She was aseti. Outcast. She, who’d never caused harm to another, who’d shown her tribe nothing but love and given them all she had. Disowned by her family, stripped of her name, forced to live on the outskirts of their city, and all because she’d been born with something that ought never have belonged to a woman: magic.
They called her a witch, shunned her from their midst. They feared her, and they should. While the Magi relied on spells and rituals, the witch’s power came from within, not from the gods. When she called on her magic, it poured out of her heart on a tide of emotions. Outcasts could not work, wed, or bear children; they could only beg and pray the tribesmen would show them kindness. A witch was a blight, a curse upon the tribe, and never allowed near the others. She couldn’t even beg, and no one would look upon her for fear the curse would infect their eyes and be reborn in their children.
In all her life, only one had dared to brave such perils and secretly bring an old woman food and water: the shansher’s beloved youngest daughter, Mari. For her kindness, the witch had loved Mari like her own flesh and blood, and she’d cursed the shansher the day he’d sent Mari to the northern king. The witch had known the girl was riding to her doom; she’d warned him not to do this, to send another in his daughter’s place. He hadn’t listened. No one had, because in the eyes of the Imarah tribe, the witch did not exist.
Almost a year had passed since the riders returned with Mari’s ashes. Three times the rains had come and gone, while the witch waited for the shansher to ride north to avenge his daughter. And in all that time, no one had stood up for her. No one.
How dare they let one of their own disappear this way—a princess, no less! Forgotten, as if she’d been an outcast, herself.
Now, the witch knew they’d never right this wrong. A princess Mari may have been, but she’d still been only a woman. Consumed by hatred for every man in the tribe, the witch couldn’t bear to look at any of them, lest she loose a terrible wave of magic and destroy them all where they stood. It wouldn’t be a good enough end for them. For what they’d done to Mari, the witch would make them all suffer.
When the sky had turned dark and the sands had cooled, the witch stole a torch and ran into the desert. Countless stars shone above, but the moon was dark tonight, averting its face so that her deeds might go unwitnessed.
The witch looked around to make certain she hadn’t been followed. She hadn’t. No one cared about her. If she went missing, they’d rejoice to be rid of her. For that, too, the Imarah tribe would pay.
With her toes, she traced a large circle in the sand, deep enough to create a channel. The black powder came next, sprinkled evenly all around. When fire touched it, the powder would blaze a bright green, an irresistible lure to the djinn. And once she’d trapped the djinn in the circle, she’d make it do her bidding. It would become the vessel of her wrath.
The witch stepped out of the circle, then raised her torch high, calling on her magic. She’d seen the Magi perform their rituals, summoning the gods’ good will, and she mimicked their movements from memory but spoke her own words. Three steps along the left side of the circle, four back to the right. Five to the left, six to the right. At first she whispered the words, then she spoke them, and as she rounded the circle at last, the witch shouted a command into the night, forcing her will into the air, making it congeal as black smoke. When she slammed the torch down into the black powder, green fire flared as high as she was tall, and she stumbled back from its heat.
Gasping for breath, the witch returned, squinting through the fiery veil into the circle. She saw a figure within, heard its rasping sighs on the night breeze. Harsh, foreign words hissed all around; dark groans made her shudder and trace the sign against evil over her chest.
When at last the fire died down, the witch beheld the creature she’d summoned. It was tall and thin with wide shoulders and gangly limbs, its long, black hair plaited back into a thick rope that reached the sands and coiled around its feet. Or rather, where its feet ought to have been. It wore shadows as clothes, and every time the breeze blew, the creature briefly turned to smoke, as if it would dissipate in the wind.
“No one,” the creature said. “How dare you summon me, no one?”
“I…” She could not find her voice. The creature’s red eyes glowed, following her every move, staring straight through her, into her, and the witch hugged herself for fear of having her soul ripped out of her chest.
The djinn laughed; a terrible sound in the night. “No one wishes to be someone. To be seen and feared.”
“N-no. I wish—”
“I know what you wish. I can taste your soul, no one.” It licked its lips with a long, pointed tongue, and hummed. “It is as bitter as firedust. You wish to see your mistress avenged. But where to begin? With her father who gave her away? Or her mother who gave her such a miserable life?” It floated closer, touching the blackened circle of its prison. “Would you like to see the man who took that miserable life, no one?”
The creature held out its bony hand and, with a harsh command, summoned a blaze into its palm. The flame swirled like a mad thing, twisting and stretching every which way to escape, but the djinn’s magic held it in place. “Look upon the face of your enemy. See how happy he is.”
The witch looked, gasping at the sight.
There, the castle in the North. There, the fair-haired king sat on the bed, gazing down at a pair of swaddled babies. He looked up at the woman who’d given birth to them and smiled at her with such love, the witch felt tears slide down her wrinkled cheeks. She shook with hate. That love should have been Mari’s. Those children should have been hers.
“What will we name them?” the king asked.
“My daughter’s name is Liadan,” the woman said. “Your son waits for you to name him.”
The king peered down at the child, and at length said, “Fal. His name is Fal.”
The woman smiled. “Liadan and Fal.”
Suddenly, a dark-haired man was there. “They are too much human,” he said.
The king and his woman looked at each other, and a grave understanding passed between them. “They are only just born,” the woman said, her eyes pleading.
“Yes,” the dark-haired one said.
The witch gasped. “What demon is this?”
“He is a dragon,” the djinn answered. “He has lived long before your gods birthed your tribe. The king is his grandson, and he is mighty with dragonblood coursing in his veins. Do you think he will be so easy to defeat?”
“Yes,” the witch answered at once. “Because you will strike at him where he is most vulnerable.”
“Ahh,” the djinn breathed. “Wrath. Sweeter than a newborn’s blood.”
“I want you to strike them down.”
“A dangerous task, and not without a price.”
“I will pay it,” the witch said.
“You do not wish to know what I will demand of you?”
She couldn’t hear what else the Northerners said, but she did see the dark-haired one bring forth two small cups. When the king and his woman nodded, clutching each other’s hand, the man gave one cup to each, and they, in turn, each fed a child from the cup.
“Now, creature—strike now!”
The djinn crushed the flame between his palms, and it exploded outward, knocking the witch down. From the ground, she looked up into the smoke left behind at what the djinn had wrought. The children screamed, one of them bursting into flames. Their parents and the dragon rushed to save them, but the witch knew it was too late.
Shaking, she touched a hand to her heart, then to her lips, and finally to her forehead. “For you, my sweet Mari. I do this for you.”
“You did this for yourself.” Hard hands curled around her arms, yanked her up off the ground. “And now, I take my reward.”
The witch screamed, struggled in vain against the djinn’s hold. No, not a djinn; a true fire spirit would never have been able to leave its circle prison. In a rush of wind, the creature’s face wavered, changed into something grotesque and terrible. Its eyes slanted crooked, its nose flattened into almost nothing, and its mouth stretched halfway around its head, opening on several rows of sharp teeth.
A daeva—a demon!
The witch screamed again, her own mouth forced open wide as the daeva forced noxious smoke down her throat. It became a living thing inside her, stretching her, pushing her aside to make room for itself. It hurt in unimaginable ways as the daeva cast her out.
Then the pain was gone, and she opened her eyes. She saw everything, the entire night, in every direction at once. She focused down on her body and saw it rise up from the sands. It looked back at her, its black eyes turned to red as the daeva smiled from her own face.
“Do not fear, no one,” it said with her voice. “You may be nothing now, but a deal is a deal. I will give you the vengeance you so desired. The Imarah will pay for what they’d done, just as you wished. You simply won’t be around to see it.”
“What do we do?” a weeping woman whispered, turning the witch’s attention back to the dissipating smoke of the daeva’s spell.
“I will take the girl,” the dragon said.
“No!” the king cried.
“Be easy, Saeran. She cannot remain here. It is too dangerous. I will keep her safe, and you have only to think of her to be there with her. You must trust me. She is a Dragonblood, more powerful than any one of us, and until she can control it, she will need to be in a place where her fire will harm no one.”
“And my son?”
A sigh. “He is a creature of water, not fire. I cannot help him.”
“Then I will,” the woman said fiercely.
Only when the witch heard the power in the woman’s voice did she realize what she’d done. No human woman had a voice like that, one that could command the earth and heavens to move to her tune. I have failed. I never stood a chance. And she’d paid a terrible price for the attempt.
It was the last thought she had before the northern wind scattered her across the desert sky.