Stranger Rituals – Kali Rose Schmidt

THE HEAD THUDDED to the floor with a sound so familiar to Scarko she didn’t so much as blink. She merely watched, bored, as the unseeing eyes rolled across the stone floor, coming to rest at her feet. Her breath came out in puffs of cold in the Order’s dungeon, and she pulled the dark grey cloak around her tighter. She turned to gaze at the man who stood by the decapitated body, blood dripping from one of his ivory white horns. His own pale eyes were on the corpse, roaming over the emerald green military uniform of the dead Warskian soldier. “So much meat,” the horned man muttered, his voice smooth. He wrinkled his nose as he turned to Scarko, something like disgust on the fair, smooth planes of his face. Scarko rolled her eyes. “Stop complaining and eat your dinner, Vojtech.” Vojtech’s eyes, so light blue as to be nearly white, widened, and he cocked his head. “So mouthy for a subordinate.” His lips pulled into a sneering smile, and he tucked a strand of his long obsidian hair behind his ear. “Perhaps I should eat you instead.” Despite the fact that she had been in the Order for two years—since she had escaped the Warskian Royal Palace and made her way through the Gotheberg desert to the gleaming white castle of the Order seeking refuge—and despite the fact that she had worked her way during those two years to the position of Vojtech’s personal guard—the highest ranking of Vrajo, or Shadow—she felt a chill of fear run down her spine. It wasn’t entirely unwarranted.

Vojtech turned from her and knelt his long, lean body over the dead soldier, tugging his black robes from the pool of blood that had begun to form at the gaping neck of the corpse. The two white horns that curled from Vojtech’s thick, black hair glinted in the candlelight of the dungeon as he dipped his head. The horns were patterned with divets, cross-sections of what looked almost like scars. Scarko heard a growl from deep within Vojtech’s throat, one that sent the hairs on the nape of her neck standing on end, and then his fangs flashed, and a horrible crunch resounded through the stillness of the dungeon. Scarko turned her gaze from him and knelt down by the head before her feet. She dipped a finger in the warm blood, plopped it into her mouth. Vojtech lived off bone, she off of blood. And Warskian blood was her favorite. The taste of it, bright iron on her tongue, brought a rush of magic to the blood within her own veins, like a welcome fire coursing through her body. Beneath the grey cloak of the Order’s Vrakan guards, she wore a bird skull necklace.

It warmed against her chest, making her eyes shudder, her breath coming in labored gasps. She grabbed the head at her feet in both hands, tore into the stillwarm flesh, savoring the taste of a man who worked for her greatest enemy. For the Order’s greatest enemy. Vojtech’s groans of delight as he crunched on the bones of the fallen soldier were drowned out by her own. Soon, they would trade, and he would work the skull while she got the meat of the dead man. But something shifted in the dim dungeon, empty save for Vojtech, Scarko, the broken body, and a few chains fastened to the wall. Scarko stilled, listening. The stairwell to the dungeon was guarded by two Vrajos, and it was quiet beyond the walls. The change hadn’t come from outside the dungeon. Scarko looked to Vojtech.

He had stepped away from the body, blood all over his hands and face, sticky crimson in his hair. Careful not to slip in the pool of blood before him, Scarko hurried to his side, squatting down as he sank to his knees. He grabbed her shoulders, hands bony and cold. His eyes rolled back in his head, neck arched upward, toward the dark ceiling of the dungeon. A strangled groan escaped his blood-stained mouth. Scarko’s heart raced, but she got to her knees, too, letting his hands squeeze her cloak. Even here, in this position, he towered over her. She watched as he sputtered, blood flying from his lips, a wet cry caught in his throat. He smelled of blood and fresh dirt, a scent so familiar, so comforting, Scarko breathed it in deeply, steadying her nerves. Vojtech’s wiry body seized, his grip tightening, nails digging into her flesh.

But she did not move, only let him steady himself. It’ll pass in a moment, Kadezska. Gods are busy. They don’t speak long. And sure enough, after a minute went by, Vojtech’s grip on her loosened, his eyes rolled back into place, and his chin dipped down as he stared at her, no longer rigid, no longer choking. He slumped, his cold brow pressed to hers, breathing ragged. “It was for you,” he managed. She saw blood in his mouth, and she knew some of it was his own. This close to the man who was her King—the Djavul, as the leader of the Order had been called for centuries, since the first Holy War—she felt a blush creep up her neck. What would it be like, to tilt her head up, let her lips press against his bloodied ones? Stupid, Scarko, stupid, stupid, stupid.

At the idea of intimacy that way, that close…she squeezed her eyes, willing the memories of the Praeminister to leave her. Not here, not now. Vojtech leaned away and took her chin in his cold fingers, slick with the blood of the Warskian soldier. Her eyes flew open. He was staring down at her. “He is not here.” The Djavul’s voice was firm, angry, even. “He will never be here, Scarko.” She swallowed, and then moved away, ducking her face from his grasp, hating how he knew her weakness so well. She rose from her knees.

The Djavul stared up at her a moment, then gracefully stood to his full height. “What did they want?” she questioned. Vojtech smiled. “You have a job to do.” She rolled her eyes. “I know. That’s guarding you. It’s a thrill a minute.” She gestured toward the ruined soldier beside them. Vojtech frowned.

“I actually thought you were growing bored here. No attacks in three months, only this idiot sneaking around in the desert.” He shrugged. “It seems Olofsson is losing his fear of me.” “Good.” Scarko’s words mingled with fury. “Let him. It’ll serve our purpose for the second Holy War.” She stalked back to the Warskian soldier’s head, lifted it by the scraggly, blood-drenched hair. “So, what did the gods want?” Vojtech watched her carefully, hands clasped before him.

“You’re to go to the city of Kezda. A boy there is immune, it seems, to Vrakan abilities. You are to kill him.” Scarko dropped the head with a thud. “What?” she hissed. “Why me? I’m your guard. Send someone else.” Vojtech smiled. “As much as I enjoy you bossing me around, the gods are not so easily convinced.” He wiped his hands on his black robes and sighed.

“This boy is a street fighter,” he wrinkled his nose, “taking on Vrakan defectives from the Warskian army. While he isn’t able to die from the usual Vrakan methods—ice, wind, fire, shadows—I think your magic could kill him. That’s why you.” Scarko left the head on the stone floor and stalked toward the stairwell, behind the Djavul. “I’m sure he’d die by sword just fine. Tell the gods I won’t go. A street fighter—the nerve of them…” She made to pass Vojtech, but he snaked a hand out and gently stroked her dark blonde braid, the color of damp sand. She spun around to face him, fury in her eyes. But it was equally matched in his. “I am the Djavul of the Order of Saints, Scarko Kadezska.

You will not blasphemy our gods here. You know as well as I do that we cannot resist their orders, and we should not. They have guided me thus far.” He took a step toward her, brushed a cold finger against her cheek. “You will do this, and you will return to me.” She stuck her tongue out at him and turned, clomping up the stairs. She heard him chuckle softly as she pushed open the doors from the dungeon, the Shadows on guard making way for her, black thread entwined in their grey cloaks, same as hers. “Watch him,” she said unceremoniously. The two men nodded. Of all the Vrakans, only Skuggmats, able to conjure shadows, were made Vrajo—wind, ice, and fire could prove too destructive to the castle, in the case of an attack.

Scarko was the only exception to that rule, her own magic not in line with the Skuggmats, or with any of the Vrakans. Vojtech called her lisla sangva, little bloodletter; it was close enough to the truth. She pushed past the guards, down the gleaming obsidian halls of the Order. Vojtech hadn’t bothered to tell her when the gods ordained for her to go, but she knew that conversation would come soon. The messages from the gods—leaving Vojtech on his knees, eyes rolled back, sputtering on his own tongue—had never concerned her. They had directed others—Missionaries in the Order, the ones trained for battle away from the desert, taught to spy within the walls of the Palace. They were marked with red thread entwined on their dark grey cloaks. They trained in hand-to-hand combat, with swords and knives as well as their Vrakan abilities. Since Scarko had been at the Order, she had not left, not without the Djavul at her side. Together, they had ripped Warskian soldiers apart defending the borders of the desert.

She defended with her blood magic—forming it into weapons or bringing to life entire ossuaries to fight for them, him with his bare teeth and hands, his immortality rendering any injuries from the swords of the Warskian army futile. For centuries, Vrakas had been either enslaved or killed—since the first Olofsson had overtaken the Vrakas, that once ruled from the Royal Palace, and declared magic a heresy, a blasphemy against the new god, Krys. During that time, the Djavul had ruled the Order, biding his time, plotting his revenge to overtake Warskia in retaliation against the first Holy War. The time for vengeance, Vojtech said, was coming. The gods, he said, had spoken of Scarko before she had stumbled upon the castle’s doorsteps, starving and dehydrated. They foretold of her ability to make bones do what she willed with her blood, to use her blood as a literal weapon, a poison that burned, that killed. Unheard of within the Order, a place where Vrakas were organized by their elemental abilities—Skuggmats conjuring shadows, Vindmats shaping the wind, Glassmats able to freeze their enemies, and Eldmats summoning fire—all able to work with the constituents of the earth. Her own magic had no common name, referred to throughout the Order only as sangva, blood magic. She had been foretold, Vojtech said to her two years ago. A sign that the time for plotting, scheming and spying was nearly over, a time for the next great war.

She started down the hall she shared with the Djavul, her footsteps echoing on the obsidian floor, dim lamps lighting the dark corridor, grey walls flecked with etchings of bones. There were no Shadow guards here; they would be rushing to Vojtech’s side, cleaning up his mess with the Warskian soldier. Vojtech had wished to kill the soldier himself, even as the outdoor guards had spotted the man when he was miles away, stumbling along in the cold sands. Scarko remembered that journey well. She wished to forget it. “Well aren’t you a bloody mess,” a cheerful voice called from behind her. She whirled around, reaching for the knife that was in her cloak pocket. But she did not bother with it as she beheld Klaus, a white tunic loose on his muscled body, contrasting with his smooth, dark Beheni skin. He walked towards her in the empty corridor, and came to stand before her, his blue eyes lit with amusement. “Did you have an early dinner?” he asked with a grin, his white teeth flashing.

“Where’s your cloak?” Scarko countered, eyeing his white tunic and beige pants. Klaus was a Glassmat, represented by deep blue cloaks within the Order. He tucked his hands into his pants pockets and shrugged. “In the wash. Are you going to tell the Djavul to eat me for it?” He waggled his brows playfully. Scarko knew she must have looked a mess. She could still taste the blood on her lips from the soldier. “He’s probably full by now.” She glanced down at her bloody grey cloak, the twines of black thread. “And you, too, it seems?” Klaus grinned.

“Was it a lone Warskian?” Some of the cheerfulness left his voice. Scarko dipped her head. “Yes,” she whispered. She had come to the Order alone, but Klaus had followed not long after. They had both been forced into the Warskian army as enslaved Vrakas, dulled with the mindeta plant to keep them in line, to keep their abilities at bay until they were useful. She and Klaus had both lost parents ten years ago, both at the command of Olofsson the Third during one of his many Vrakan purges. They had both lost their innocence to Olofsson’s right-hand man, the Praeminister. “But he was here to kill us,” Scarko clarified, correctly reading the anger on Klaus’s smooth face. Klaus’s eyes darkened. “How do you know?” “I just know,” Scarko lied.

“Besides, he wore green.” Emerald green, the color of non-Vrakan soldiers. He nodded after a moment. “Right then. Meet me and Yezedi tonight? My rooms?” Scarko thought of Vojtech, his hand on her cheek. She knew he would meet with her soon, tell her more about the vision, and when she would be leaving. The thought twisted at her. But until then… She nodded. “I will. At sunset.

” Klaus smiled. “Good.” He winked and then turned away, back toward the main hall, likely to his own wing of the Order where the other Glassmats lived. Scarko passed the Djavul’s double doors, elaborately carved with horns and rendered in gold, painted black, bones for handles. She shook her head, smiling. The man was always hungry, she was surprised he hadn’t eaten those handles clean off. Her own rooms were just beyond, a single door, no markings, painted black. Just how she wanted it. She pushed it open, locked it behind her, and glanced at herself in the plain mirror that hung upon the wall of her common room. There were shadows under her eyes—had been for years— courtesy of insomnia and persistent nightmares.

Her dark blonde braid was unravelling, and the freckles on her cheeks were barely visible now that it was winter in the desert. Blood covered her tunic. She shrugged out of it, leaving it on the living room floor. She never had visitors, and took her own laundry to the servants of the Order—overgivas, or those without in the Vrakan language. They were non-magics who believed in the Vrakan gods. Since the Praeminister, she had never been able to stand company in her own rooms. Sighing, she removed her shirt, boots, and pants, leaving them in a trail to her bathroom, just off the living room. There was little furniture in her rooms; she spent most of her time following Vojtech around, standing guard during the night, too, when he decided to sleep, which was about as often as she did. Many nights, they would talk in the dark, sitting side by side on his blood red leather couch, speaking of tactics on overturning the Warskian royals. They’d go over the latest intel from the Missionaries, discussing what it would be like to bring Warskia back to the proper gods—away from the false god, whom the Warskians called Krys—the only one in the kingdom able to be worshipped freely without fear of beheading.

She had not been born when the first Holy War came to pass, but she had heard of it throughout her life, from both Vrakans within the Order and people within the Royal Palace, and from her parents before they died. It had been bloody, invaders from the Marazan lands proclaiming the virtue and blessings of their new god, Krys, come to convert the Vrakans, to save them from their wicked ways, their pantheon of gods. The stories diverged here, as history often did. Those loyal to the king believed Krys a savior, believed that killing in his name was right. Lauded, even. When the Marazans from the west, who became the Warskian royals, took over the lands and encountered resistance at the hands of the Vrakans, they enslaved them. They dulled their magic with a powerful plant and used them in their own military, against the royal Vrakans. Those who survived the bloodshed fled to the Order, looking for safety, finding it with the Djavul, with Vojtech himself. The king launched many attacks on the Order, all of which failed. Scarko had witnessed only a few bands of Warskians, usually small in number, sent to what was inevitably their death.

But she knew from living inside the Royal Palace walls that the king was determined to defeat every free Vraka that roamed the lands of Warskia. The fact that the Olofssons had left Vojtech alone for the past few hundred years was testimony to their fear. How much longer they would bide their time, Vojtech didn’t know. He never spoke of his own past, of how involved he had been in the first Holy War; Scarko didn’t even know his age. She knew he was frozen in time, appearing in his mid-twenties, the age he had settled at—a deception. He was, if rumors were true, centuries old. She knew, too, that she would likely age past him in a few years. He was the only Vrakan among them that was immortal and the only one with horns. She sank into her bathtub, the bird skull still around her neck, her eyes closed, the blood from her hands staining the water red. It was no matter; she drank the stuff, after all.

The idea of a mission, away from the Djavul, was terrifying. He had been her shelter these past two years, reteaching her of the Vrakan gods—Ofred, the god of war, being the most important to him. Often depicted with his own horns, he was the god Vojtech relied on for council regarding when to take back the Warskian throne at the Royal Palace. She had learned those gods as a child, whispered by her mother and father in secret in her small village; but her parents had hung in the palace courtyard when she was a child. Someone had betrayed them—a loyalist to the king—as another had betrayed Klaus’s father—a Beheni diplomat. The water in the tub was hot, but she wanted it hotter. Reaching a toe, she turned off the cold tap, the stinging heat of what was left scorching her foot. She sunk lower into the tub, letting it bake her. There would be no arguing with Vojtech about the gods. He once told her he hadn’t listened to them many years ago and it ended poorly.

She had pushed him for more, but he snapped at her with his fangs, and she had let it go. None of the other guards, of course, had been around long enough to know, either. Vojtech was a mystery, and she knew he liked it that way. When she had scrubbed herself clean in the bloody water, she dressed quickly in black and slung the grey cloak around her, the shawl tight around her neck. She stuffed her feet into the black boots, pocketed her prized blade—small and wickedly sharp with a crimson red handle—and left her rooms, headed for the Glassmat corridors to see her only friends.

.

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