Authors: Miya Kressin
Book One of the Asylum Trilogy
Once Was: Book One of the Asylum Trilogy
An Exciting Novella
“Once Was: Book One of the Asylum Trilogy” (c) 2012 by Miya Kressin.
All rights reserved. Except under Fair Use, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner withot prior written permission from both the author and publisher.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Exciting Press, a division of Exciting Endeavors, LLC.
Cover images “Household Object of Desire: Gold Bowed Mirror” by Wonder Lane and “I’m Watching” by Alejandro Hernandez, licensed via Creative Commons via Flickr. Slgckgc does not endorse
, Miya Kressin, or Exciting Press.
Cover design by Exciting Press.
Edited by Hannah Blum.
me as I slithered beneath another set of low-hanging branches. Dirt and rocks dug into my hands, filling the space beneath my fingernails while I crawled. Briars caught my hair, but all my attention was on the nemeton—my people’s sacred space—twenty feet beyond the willow that hid me. Speeding breaths disturbed the branches, steaming in the chilling air.
Fire and blood ran red through the trees where there should have been life and incensed smoke. Drummers communed with the gods as magic brought their hands and taut goat skins together. I imagined the echoing drum beats as pained bleatings from silent throats, domestic creatures slain in holy sacrifice to make the sacred instruments. Shrill notes penetrated through the connecting pounds; pulsing power immobilized my fear. Staccato beats danced with the High Priestess’ mystic words, weaving magic to summon me. Left arm forward with right knee, then right arm and left knee. Tickling brushes of a willow’s spiraling leaves whispered along my face, begging me to turn back. If I could just close my eyes to what was ahead . . .
The spell’s woven fabric caught flame and beckoned. Fire called me forward from the forest’s protection, and soon screaming chants burned my throat as the priestess danced behind me, closing the path.
“Defiler! Destroyer! Desecrator!” Her words erupted from my lips, magic-dragged and beckoned to her cause. Taunting lashes cut deeper than the knives she whirled.
Familiar faces, torn and painted, pleaded from tongueless mouths. “Help,” the priests begged with silent lips.
I didn’t want to help them. She was right.
Stinging aches lacerated my hands. Magic wanted loose, demanded to be free.
Feel me, Daughter
, it crooned in my ear.
Punish them. Dance with her. Save the rest.
The High Priestess twirled, blood-drenched blades circling above her head. “Come, Little Priestess.”
The drummers called. My swaying body lost its fear. A step to the trees became a step into the circle. Right foot, hop in time with the music. Left foot, leap aside. Thump thump. Hop again, back into the circle once more.
Cold air and warm fire communed on my skin. Raking nails tore my clothes before I knew they were my own.
Dance, Roseen. Dance their judgment.
Blood wasn’t enough. They stole too much. I did not know these priests any longer.
Right foot, hop. The sky swirled as I turned, arms stretched out overhead. Darkness beyond the circle tightened, became oppressive. I could not leave now. I did not desire to leave now.
You must always finish what you start, Daughter,
my Goddess trilled Her purring voice through my thoughts.
Feel My magic. Make your choice.
My choice had little to do with this circle of pain.
For Bas I could do this. A blade—whose blade was this?— appeared in my hand. Furs matted with blood slipped beneath my fingers, the ghosting of my touch not giving away my presence to the priest who turned his face to the sky in prayer to Aya. The Smith could not help him now.
Words choked me. “I’m sorry,” became “I hate all men,” and then simply a wordless wail as my hands reached for the bloodied pelt the priest before me wore about his hips. Hide and fur stuck to my fingers as I lifted the edge and slid the blade beneath to cut the source of desecration.
Our screams melded into horrific harmony above the rhythmic cacophony of the drums. The divine Mother’s heartbeat became running horses in the grotto, forcing my feet to stomp faster. Slivers of stone embedded in my feet, stings of pain I forgot as soon as they were felt. I was beyond them.
Unseen hands gave gentle warmth as I found myself wrapped in another man’s arms. “Is this how you would leave a priest of Mine to die?” Bas’ lover murmured in my ear, the smoke of His forge hot in my nose. I knew the God who held me. His seduction of my senses boiled my blood until I might never feel warm by comparison again. Aya’s breath teased along my neck, His lips almost giving a scorching kiss. Fire. He wanted fire.
“Nay, Wayland Smith. I would send him to You.” My captor abandoned me to reclaim His priests, the balefire now a forge blasting my back with dry heat. Outstretched hands, ones I did not immediately recognize as my own, struck back to pull flame from the bonfire, then directed it across the clearing to the grand oaks holding the three defilers. “Burn in the flames until you can be reworked into a new sword. Burn your souls clean.”
“Thank you, Priestess,” Aya spat out into the darkness before extinguishing the flames and claiming the souls drifting from their weakened mortal coils.
In the wake of His divine fire, I was bereft of the sanctity of Aya and Bas’ presence
left alone in the dark and blood-drenched clearing.
Pain and pleasure, twin sides of the same blade, ripped through me with a laugh that became a scream.
The sea gull’s answering cry became a song of mourning, smooth and rich with its dark cadence. So pure, so clean. It was not covered in blood.
What had I done? Three bodies twitched as they were cleansed by fire, magic holding back their pain just enough to keep them in true torment even as it locked their soulless flesh into a semblance of life until the rite ended. At my feet lay sanguine puddles of discarded flesh, stains coating my feet and hands in a manner that would never come clean.
My throat convulsed on the choking smoke and thick air. No drummers coaxed my feet to dance. No priestess glided through the sacred space—just my victims, the fire, and me. At my feet were dark braids, so soaked in the mire that they appeared to be bleeding. Looking down, I was holding the blade to my own neck, and a shallow slice was announcing its burning presence from throat to nape where my hair had been severed.
“No!” I refused to accept this reality.
The bloody grotto wavered, dim light muting my sight. Thump thump. The drums continued on, bringing back the nemeton and the pain.
Bas’ magic would not do this. I did not do this.
My blade fell, whistling like a bird’s call until it landed on the bloody braids.
I could not; I would not.
I closed my eyes, and She was there with Her glowing green eyes and scythes for claws.
You would, Roseen. You would if it meant saving the old ways. And you will.
Open your eyes.
Her gifts are many, as should be of a Goddess. It is for Her wisdom and compassion, however, that we raise our hearts in prayer to Her. Bow before Her great paws and lift your voice in supplication.
Letters to the Initiate, Seventh Oracle of Bas
covered in paper and scraps of cloth protected my eyes from the sun as they opened, but the walls did nothing for the green glow staring at me from across the ramshackle shelter. She would choose to remind me of my first aisling and then appear before me when I was working with a patient. Too long had passed since I reached out to Bas’ magic to heal someone instead of relying upon my knowledge and skill. Too long had passed since I had been desperate enough to break my self-imposed exile from the Goddess.
Heat rose from the unwashed flesh, his fever-induced sweat black with the sickness I was pulling from my patient. It stuck to my fingers like the tar taken from swamps in the unmapped lands to the west.
I ordered, shaking my hands as if to shed water.
I could not face my Goddess covered in magical refuse. The uninitiated were unable to see Her, but She could see us all.
My heart skipped, my breath hitching as if She were holding my life between Her paws, toying with the strings of fate binding me to the world. “Daughter,” She murmured. “You’ve been a naughty girl.” The chiding tone reminded me of my late mother as she scolded me for some undesired activity. Reaching out for such strong healing magics had granted Her access to me once more.
“You hid your mind from Me. I don’t like it when My priestesses avoid Me and My decrees. You vowed to serve Me, yet you shirked your duties.” Bas’ wide, green eyes sparkled with mischievous sagacity, Her playful control at odds with the ageless wisdom.
The dying man beneath my palms and his decrepit wife, huddled in the corner, were unaware of the holy presence before them. Bowing my head as if to delve back into his body and pull the putrid fluid from his lungs, I offered a half-meant apology. She knew my heart better than any words I could form.
“Bas, Great Lady of Light and the Shadows Within, I am Yours to do with as You will.” My lips vibrated, a tickling hum as I murmured my prayer.
Pushing back into the man’s body, his paper-thin flesh shook with restrained coughs. Age spots darkened most of his arms thanks to a life of sun and the lake’s harsh wind. The infection, what the new clerics were calling “pneumonia,” was spreading like wildfire in the wake of Liand’s armies.
If you converted to their religion, they would give you the new potions that could prevent this. Fion—my damned, beloved Fion—had helped the army create this anathema to the healing I believed in. While I studied magic, he learned the use of knives and herbs to remove what I could with a prayer and time. Gradually, he discovered new sciences. Together, we would have been unstoppable. He was the best in Aristeer and had been “drafted” into Liand’s army. I had seen him there before the Army of Righteousness mobilized its war against my kind.
“Yes, Daughter; remember what they put you through.” I could taste Bas’ disgust, foul blood and rotting flesh, a decaying mouse upon a refuse heap. It gagged me as much as the memory of my first aisling. She would show me that vision again as my penance. It would come true, in a fashion, eventually, unless I found a way to stop it.
I don’t want to remember,
I thought as I sensed the vision pushing at the edges of my consciousness. My arms itched along faded scars where I had tried to escape the burning nemeton as a child and crashed into a large looking-glass. The screams of psychological pain merged with those of physical as shards as large as my fist embedded in my arms while I tried to escape the fire and blood behind my eyes.
“Remember! Do not deny the past if you wish to prevent the future. See and remember! This I demand.” Bas’ green-gold eyes flashed the red of a cat’s eyes caught in lantern light at night. Red crashed over me, filling my mouth and nose with blood, my eyes with explosions of light, and my body with the red dust of old roads through the country.
Grime slipped off the guard’s fingers as he grabbed my hair, forcing my head up even as I closed my eyes. Exhaustion from the chase left aches and weakness where I could afford none, and in shutting out the world, I could absorb small tendrils of energy from the earth. It would be enough to sustain me.
I focused on the twin breaths; of the two men, the one holding me was winded from a hard chase on horses as they followed me. The air was not reaching his muscles, likely due to a life spent in tobacco fields before the army collected him. With each wheezing breath, his fingers flexed and ruffled my hair.
His companion, a squadron leader based upon the sun-emblazoned torq he wore, paced while waiting on reinforcements. Even their mess hall chefs knew not to tackle a marked priestess without at least ten men to control her. While I was not angry enough to force nature to bend to my will, I could do worse—I could blind them with their own blood without touching. I just needed a few more minutes to regain power spent running beyond my natural capabilities.