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Updated: Nov 8, 2021

Chapter Thirty-Eight

The Anatomy of Dying

When Soren comes back to his suite, I’m pacing the salon, a million furious unsaid words choking out one another. He enters and freezes, watching me as I steady my wrathful stride. Already, we’re in a face-off on opposite sides of the room.

I mean to not sound so accusatory. I mean to ask, to leave room for a getaway route in his answer. I mean to be more clever, more crafty.

More careful.

None of these things happen. My voice is already irascible as it lunges out to him, fraying in the distance between us: “You have blackfang venom.”

For the barest of seconds, Soren’s expression is embroidered with a shock that slides into remorse. Then it’s gone quickly enough that it’s easy to make the excuse that I never even saw it.

“Blackfang vipers,” I say, settling my voice onto the collected side of shrill, “have the most poisonous venom in the world. Venom that’s used most specifically in conjunction with runes meant to maim, eviscerate, and if you’re lucky—just plain exterminate.”

“What made you think you could go through my things, Mika?”

My body lights up with rage. This is how Soren wants to spend his reply? His words have turned harsh and sour, and this grates across my heart like a claw scraping against ice. It hits me with a crushing weight that these last few months haven’t been a result of Soren warming to me. Nor are they a result of a vulnerability he’s longed for his whole life.

No—all I’ve witnessed is his mask slipping. He readjusts it again now, and in the blink of an eye, the stolid, conceded, dismissive expression is perfectly back in place. The warlock I saw from across the banquet hall on that first night is here again with me now.

“You wanna know something crazy, Soren?” I ask. “A few weeks ago, I was looking through the Shadekey with Tuesday and I discovered a rune. This particular rune has the novel capability of poisoning blood from afar, using the exceptionally rare, exceptionally dangerous venom of a blackfang. Does blood poisoning ring any bells for you?”

His eyes have turned to cold, marbly adamant, glittering in the light nearly as venomously as a blackfang’s would before it strikes.

“Let me jumpstart your memory, then,” I continue, since he seems so unwilling to speak. “It was how your necromancer died. Wanna hear my theory? You saw it happen to your friend, and then you somehow found out about our séance and knew exactly how to sabotage it. It was the perfect way to undermine Sabbath, and to make us need you.”

“You had no right to come in here without asking.”

“Really?” I say, temper rearing its head. “We’re going to sit here and talk about how wrong it is for me to enter your room? It was wrong for you to kill me, Soren.”

The words tumble out, tugging away from a mind of overpopulated thoughts. With horror, it fully dawns on me that I’m right.

He doesn’t deny it. Instead, Soren sighs, as if we’re discussing another one of our schemes and he’s found my contribution lacking.

“You killed me,” I repeat, quietly. The words are no longer tested against reality, seeing how they hold up when spoken aloud. They’re full of the conviction I’ve dreaded to realize I really feel.

“What do you want, Mika?” he asks, sounding tired.

“The one thing you can never be bothered to give, Soren. The truth.”

“The truth?” Soren utters one hapless laugh and then walks to the coat rack and shrugs off his jacket. “The truth isn’t so simple.”

“It’s three words, Soren. I killed you. It seems simple enough.”

Or even two, far harder words: I’m sorry.

He whirls on me, eyes alight. “I killed you, Mika. You did not die on accident. You did not die by mistake. Your death served a purpose.”

It’s starting to come together now, a sickening, unforgivable plan that turns in my stomach with revulsion. I piece it together aloud, afraid of my own revelation. “The transference spell you had to do required you kill yourself. That’s why you needed to find a necromancer capable of bringing you back. That’s why you needed to know Sabbath could do it. So what—I was just some sacrifice for you to assess Sabbath’s abilities?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Soren growls. He doesn’t sound menacing so much as frustrated. “I deal in sacrifice, Mika. My entire practice—the entirety of rune magic—is built on the foundation of sacrifice, on cultivating the wisdom capable of judging which sacrifices are worthy ones!”

I flinch, blinking back tears. That stings, more than I want to admit. “And was I one?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Was I a worthy enough sacrifice, Soren?” I press. “Answer me!”

“Sabbath accomplished what I’d hoped, and you’re alive.”

I shrug, imitating the carelessness that seems to roll off him. “That’s it then. No harm done. What if Sabbath hadn’t brought me back?” I frown, plying him with the most intense eye contact I can muster. My voice breaks as I say, “What if I hadn’t come back, Soren?”

As soon as the words leave my mouth, I see the answer sparkling right there in front of me. His eyes. Eyes so like his father’s.

“I was a convenient coincidence,” I realize.

Soren doesn’t even deny it. He just inclines his head in acknowledgment, his callousness burning its way down my throat. I try to swallow it back, but the feeling has coated my windpipes in an acidic layer of anguish, an ache that is crawling its way down to my heart. It sits atop it, heavy, bloated.

I drag a hand over my face, beckoning back the anger that made me feel powerful, instead of this sadness that’s ready to consume me.

Finally, Soren Cain tells me the truth. “Yes, Mika. If it were to preserve the infrastructure of the entire witching world, of course your death would’ve been worth it.”

My throat quivers. “You told me I wasn’t my mother.”

He raises a brow, as if remembering having said this. “You’re not her, Mika. Of course you’re not.”

“No, but I was an atonement. A life for a life?”

A life for twenty-one lives, actually. I’m sure he’s going to correct me, the difference being so considerable, but he doesn’t.

Soren shakes his head. “No, not atonement. When I contacted the spirit of my father, he said three things. First, he confirmed that my suspicions about my nature were true. Second, he urged me not to go through the Claiming without having first sealed my soul. And lastly, he warned me, at all costs, to be rid of you.”

He knew. It dawns on me suddenly, ripping through me with horrible clarity. Soren knew we were bonded. He’d needed to make sure what happened to our parents didn’t happen to the world—but that it didn’t happen to us, either.

“You knew about the soul-tie, then.”

“Not in so many words,” Soren admits, moving closer. I stand, stagnant, afraid if I move, I’ll flee. Or attack. “My father told me with no measure of uncertainty that you would inherit the madness that infested your mother’s mind.”

“So he lied,” I say. So like a Cain to mischaracterize. To twist. To obscure the full truth.

I watch Soren like I’d watch a predator circling, every stealthy, subtle movement registering in my brain. My mind is on high alert, my limbs stiffened into a fighting stance.

“In some ways, he lied. In other ways, no. He wasn’t wrong about the risk between us.”

My expression fractures at the shift that’s come to his voice, allowing a cavern of doubt to widen between me and his fowl intentions. He takes another step closer, and my heart raps against my chest painfully. I can’t tell if it’s trying to flee, or if it’s asking me to let it be free.

Soren’s face softens. For a breath, he’s that boy again, the one from the forest who’s been speared by a unicorn and needs to be healed. The boy who admits he’s afraid. The boy whose hands create worlds with mine.

The boy whose mask has slipped.

That window between us glides open again, and I know what it is now. It’s this wretched unbreakable bond we share, letting me escape from the house built of my own thoughts and emotions right through the window next door into his.

There’s a breeze from that window, and it wants to tell me something. But breezes aren’t their own language. They can’t carry words upon their backs, and they certainly can’t repent of wrongs merely by brushing softly across a cheek.

“From the very first moment I laid eyes on you, I felt it,” Soren says, searching my eyes. He’s speaking to me like he’s making a confession of the heart. “Tell me you felt it, too.”

I don’t know if he’s doing it on purpose, if it’s something calculated or something real. The tingle of blue energy rustles against my fingertips with his nearness.

“What, love?” I ask, incredulous.

I hadn’t meant to say that word, but it’s there at the surface of me, like an essence he has raised with his cold, shadow walker hands. He doesn’t recoil at the sound of it, but he shakes his head, brows dipping into a small frown.

“No, Mika. Power.”

Every exit in me snaps shut, locked and barred.

Power. The single most terrifying word he could have said, and he should know it. “You want me to seal the bond so you can have more power,” I say slowly.

“No,” Soren shakes his head. “I don’t care about the power, Mika. But it exists. And it’s difficult to ignore. What it’s clearly capable of.”

Twenty-one ghosts is what it’s capable of. Twenty-two, if I count as my own mother’s fault.

I don’t believe for a second Soren doesn’t want that power on his side. He’s the son of a High Chancellor, the nephew of a man who’s conspired to maintain command without the approval of the witching world.

He’s a Cain.

“If you don’t want the power of the soul-claim, then do it,” I dare him. “Try again. Kill me. This time, don’t tell Sabbath. I’m officially useless to you at best, a risk to the world at worst. So do what your dead father told you to. Be rid of me.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Mika,” he says quietly, his face creasing. I don’t know how he expects me to believe him. My heart thrums in response to the earnestness in his eyes, justifying itself to my mind.

I suffocate my heart.

“No, you want to help yourself,” I spit. “That’s all you’ve ever wanted. Well you don’t get to execute me at your own whim, and then try to use me at your own convenience. I’m not a tool in your magical arsenal, to be used when you choose to wield me. I’m a person.”

Soren gives the subtlest of winces but doesn’t argue. I stand there lamely, my mouth begging me to make a plea. Say your sorry, it demands I say. Just say you’re sorry, that it was a mistake. That you were wrong. Just break for me. Show me that your mask is not your face.

These are, of course, idiotic things to think. To feel. They are so absurd that I’m disgusted with myself for allowing my heart to manipulate my mind into even forming them into coherent sentences. Maybe hearts are captives behind ribs for a reason—they’re meant to be caged, too wily to be trusted.

My fingers are blazing bright blue now, sparking at his closeness and stoked by the outcry of my emotions. I ball them into fists. I’m struck by a strange thought—that this malice, this crazed war inside me, the murder in my heart and the plea on my tongue—are the beginning of everything I fear. They’re the beginning of what my mother felt in her own bond.

The beginning of the madness.

I unclench my fists slowly, letting an exhale seep between my lips. It’s the hiss of coals that are being doused with water. Be a good witch, the water says as it spills onto my rage, leaving me a spitting mess of smoldering coils. Except, I don’t know what a good witch looks like when justice by her hand can just as easily come in the form of sweet revenge.

My nostrils flare as I stare Soren down. For the briefest of seconds, my rage ebbs to something almost like sorrow. “I was willing to give you your soul back, even with the consequences. Everything you’ve demanded, I’ve done. So imagine if you’d just asked me, from the very beginning,” I whisper, moving my mouth slowly. “But you never really were any good at just asking for something, were you, Soren? And now it’s too late. Because I could never bind my magic—my soul—to someone like you.”

I shove past him, heading for the door as fast as I can before the fat, ugly tears obscure my fury. “At the Claiming, the Council will find out what you are. What they do with you next is officially your problem.”

I don’t look back.

Damn. This chapter breaks my heart every time. What do you think?

xx Jessa


Copyright © 2019 Jessa Lucas

All rights reserved. This work or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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