Her every muscle ached and her throat seared. Was this what it was like to become immortal?
Io lifted her head and let it fall to the floor again. She couldn’t find the energy to keep it raised enough to examine her surroundings, which left her to settle for what she could take in with her stinging eyes.
No candles were within her line of sight and no light entered from beneath the door, but Io could still make out the figures lying on the wooden slats of the floor. She recognized Eve and Sean Borden, Lisa Laurent, and…
She caught her breath, and her throat burned as strongly as though she’d swallowed fire.
Her husband stirred and turned his head toward her, his eyelids fluttering. She almost hadn’t recognized him, when he’d been facing in the other direction with his coat nearly ripped in two. Robert was meticulous—he never would’ve allowed such damage, if he’d had a choice.
He was bound with rope.
“What happened?” he mumbled.
Io fought against the heaviness of her muscles and reached for him, but her arm moved only a centimeter before the thick ropes restraining her halted its motion.
She knew her heart should be pounding, but she could feel nothing.
This is impossible, she thought. I… I refuse to believe it.
Io tugged at her mother’s skirt.
“Mama, do the Changed eat food?” she chirped.
“No, love. They only feed on blood.”
Io frowned, staring down at the path beneath their feet for a few moments before looking up at her mother’s pale face again with wide eyes.
“Do they breathe?”
Euterpe Swann shook her head with a quiet sigh. “They have no need to, but they can if they choose. I suppose it would make them feel more human. Still, I cannot imagine why they would wish to remain connected to their humanity, after they have lost it.”
“Can they get it back?”
Euterpe stopped walking and knelt at her daughter’s side. She gripped Io’s upper arms and drew her closer, her dark eyes serious.
“Io, I need you to understand: the Changed have no desire to regain their humanity. They are as far from human as it is possible to be—farther even than the Born. The Born still have beating hearts, and the Changed do not. The Born can survive on food as well as blood, but the Changed must kill to live. They must be stopped at any cost. They must be destroyed before they can destroy us.”
Io considered her mother’s words for several moments, and her frown deepened.
“Why do they want to destroy us?” she asked at last.
Euterpe kissed her daughter’s cheek. “They know mages are strong, and they know we will not allow them to kill as many humans as they want to. They fear us.”
I am not one of them, she thought. I cannot be one of them.
“Do you remember anything?” Io asked softly. Her memories had begun to click into place in her mind, but she denied them. She had to hear it from Robert.
He closed his eyes. “The last thing I recall, we were being attacked.”
A scream from the other side of the house pulled Io from her bed and to her feet. She hurtled down the corridor and into her mother’s room to find that the elder witch was restrained by what could be none other than a pair of vampires, their lips bloodied and their gazes hard.
Blood trailed down Euterpe’s neck and spilled from the corner of her mouth.
“No!” Io cried. She hurled herself at her mother’s attackers—Curse them, curse every last one of them!—and pulled her dagger from its sheath at her thigh beneath her dressing gown. Before she could strike, a blow to the back of her head dropped her to her knees.
Mother is immortal, she thought, clinging to whatever hope she could despite the sickening way the room swam around her. She knew that when a mage killed a vampire, he or she was guaranteed to pass into only a more powerful form upon the death of his or her mortal body. Euterpe had lost her mortal life already, and she had been reborn an immortal witch. Io knew the only way one of her mother’s kind could be truly destroyed was to be infected with the venom of a Born vampire and burned alive.
The last thing she saw before she felt the unbearable stabbing of teeth into her neck was the pair of vampires hauling her mother toward the crackling hearth.
“They attacked the whole village. I ran for Mother’s room,” she whispered.
“I found you on the floor, bleeding,” Robert muttered. “One of them was standing over you, and two of them had just… Io, I… I am so sorry. There was nothing I could do to save her.”
Io fought the sting of tears briefly before allowing herself to wonder whether she could truly shed them, if what she feared had truly come to pass.
“We aren’t immortal, are we?” asked Robert, his lips curved downward.
Io shook her head stiffly, and the movement dizzied her. She opened her mouth to reply, but the words died in her throat when a door burst open across the room to reveal a pair of figures standing in the doorway. Behind them, lights flickered out in the night.
“Thank the gods,” said Eve Borden feebly from beside Robert. Io wondered briefly how long the woman had been awake and how many of the others—she quickly counted nine besides Robert, Eve, and herself—were conscious. “They left us here,” Eve continued.
One of the women on the threshold shook her head, and Io’s stomach turned as she recognized as one of the Council witches. Io had paid little mind to who served on the Council; she would not be required to take a position on it, as long as her mother survived.
Nausea surged through her stomach.
“That was not the vampires,” said the witch.
“What do you mean?” asked Robert, turning to face the speaker with visible effort as he struggled against the ropes binding him.
“The Council has decided to bless you and commend you to the gods,” said the woman. She and her companion stepped into the room, and Io’s fingernails bit into her palms as tension shot through her like lightning. The woman gestured to someone unseen outside the room, and a moment later, a group of witches and warlocks entered. The first seized Eve from the floor and hoisted her to her feet, prodding her roughly out the door despite her protests.
Commend us to the gods, thought Io.
One by one, the captives were lifted from the floor and either led or carried from the room, which Io realized in the light entering from beyond the door was an old shed.
A warlock pulled Robert to his feet. Robert struggled hard and pulled free only long enough to lose his balance and stumble, and Io lunged toward him on reflex. Her bindings pulled back against her, and she fought against the dizziness fighting to overcome her and pushed herself up onto her knees.
“Do not make this harder than it is, child.”
The first witch to enter gripped Io’s shoulders and dragged her to her feet as the warlock managed to return Robert to his.
“Let us go,” Io insisted. “Let us go. We are your sisters and brothers—we are not a threat to you.”
“You are the Changed. Of course you pose a threat to us.”
The witch pushed her forward. Io’s legs threatened to give out at any moment, but she forced herself to remain standing in the hope that she could find the right moment to run.
When the boards beneath her bare feet gave way to wet grass, she realized the flickering lights belonged to a series of torches held by the people of her village. She recognized a few; cousins, family friends, and Robert’s brother, none of whom moved to free either of them. Dozens of men and women watched as the twelve captives were led toward a makeshift pyre comprised of logs and furniture.
What will the fire do other than dispose of our bodies? Io thought bitterly. She’d been educated as a huntress her entire life—she knew only silver and the blood of the Born could dispose of the Changed.
As she surveyed the crowd, she caught sight of a handful of mages readying silver arrows dipped in crimson liquid.
In a panic, Io looked to her brother-in-law, who shifted his gaze to the ground.
“You can’t do this to us. You can’t do this to us!” she cried, attempting to wriggle free of her captor’s grip. “We are you! We are mages!”
The finality in her captor’s tone sent a sickening pang of dread through her, and she said no more. Her feet slipped beneath her unsteady weight, and she knew they would’ve been covered in a sheen of sweat if her body was still functioning as it always had.
We have to get out of this. We have to.
Io had no idea whether her bloodline’s inherent gifts would still serve her now that her blood had been tainted, but she had to try.
As the witch pushed her back against a log that had to be at least three meters tall, Io focused all her remaining energy on the witch’s mind. She projected an image of herself standing just to the left of where she truly stood and begged the gods for this one shred of mercy.
For a long, terrifying moment, nothing changed.
I am still myself, Io thought. I have to be. Focus.
Another instant passed, and then the witch released Io and moved to tie the air beside her to the pyre.
Io swallowed the relieved breath that sought to burst from her lungs and stumbled backward. More confident now that she realized her powers had not deserted her, she inhaled deeply and allowed herself to sense how many people surrounded her.
One hundred fifty-two.
I am still myself. I am still a witch.
She concentrated on maintaining a connection to each of their minds and keeping the image of herself in place at the pyre. As she climbed carefully down over the mound of logs and broken tables, she glimpsed her perfect double—the same white dressing gown, the same dark curls—and the other eleven people who hadn’t been fortunate enough to manage decoys. Most of them had awoken, now, but a few remained unconscious.
Io caught sight of Robert three people down the line, and she crept along the slick grass toward him.
I will get you out of here, she thought, wishing more than anything that he could hear her.
She didn’t notice that the captors had stepped back from their prisoners until the unmistakable sound of arrows being loosed from their strings hit her ears.
One by one, the captives cried out in unhidden agony as the arrows pierced their hearts.
For a moment, Io forgot the ropes pinning her arms to her sides. She fought to reach for him and found herself frozen as she watched the first of the torches make contact with the pile of wood. Within an instant, twenty others had joined it, and the flames, certainly magnified by the magic of their creators, roared upward.
They will not get away with this.
Tears slid in a torrent down her cheeks, and she didn’t allow herself the time to process what this meant about her nature as she backed away from the flames beginning to consume the eleven people and the illusion tied to the stakes.
She couldn’t raise her hands to her ears to shut out their screams.
They will pay.
She sobbed as she took another step back toward the trees and away from her betrayers—from the mages who were no longer her kind.
Only half of the bloodlust coursing through her could be blamed on her transformation.
Mandi Jourdan studies English/Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She is translating the Harry Potter books into a series of plays in the style of Shakespeare, one of which was performed in Fall 2016 and will be staged for a full run in Spring 2017. Her prose has appeared in four anthologies by Sinister Saints Press, Coming Around Again by the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers Group, Beyond Science Fiction Digital Magazine, 9Tales, the 2015 and 2016 editions of Grassroots Literary Magazine, and the Kaskaskia College Scroll. She has stories forthcoming in Digital Science Fiction and Quickfic. Visit her on Amazon or at https://twitter.com/MandiJourdan.
Image by new 1lluminati