Chapter Nine – The Firstborn
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The fire turned to dirt. Within an instant, the flames that had consumed her in a blaze of glory now but a terrifying memory. She stood alongside a large oak tree, grandiose mountains surrounding every which way. The tree was bland, fallen leaves on the ground brittle beneath her feet. Despite this ugliness, she felt drawn to it.

To the right of the tree was a tent. Screams were heard from it, ones that echoed into the night a million times over. It pained Cateline to hear this woman in so much agony. A firepit danced next to it, embers flung into the air and shadows cast over the fabric.

Looking around for a moment, she took careful steps towards this scene. Aiora's words repeated over and over again: "...but you will remain untouched."

She doubted this truth. It felt too real. The way the soft soil shifted beneath her, the wafting of burning wood and overgrown grass filling the air. This was reality, it had to be. And, if she remained untouched, would that mean she was unseen too?

Nearing the opening of the tent, she peered inside and saw a woman laying on her back, her legs spread with a man at the center. Her stomach was bulbous and sweat dripped down her face, glistening beneath the dull light of a lantern. The man was speaking in a foreign tongue, his voice deep and raspy as he instructed her through the birthing pains. There were metal tools next to him, pieces of hay scattered around the ground.

Cateline bit her lip out of nervousness. She had never witnessed birth. Her father did not allow her near her younger brother, Gawain, at birth for fears of passing along her magic. The servants who became pregnant were sent off back to Axulran, only returning once they had their child and recuperated. She wondered what would happen if she stepped foot into his tent to look closer at this miracle—as horrific as it may be. Would they see her and scream while attempting to behead her, or would they continue on as if she never existed in the first place?

It was a risk she was willing to take, Aiora's guiding words edging her toward this danger.

Breathing deeply, she moved through the opening and looked down at a wooden bowl full of half-eaten potato and cabbage that was partially spilled out onto the floor. Turning to look back at the woman, her stomach churned. Just when she cursed in her native tongue at the man, with a face as red and ripe as a tomato, droplets of blood began to fall from her eyes. It was barely noticeable at first, a single reddened tear falling from the tear duct, but as she let out one final scream a stream of crimson fell from the opening and stained her face. The man didn't care, he only yelled loudly enough to keep her awake for the final push.

It irked Cateline how insensitive this man was being—she thought midwives were supposed to be careful and gentle, not harsh and rough.

Cateline covered her mouth at the sight, her eyes tearing up and gagging at the gruesome loss of blood. It felt demonic.

Moving to the side, more of blood dripping from her groin and pooling onto the floor. Clots were forming, and although she didn't look long, she could have sworn she saw something that looked rotten and black resting in the mess as well.

The screams, however, had silenced.

The man grumbled something and leaned down, grabbing one of his tools and began to slice the skin of her pelvis. Cateline screamed and backed away, falling into the corner of a crate. The woman wasn't moving, the corners of her mouth blackening and so did her fingertips. She was rotting away at an unrealistic rate. Still, the man was collected. Cateline squeezed her eyes shut until she heard the tool drop to the floor with a thud. Even then, she only opened one eye and kept the other covered. The man held the baby in his arms, moving away from the mother without care. His pants were stained black, a blood clot falling from his wrist as he stood. They exited the tent, his footsteps furthering from the still mother.

Cateline sobbed as the man's body no longer blocked the view of this disaster. The woman was pallid, the tips of her extremities the color of obsidian; lips turning blue and face covered in blood. Her chest didn't move, but the black pigment on her skin did. It began to crawl up her forearm, inching across her skin like a snake and only stopping once it reached her neck. Cateline stumbled over a loose piece of dirt, exiting the tent, and coughed as soon as the fresh air filled her lungs. She didn't realize how putrid it smelled in there before now—tulips and wildflowers didwonders to remind people what good, pleasant things smell like.

The man was standing at the edge of a lake, kneeling down and rinsing the baby. Nearing them, she took note on how gently he looked at this baby. Far more care was shown for this infant than the mother. The now dead mother.

Death was not a pretty thing. Cateline had never seen it before, and the image of that person rotting away in the tent was enough to make her curl up onto the ground—never to open her eyes again.

Just as she looked over his shoulder, she saw the baby open its eyes. The irises were black, skin pale, and screams as loud as any baby could make it. It was a girl.

The man stood with a smile, holding the baby up to the light, and spoke in his native tongue, the world fading to darkness just as he started to walk away. When the light returned, she was back in Lighthelm. Cateline's vision blurred until it refocused on Aiora.

She handed Cateline a handkerchief, an amused smile on her face. "You look sick."

Cateline snatched it from her hands and looked around, her other hand gripping the corner of the table to ground her back into reality. "What was that?"

"History, or the first part of it, anyway."

"I beg your pardon?"

Aiora sighed and stood, closing the book that was in front of her and returned it to the shelf. "That is how we all learned about our beginnings—the firstborn mage."

"That child? The one with the black eyes?"

"Precisely. Rumor has it they turned as golden as the sun when her powers surfaced, though. Was one of the ways the villagers caught her."

Cateline's breathing began to level, dabbing the cloth against her forehead to collect some of the sweat. "Caught?"

"You will see after another lesson or so. We cannot overwhelm you, Cateline, the headmistress tells me you are very inexperienced with magic."

Cateline set the handkerchief on the tabletop and cleared her throat, standing to her feet and walked around. She looked down at her fingertips, flashes of that woman's rotting skin crossing to the forefront of her mind. "What else has she told you?"

"I don't think I understand," Aiora said as she picked up some glass vials. "What else would she tell me?"

Cateline hummed and shrugged her shoulder. "Not sure. Just curious what the headmistress has been telling my mentors about me."

Aiora chuckled and turned to look at her, blonde strands falling in front of her face as she struggled to balance the items she was holding. "Mentors? Alright, that is fine, but we can be friends too. Unless that just isn't in your vocabulary."

Cateline paused at this statement, straightening the skirt of her dress idly. Friends. The word excited her—she had servants, she had family, and she had mentors. Although Alleyn was once a dear friend, he disappeared. Her father, King Airen, told her he was off to move settlements, but she had her doubts. Alleyn told her his days of travel were over shortly before disappearing. Each time she inquired, she was shushed and told to focus on things that princesses should do.

"Aiora, you have to forgive me," Cateline said quietly, "but having friends goes beyond vocabulary. It is simply something I am not used to."

With a furrowed brow Aiora walked toward the door and sighed. "Alright, fair enough. You're a weird one, aren't you?"

Cateline watched as she disappeared into the hallway without awaiting a response. She pushed her chair under the table and walked to the window. Outside, she saw a group of scholars circled around a man, each of them holding hands and swaying side to side ever so slightly. Pressing her palm against the cool glass, she closed her eyes.

It was intriguing, learning about this history and magic that had been hidden from her for so long. She thought she would be more excited, that being able to alter the elements around her and make potions would fill that darkness within her chest. It was still there, only this time it manifested itself into paranoia.

First, there was the headmistress. The graceful and ever-wise Leolina who welcomed Cateline to this academy with open arms—arms that Cateline feared would stab her in the back. She had met far too many royals who went against the family name, each of them as generous as Leolina. The Bennett bloodline was one of torment and betrayal, thus putting her name on every assassins mind. She never liked to brag, but it was hard to forget how much her head would earn for any man who brought it on a silver platter to the doorstep of the nearest kingdom. Traburg included.

Then, there was Aiora, Varin, and Thaddius. Such new faces in her life that beckoned for her to make something she never had the luxury of before; friends.

In Axulran, she had the since-forgotten Alleyn, and her brothers.

She couldn't help but wonder what they were up to right now. If they missed her, or if they already knew where she was. Oh, how they would chase each other down the halls of that magnificent castle and holler out taunts and insults. How her eldest brother, Terrence, would take the snow that coated the meadows and wake her at the break of dawn as a prank. How those servants would tell her she was up to no good, all while her two other brothers went and caused mayhem in more ways than she could count. How she missed it.

With a trembling lip, she opened her eyes and watched the man at the center of that circle reach up into the air, a bolt of lightning striking from the heavens and landing onto his palm. It was blinding, the ground around him charring from the impact. Despite this, he stayed still. Her breath hitched in her throat at the sight, almost thinking that man had been struck down, but as the luminous bolt vanished she found him standing unscathed.

She backed away from the window and let a tear fall down her cheek. She had to realize that this was reality. Life was no longer this strange sense of comfort from being locked away in her castle, the only thing keeping her powers under control a lost necklace. It was no longer being escorted by guards to protect against corrupt servants and hostile suitors. It was no longer void of abnormality—Cateline's life was beginning anew, with this new realm of magic at the tips of her fingers waiting to be explored. Just as that man below, she would accept the energy bolt through her and allow it to change her life, forever.