"Nothing is more dangerous than the over-exerted mage, for they trade power for control. Channelling raw magic through their body is taxing and dangerous. If they become too greedy and channel too much, their mind shuts down to preserve their sanity. This is such a universal rule that even pseudo-mages such as conservators suffer from fatigue-madness."
Excerpt from ‘Mages of the Natyran Chain.’
Esther was enshrouded in an eternal and unbreaking fog on the way back to the Shack. Pain lanced across her forehead as her mind turned in agitated circles, energising her sight and leaving it on edge. Even though the paltry amount of power was nothing compared to Lord Nazari’s magery, it swelled until Esther’s head felt like it would burst from the pressure.
Through the gloom and thickened verdure, an ethereal shape stalked her. The further they walked, the more solid it became. By the time they descended the stairs from the Kareshian Plateau, Sassin's ghostly form walked beside her.
“Leave me alone,” Esther breathed.
The apparition moved closer so their shoulders almost touched. “I will never leave you. I will follow you to the end of the world, and I shall love you in the only way I know how; with death and shadow.”
“You’re not real,” she rasped. They were Sassin’s words from the first time they met. Esther had received a shock, and her subconscious was just recycling them, that was all. That was all.
“Of course I’m real,” she said with a sad smile. “I live in here.” The phantom extended a wispy finger and pressed her nail to the side of Esther’s head. “Never forget, sister: don’t let them know who you are.”
A half-dead Guardian Kessila replaced the mirage. She looked at Esther mournfully before disappearing, leaving Esther a quivering wreck. Her sight expanded, leaving her head feeling too full and giving rise to a metallic taste in her mouth. Her body broke out in a light sweat and her skin buzzed uncomfortably.
When they were halfway back, Esther needed all of her willpower to walk in a straight line. It was then that she finally accepted that something was wrong. She’d never struggled to control her sight before, yet since she’d watched the full moon with Esvian and Reeve, it had shifted.
She needed to go to Vera. Vera was the only one who would know what to do.
When they finally reached the edge of the deadlands, Esther was focusing so intensely on keeping her roiling sight in check that she didn’t even notice the deadlands' last attempts to pull them back within its clutches. With gritted teeth, she placed one foot in front of the other until they entered the sanctity of the Shack through the eastern gate.
Ten minutes. She needed to wait ten more minutes for one of the twelve known senior huntsmen to check her for signs of the blood-curse. Then she could leave. But when every second was agony, those ten minutes felt like an eternity.
Immediately after she was examined, she made her excuses. “Edyta, I need to go.” Talking was difficult. “Could you take care of Lord Nazari?”
Edyta was too ecstatic at the opportunity to gain his favour to be suspicious. “Come with me, my Lord. I’ll see you safe.”
With a migraine digging its claws into her head, Esther needed to be quick. She stumbled into the armoury to rid herself of her equipment, but all she had time to store away before her head lightened was her crossbow. Her head cleared after a moment of panting and leaning against a wall, but she didn't dare waste more time, so she marched into Koryn City fully armed and armoured.
The usual clamour and smells of the city worsened the throbbing in her head. The sunlight hurt her eyes. Nausea crawled its way up her throat. The only relief was the stiff wind whistling through the streets and caressing the sweat-prickled skin of her face.
Esther’s plan was to hire a carriage. Koryn’s cabbies were ruthless drivers and the fastest way to travel through the city, but they were outrageously expensive. But as she walked towards the closest banking house she had an account with to withdraw the necessary funds, she stopped in her tracks as she saw a conservator dressed in her casual robes hurried down the street. Three boys, no older than fifteen, followed at her heels with mischief in their eyes and hatred in their hearts. The girl walked as fast as she could, but the boys were gaining because the conservator was slightly lame in one leg.
Esther’s face grew hot and her jaw clenched. Before she knew what she was doing, she picked up a dislodged piece of cobble the size of her fist and hurled it at the pack’s ringleader. It hit him in the back of the head, drawing blood.
“Leave her alone!” she bellowed, striding across the road. Two of the boys swore and ran away. The boy she’d hit with the rock remained rooted to the ground, sobbing more hysterically the closer she came.
“Please, pray mercy! I meant no harm, honest I didn’t. Just don’t hurt me, I’m begging you!” He scurried backwards, snorting and wailing until she cornered him against the wall. His extreme reaction confused her until she looked down and saw she’d drawn her first sword.
Her face reflected at her in the blade. Her features were so distorted by rage she barely recognised herself.
She sheathed the sword, worried she’d do something she’d regret if it remained in the open. “Go,” Esther said coldly. He fled while clutching his head.
Once he was gone, the new girl burst into tears. “Oh Sister Esther, thank the skies!” She wiped her face, but for every tear she cleared away, two more took their place. “I got lost... they started following me... I didn’t know my way back. Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Don’t mention it,” Esther muttered, keeping her distance. “Would you… Do you need help to get back?” She would slow Esther down, but she couldn’t leave the girl alone in the city.
“You would?” she sobbed. “Esther, you’re so kind… But on the way, if it’s not too much to ask, could you show me where a post office is?” With trembling fingers, she pulled a letter from her pocket. “I want to deliver a letter to my family.” When she saw the reluctance on Esther’s face, she hastily added: “I’ll pay you for your time, of course! I really want to deliver this letter. I’ve been missing my family so much, and I want to tell them I’m doing well.”
Esther let out a raspy sigh, then winced as the pain in her head dug into the back of her right eye. “Fine. Follow me, and try to keep up.” She had to walk slower to accommodate the new girl’s limp, which agitated her sight even more. The corner of her lip twitched as she tried to keep the irrational fury at bay. “Why didn’t you ask Vera or Vessany to send the letter?”
The new girl looked down at the floor. “Sister Vessany refused. Told me my family didn’t want nothing to do with me no more. Then she forbade me from speaking to Syr rey-Taleen about it.” Her face held an odd look of determination that stretched her lips taut. “But my family isn’t like that. We live on a farm outside any wall. We don’t fear conservators.”
Esther’s respect for the small girl rose dramatically. A sizable chunk of the huntsman’s guild profit came from protecting the deadlanders who farmed or foraged the lands outside the city walls. Deadlanders lived a tough life and were often rough and callous. With her crippled leg, small stature, and shy temperament, Esther wondered how the new girl had survived for so long in a society where the blind, deaf, and crippled were considered to be a tremendous burden. Her family must have loved her very much to keep her around.
At that moment, Esther decided that if the new girl was brave enough to stay in the deadlands despite her leg, she could be brave enough to use her name.
“Come on, Kessi,” she said as she steered her in a different direction. “There’s a post office this way.”
Even though the building was small and the walls were crumbling, the metal messengers’ guild insignia hung proudly over the door. Their well-muscled bodyguard glared at Kessi as Esther led her inside.
There was a small line, which immediately parted when they saw the huntsman and conservator standing in the doorway. Esther steered her to the front, making a show of shifting the swords at her hip.
Kessi handed her letter to the clerk.
“Address?” the woman asked with a stony expression. Kessi paled and whispered the answer. “Outsid’a Crosswinds, huh?” The clerk licked her lips, looking at Kessi’s robes with greedy eyes. “You’ll need to pay an extra levy to deliver it outside city walls.”
Kessi’s hands retreated up her sleeves. “I couldn’t afford that,” she whispered. She held back a sob, yet her emotions were so loud and so poorly hidden, Esther had no trouble tasting them with her sight. It made Esther’s heart ache and her sight lament.
“Then by the looks of it, you ain’t sending that letter.” The clerk’s greedy expression turned Esther’s compassion into wrath.
“Cut the crap, you greedy harvel,” she snapped. “Most of that damn town is outside the wall, which is only ten foot high and made of wood, for sky's sake. Because of that, the wall levy doesn’t apply, and you know it.”
The clerk’s eyes hardened, and Esther’s sight swelled uncomfortably in victory. “Fine. But what about my compensation for having to deal with a weeping woman?”
Esther gave her an intimidating smile while moving her hand to her second sword’s hilt. “If seeing her offends you so, perhaps blindness would suffice as compensation? I’d be more than happy to perform such a charitable act.” The woman sucked in a breath of air to call for the guard, but the upwelling of anger made Esther faster. “Don’t bother. You see my uniform, you know what I am. I deal with the blood-curse for a living. We both know I can strike before you even make a sound.”
The clerk swallowed, reluctantly took Kessi’s letter, and charged the normal fee, which Esther paid without thinking.
“You didn’t need to pay,” Kessi murmured as they left.
“You’re right, I didn’t,” Esther said, regretting the impulse decision that had even taken her by surprise. “But I did anyway.”
Smoke floated in the air as they crossed through the city. A fire burned ahead of them in one of the north-western shanty districts. True to form, the citizens around them didn’t care. The district wall would limit the spread of the flame and keep them safe, so the fire wasn’t their problem.
Kessi kept stopping to look at the glow, so Esther grabbed her arm and tugged her along. The pain had spread to her lower temples, burning hotter than any house fire. She needed Vera’s help.
The longer they walked in silence, the more Kessi squirmed. “So… you’re a huntsman. I’ve never heard of a conservator apprenticing as a huntsman.”
Esther winced and gritted her teeth. She was incredibly proud of her career, but throughout the years, she'd been in similar situations. A new sister tried to befriend her and no matter how well it went, everything collapsed as soon as the topic of apprenticeships came up.
“I’m not an apprentice anymore, but a Junior member of the guild,” she said tightly. “What of it?”
“It seems an oddly fitting combination, is all,” she said with a casual air. “Conservators fight the blood hymns, the first remnant of blood magery, while huntsmen fight the blood-curse, the second remnant.”
Esther’s pacing faltered. “Huh.” Her sight wobbled, disappointed at the lack of conflict. The imbalance almost made her trip up on the uneven floor.
Kessi looked up at her. “What do you mean, ‘huh?’”
Esther licked her lips, struggling to formulate a response. “Usually, when the others learn I’m a huntsman, they want nothing to do with me. They think I’m… odd for willingly associating myself with blood magery even further than I already am.”
Kessi squinted her wide, hazel eyes. “I admit, I heard one of the other's say something about you to that end. One of them-” she stopped and looked away.
“Say it.” Esther suspected what it could be, and there was no point in hiding from it.
“She… she said you’ve been here for a long time, and that maybe that’s because… because you enjoy watching people die.” Her voice was small, and she sounded defeated. “She said people like you are the reason other people believe in the blood force myth.”
More head pain, throbbing intensely. That time, it sent a shiver down her back.
“It’s alright, Kessi; I’ve heard it all before,” she said. “The more I hear it, the less it hurts.”
Kessi didn’t look entirely convinced, and Esther was thankful she didn’t comment on it. Instead, she said: “I think I understand why you choose to be a huntsman. My father says prejudice festers when people surround themselves with walls. As a huntsman, you can get away from that.” She sighed wistfully. “Deadlanders are raised to praise and respect anyone who devotes their life to saving others. We see nothing wrong or shameful with being a conservator or a huntsman.”
Esther didn’t know what to say, but Kessi didn’t need her input. “It must feel incredible, saving lives on two fronts. Especially with the conservator’s sight. I looked up more information in the archives, and from what I’ve read it seems like an incredible gift. To know exactly where your cynosure is must make you a true enemy of death!”
Esther’s lungs burned, making breathing difficult. Her sight twitched, spreading more discomfort across her forehead and the hinge of her jaw. “Kessi, I… I...” But the words evaded her. She clenched her fist that wasn’t holding Kessi’s arm, shocked to discover how much the girl's confession had hurt and unsettled her. She wanted to praise Kessi’s attitude and desire to save people, just as she’d been desperate for someone other than Vera to do when she’d first joined. But a wiser part of her knew it would do the girl no good. Kessi may have possessed the perfect disposition for a conservator, but it wouldn’t survive contact with their reality. Esther had seen many a sister with too much empathy come undone as their body count rose and the people they tried to save harassed, shamed, and mistreated them.
She chewed her lip. Esther wanted to prepare Kessi so reality wouldn’t destroy her, but didn’t want to mar her innocent enthusiasm with her own cynical disillusionment.
What the hell is wrong with me? she thought. Esther was supposed to avoid talking with her sisters, yet there she was, philosophising and agonising over Kessi’s state of mind.
“Just… prepare yourself,” she settled on. “They say ‘Life is hard for those who prophesy death’ for a reason.”
Kessi smiled sadly. “ ‘But the burden must be bore // so none need fall into the dark.’ Esther, I understand that this life won’t be easy. People can mistreat me and ignore my warnings if they like, that’s on them. But if I don’t put all my effort into saving other people, then that’s on me.”
They entered the street that led to the guildhall and the buildings tilted. Esther had spent all the willpower on keeping her sight under wraps. Finally it buckled, letting the power jump around her head freely. It tried to pull her in too many directions to follow. She let go of Kessi’s arm to lean against a fence. Her body went cold, and the pain in her head threatened to bring tears to her eyes. As a spiking spasm spilt down her right temple, her vision shimmered around the edges, and the walls of the buildings bled.
“Esther? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” she breathed. As her vision greyed out, Kessi disappeared and was temporarily replaced by the haunting image of Guardian Kessila, shot and bleeding. Esther clutched her head, desperate to contain the swelling of power. Kessi rushed over and tried to steady her, but her movements were too fast and they took Esther by surprise. Her startled sight overrode her dwindling control, and for a fraction of a second, she saw the world through Kessi’s eyes.
To Kessi, it looked like Esther was in pain. She wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. As Esther teetered on the spot, Kessi tried to steady her, and even though her knee throbbed with pain, so much pain it hurt to stand, there was no way she’d abandon someone in need, no way I could abandon someone in need, because Esther protected me, and if I didn’t protect her, I’d lose my only friend-
Esther’s stomach loosened itself and her scalp tingled unpleasantly. She slipped a few inches down the fence and voided her stomach on the floor. Her eyes lost focus, and she felt an overwhelming urge to reach out towards the soft spot she knew was Kessi’s mind. It was softer than an animal's, so pliable and willing, Esther needed-
No! With the last of her strength, she pulled her sight away. The recoil hit her so hard, all the energy drained from her body. Kessi shifted in and out of a black blur. Esther felt like she was being pulled backwards through a narrow tunnel. Everything looked, sounded, and felt exceedingly far away. She no longer felt like she was in her body, or in control of her words or actions.
She watched from far away as a stranger spoke through her lips and said, “I feel faint.” The stranger, who sounded like her but didn’t feel like her, fell to the floor and landed in a heap.
Everything faded to black. Too weary to resist, Esther fell into the void and into the clutches of a nightmare.
In the aftermath of her crisis, Esther creates a plan to escape her troubles. But will Vera stand in her way?