Blood of the Dragon by September and save 20%!
The woman's cackle echoed throughout the cavern she called home. Smoke from a fire burning in the middle of the enclosure wafted leisurely upward through a small hole in the ceiling. The dim glow illuminated a bier on the far side of the fire. Upon the stone lay a young man in his late teens. His brown locks, though never long, had rotted away in patches. Those that remained were matted with dirt and old blood. His midsection was covered by a single long strip of cloth, his upper and lower body bare. In the middle of his chest gaped a hole about two inches wide.
"Mistress, what if he--"
"Hush, girl. I've had enough of your doubts. I've been waiting for this day for too long. You will not spoil this for me."
The ring of flesh on flesh vibrated around the stone room, followed quickly by the girl's cry. She lay on the floor where she had fallen, hand cupping her wounded cheek as she watched the older woman bustle about the bier.
Alone as a child, starving and sick, she was on the verge of death when the woman found her. She owed the lady her life and gave her loyalty freely, but the lack of respect she received smoldered deep in her soul, waiting for the right moment to make her true feelings known. She stared at the mud-caked skirts that floated around her master's legs and thought of all the beatings and other punishments she had endured through life. Was it worth it? Sometimes she wished she had died there on the icy road, safe from harm forever.
Instead, she had ended up in the clutches of Rivanna, a Gypsy woman cast out from her own society, labeled a witch and shunned for all eternity. The wagon had seemed like a saving grace at the time. A decade later, the girl knew better.
"Veni, you lazy wretch! Quit moping about and bring me the Night's Breath!"
Veni jumped at the raspy, demanding voice and staggered to her feet. She half-ran to the shelf along one wall and scanned its contents. Finding a purple clay jar with a matching lid, she grabbed it, holding it securely in both hands, and took it to the woman. Rivanna grinned and Veni's lips curled involuntarily at the sight. She had seen those rotted teeth and black gums more times than she cared to remember. Rivanna was at least partially insane and tended to grin and cackle whenever she thought of, attempted, failed, or succeeded in an evil plan.
As the older lady poured the Night's Breath into the bubbling pot next to the bier, Veni surveyed the man laying on the stone. She had been with Rivanna at Rona six months before, watching the battle of the skies play out. They stayed in the woods, waiting. Rivanna had a plan, but it had not been shared with Veni. The girl had cowered behind a tree, terrified as fire, acid, and blood rained from the air. When the attack was over and the bodies buried or burned, the pair ventured from their hideout to seek out the graves.
Veni's stomach balked at her actions as she helped Rivanna unearth the fresh corpses. When the first one surfaced, the girl lost the battle with her insides and her small meal found its way to the ground before her. Hours later, she was starving, tired, and dirty, and they had six bodies--two women and four men. They loaded them onto the wagon for the trek back to the cave where Rivanna did all her more violent magic.
Over the course of the last six months, they had destroyed all but one of the corpses. The young man now lay before her, his handsome features rotting away despite Rivanna's attempts to keep him in stasis. Veni stared at him, wondering what he was like when he was alive and if he had a lover or wife. Maybe he had children, even, and his death brought horrible sadness to all those who lost him.
The girl took the glass vial that the old woman shoved into her hands. It was filled with a putrid black liquid that was still hot. Veni's hand burned and threatened to release the glass, but she had long ago learned the penalty for such an accident. She gripped the vial tightly and gritted her teeth before pouring the concoction into the man's mouth. Stepping back, she stood behind Rivanna, wishing desperately to be out of reach when the inevitable failure became clear.
Minutes passed in silent waiting. Rivanna stared expectantly at the body on the table, fidgeting with her stained skirts. A growl rose slowly in the woman's throat as time dragged on with no signs of life. She stepped up to the corpse and poked at the chest hard.
Rivanna jumped back, her black eyes growing wide in her wrinkled face. Veni watched from the side as a vile grin began to grow across the spotted lips. Rivanna stepped forward, peering at the man, and poked him again.
This time the moan was louder and his fingers twitched. His eyes shot open, darting wildly around the room, not focusing on anything in particular. The woman's grin threatened to split her face.
"Hello, my love." She perched on the edge of the bier next to the young man and stroked his face. "Welcome back."
His wide eyes settled on her, terror showing in them. His lips moved, but nothing came out. Veni watched him attempt to lift an arm, but it was tied down and he moved it only a fraction.
"What's your name, darling?" Rivanna was still stroking the partially rotted face, cooing as if to a lover. It made Veni sick to watch.
The man mumbled something incoherent and Rivanna frowned. "Well, close enough. I'll call you Rul."
As the witch began untying his bonds, Veni shrank into the darkest corner she could find.