I knew it would come for me. My thrice-cursed fate would not be denied: my blood, my birth, and my faith. I knew I would be chosen; my mother all but promised me.
"The year thirteen will fall on you, daughter. You cannot prevent it, but you can prepare."
Twenty-four black hooves, four iron-rimmed wheels, and fourteen glowing red eyes, the coach and six, the harbinger of my fate, my promise, my doom, glided down the cobbled street toward me without a whisper. The good citizens of Cesca scattered, scuttling into doorways, slamming shutters, scurrying into alleys like terrified rats. I stood and awaited my fate.
The ebony coach stopped before me, the driver's burning coal eyes transfixing me like needles pinning a moth in a display. Armor rustled like winter-dead leaves hammered from cold iron as one hand released the reins to delve the driver's cloak. A roll of ebony parchment bound with a blood-red ribbon issued forth, held out in that undying grasp for me.
"Your invitation, daughter of Arudora." The voice chilled me like the touch of an icy scalpel.
"Of course." I took the invitation in hand, pulled the ribbon, and unrolled the black parchment that sealed my doom. I read, "Marilisa Balcus Arudora," my name, the only words on the page.
The armored driver gestured, and the coach's door swung silently open. "Welcome."
The midnight coach swallowed me.
Black leather, satin drapes, and pale faces rimed with terror greeted me. I sat and adjusted my skirts. The seat was cold, and the faces colder, six of my kin doomed to the fate we all shared. I only recognized one, a cousin I'd met only once. His eyes took me in with subdued recognition, one hand gripping the head of his walking stick, a silver wolf, teeth bared in rage. The others, two peasants, a tradesman, a merchant, and a trollop, avoided my gaze, resigned to our common fate. A prospect worse than death lurked in their eyes.
The coach moved, but I'd not felt it and heard not a sound but the beating of my own heart and tremulous breath. The merchant rocked forward and back, his hands clutched white-knuckled. The trollop withdrew a silver flask from her ample bodice and drew a draught. She caught my eye and flashed a smile.
"Drop o' liquid courage, love?" She held out the flask, the scent of brandy heady in the air.
"No, thank you." I'd long ago consigned my courage to the flames.
"Suit yourself." She drank again and tucked the flask away.
"Can't do this...can't do this..." the fidgety merchant muttered.
"Oh, do shut up, man!" My gentleman cousin eyed him derisively.
"Bugger off and leave him be!" one of the peasants snapped, a lip curling back from tobacco-stained teeth.
"How dare you speak to—"
"Can't do this!" The hysterical merchant drew a stiletto.
"Don't!" The word escaped my lips before I could bite it off, but it did no good.
The merchant's trembling hand drew a ragged line of crimson across his throat. He cut deep, deep enough to paint the trollop seated across from him with the spray. She swore, fending off his lifeblood with a raised arm. The merchant choked and coughed, shuddering as the torrent slowed.
"Bloody fool," my gentleman cousin scoffed. "Death is no escape now."
True enough, for as the merchant's blood ceased to flow with the last fluttering beats of his dying heart, only surprise registered on his paling features. His eyes blinked, bloody lips gaping in shock as undeath took him. We could not escape our fate so easily.
The trollop withdrew her flask and drained its contents in one greedy draught, her cheeks pale under the cheap rouge and flecks of blood.
"Hells and demons," the surly peasant swore, making a sign to ward off evil.
"That won't save you either, ignorant fool." My gentleman cousin's nose wrinkled, perhaps at the stench of blood, perhaps in sheer disdain.
"Neither will that blade in your cane, sir, enchanted though it be." I don't know why I spoke, but I felt the need to put the pompous ass in his place. "No mortal-forged implement will save you."
His eyes narrowed at me. "You seem quite sure of yourself, Marilisa."
"I am." I adjusted my skirts again, my hand exploring the folds for my one hope of salvation. Cold metal caressed my palm. "I've known my fate my entire life, Lord Wolthaven. As have you."
"Oh, and I suppose you've some trick you hope will save you!" He glared at me, dredging courage from anger.
"No trick." I gripped my only hope and prayed silently.
"Look!" The tradesman pointed out the window at the passing scenery.
Ruined buildings, dilapidated cottages, and crumbled towers took on a ghostly radiance, blazing blue with shadows of their former grandeur as we passed through the dead village of Maiserene. I recognized it from my studies. I wondered if anyone outside the carriage could see the apparition or if it existed only for our doomed eyes. Ahead the spectral bridge to our destination coalesced over the dark water of Lake Laroba. Our conveyance paused not as we crossed, silent water roiling beneath us, perhaps hungering for the living or welcoming us to our fate.
We plunged through the toothed maw of Bastardhall's gate, the wail of cold iron hinges, gears, and chains a cacophonous greeting. One of the peasants began sobbing. The coach pulled into a vast courtyard and stopped before the grim foyer.
Three tall figures awaited our arrival: a woman of pale complexion with white-streaked hair, another woman bearing the sigil of Urgathoa upon her breast, and a hooded shape holding a swaddled bundle in his arms.
I knew they had long prepared for this meeting.
The carriage door opened and my destiny propelled me forth, my legs steady, teeth clenched against useless screams, and my hand gripping the spike of silver that no mortal hand had forged. The fire of a burning sun scorched my palm as I strode forth to my fate.
Chris A. Jackson