She closed her right eye, testing the left, finding her sight restored. She taunted, "You'll never cross our threshold again." He launched more, and missed, again.
She leaped back through the portal; it closed behind her. She opened another, to take her back to Widow's field.
Jessa's portal opened on the field, only a few feet from where Jerran was sowing seeds. She didn't recognize him at first, he'd grown taller than her, and his Jerran ran into her arms, "Jessa! Your eye is healed?"
"Aye, brother, the General paid with his sight." Jessa held her not-so little brother close. "He can’t open portals without it, and he'll no longer be able to terrorize our world." She looked up, and saw four boys headed their way. "Are you ready to leave this place?"
As he nodded, she opened another portal, and closed it immediately behind them. They stood at a crossroads between two small villages and a port town.
Jerran asked, "Where will we go?"
Jessa linked her left arm through his right. She closed her eyes and said, "We'll go where the wind takes us. For now." A breeze stirred, picking up a pile of leaves, which swirled in the air around them, before floating down the path toward the ocean. "To Seaport it is then."
As they started walking, Jerran asked, "Will we be safe there?"
"The General can't come after us anymore, brother."
"Not from him, Jess. From her."
An icy blast of wind hit them, leaving a chill in their spines.
"Death lost her general today, Jessa. How long do you think we have before she chooses a new one?"
A raven cawed as it flew over them and landed on a tree branch several feet ahead of them.
"Hopefully she doesn't," Jessa replied, trying not to look at the bird.
It cawed at them again, then cocked it's head and looked Jessa right in the eye. And, she understood. Death wasn't finished with her, yet.