Blood flowed through his veins, but it wasn't his heart that caused the blood to flow--it was magic. His heart had stopped beating centuries ago. Now, it was nothing more than a shriveled thing in his chest.
Ishma didn't know why he was thinking of his heart now...perhaps because he'd been watching blood flow out of an incision in his wrist, through a tube, and into a pail for the last hour.
Still, that didn't entirely explain it. This was far from the first time Ishma's blood had been replaced with someone else's.
After the first hundred transfusions, the process had become second nature. The most challenging thing was keeping the donor alive until he'd drained every last drop of blood from their body.
After weekly--and sometimes twice-weekly--transfusions over a millennium, this process had become simple--although inconvenient.
But it was the price he paid for being on this side of the mountains. And he was more than happy to pay it, for one day soon, it would no longer be necessary. One day his people would no longer have to live in secret.
Against his healer's wishes, Ishma sat outside the cabin, waiting. Waiting was not a strength of his. It angered him, and because of his anger, he needed out. Inside held no solace. Outside--with the coming storm--at least he had a chance of finding some.
Ishma took a deep breath, taking in the scent that always came before the rain. Its pungent aroma reminded him of home, and his anger deepened at the reminder. Home had burned long ago.
The storm hit like an angry god: Vengeful and without care for the death it would bring. The thought brought a smile to his lips but didn't touch his eyes.
The strength of the wind drifted the rain inward, pelting his face. It seeped into his dry, cracked lips, tasting of bitter earth. Dry, cracked lips--another side effect of his... condition.
Thunder crashed, sending tremors through the wood of the cabin. Moments later, flashes of lightning gave life to the shadows of the forest. Life that danced--and rejoiced in the darkness.
The raging storm brought a little peace; it calmed him, making him forget his annoyance. But it wouldn't be enough. His anxiety shattered the storm's peace, like glass thrown against stone.
Another flash illuminated what he was waiting for: a solemn rider, moving slowly through the trees and fallen debris.
The rider showed more concern for horse and self than the message he carried. Every flash of lightning brought them closer. It also brought Ishma nearer still to rage.
Finally, the rider dismounted, tied off the horse's reins, and made his way to the front steps of the cabin. "I have a message for you," he said, oblivious to Ishma's growing fury.
Even through the dry heat of true summer, Ishma sensed his cheeks heating. "Well, out with it," Ishma said.
The messenger mounted one step, then another, yet again showing more concern for trivial things--such as getting out of the rain--than delivering what might well be the most important message of his life.
Ishma tensed at the messengers approach and his hand slid to his dagger. The fool should know not to approach without permission. The rider froze mid-step, realizing his mistake. "Lord Ishma, I can't see in this light. Might I come inside, out of the rain?"
Furious, Ishma stood. Tubes snapped from his arms. Blood spurted from his wrists and the tubes, only to be washed away by the rain.
His head spun; his vision darkened, almost sending him headfirst to the floor. Yet his anger kept him upright.
The rage was nearly free.
He took four quick steps, reached down, and grabbed the rider by the neck, bringing the man's bulging, bloodshot eyes level with his. "You should not need to read it; you should know the message by heart."
The rider tried but failed to speak. Spit and gurgling sounds escaped his lips. The noises the rider made brought Ishma back. Noticing his hands around the messenger's neck, choking the life out of the man, he let go.
The rider landed, lost his footing, and stumbled down the remaining steps. The loud coughing fit that ensued was enough for Ishma to abandon all hope of peace. Ishma left the rider outside, still heaving and trying to catch his breath.
By the time Ishma remembered he hadn't used his magic to seal his wrists his new blood had sprayed all over the cabin's floors and walls. Ishma sighed. With the amount of blood he'd just lost, what remained in his system would only last two days instead of the usual five.
He used his magic to close the two incisions, one on each wrist. Ishma grabbed a towel, wiped the blood off his hands, and sat. "Enter," he said.
The rider stumbled inside. Seeing him, Ishma's anger dissipated. The rider would be cleansed of his stupidity. The blood ritual was the worst kind of pain.
In the end, the foolish rider would experience something well beyond anguish. Ishma's smile deepened, almost touching his eyes. "Tell me about the girl. Do we have her?"
The rider's eyes darted back and forth, scanning the message, then widened.
Ishma slammed both palms against the armrests of his chair. The wood splintered, and a piece of it sliced into his flesh. He flexed the injured hand, trying to expel some of his anger.
It was difficult not to kill the rider outright. He reminded himself that even the simple-minded had their uses. After the blood ritual, of course. He rose and planted himself an inch away from the rider's face. "Out with it, you halfwit!"
The rider cringed, his eyes filled with horror and fear. "She...she is dead." * * *
Ishma stood a short time later, blood dripping from his hands yet again. Drops dribbled off the table--where he'd slammed the rider's head over and over--in long, syrup-like strands.
The rage had won; it always did. He stood, oblivious to the mess. Stared at the wall, not seeing the blood that stained it. Didn't hear his servant's screams, nor the crash of a food-laden silver tray.
The rider's last words echoed in his mind.
"She is dead. She is dead. She is dead."
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