Never a Gentle Master
by Brittany N. Williams
Edited by Brian J. White
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
7293 words — Reading time: around 36 minutes
This story contains depictions of violent harm towards children and child death.
“Ain’t no good coming of messin’ in other folks’ business.” Madear’s voice broke through the silence of the workroom. “Especially not Qual’s.”
Kae jerked, and the dried lavender cracked in her hand, spilling the remnants of fragrant purple flowers all over the table. The venom in her grandma’s voice as she spat out the name shook her but she didn’t dare look up from her work.
“The man’s meddling with death magic,” Momma said to Madear as she strode into the workshop, “and that right there makes it our business.”
CRUNCH. A second handful turned to dust in Kae’s hands.
The sideboards lining the walls held rows and rows of mixes, tinctures, oils, and salves. The high, arching ceiling hung with drying herbs and animal parts suspended by a series of levers and pulleys, their control ropes tied off to the side and out of the way. Kae needed to sort everything perfectly or she’d risk making a fatal mix.
She’d definitely have to measure this vial out all over again.
Hopefully no one noticed the waste….
“You ain’t said none a’ that before,” Madear hissed.
Kae dared a glance up at the two older women.
The wide brim of Momma’s sun hat barely brushed against the low-hanging sprigs of dried coriander above her before she pulled it off and tossed it perfectly onto a hook on the wall. Her thick, dark hair was pulled up into an intricate series of braids and twists that looked like it had been magicked into place.
But Momma braided art with only her two hands.
“Well,” Momma sighed, “I’m saying it now, Ma.”
Madear cracked her walking stick against the work table right in front of Kae’s fingers. ( The long slab of oak was already chipped and stained from use as a prep table and occasionally an operating table. Madear’s hit, loud as it was, couldn’t hurt the thing more than that.)
But Kae wasn’t as hardy as all that.
“You need to mind what you’re doing, child,” Madear said, “and stay outta grown folks’ matters.” Her sharp brown eyes peered out at Kae from a wrinkled brown face, pale and dotted with freckles.
“Yes, ma’am.” Kae’s shoulders crept up towards her ears and her face flushed, but Madear’s stick poked her in the back. Kae pressed her shoulders down and straightened her spine, then lifted her work apron and scraped the fallen lavender off the table.
Momma swept her dress to the side and dropped into the straight-backed wooden chair beside Madear. She pulled a handkerchief from her bodice and dabbed at the beads of sweat across the smooth brown skin of her nose and forehead.
“It’s hot as the devil’s toenail out there. I swear someone should make these dresses with shorter sleeves.” She straightened suddenly. “Oh, maybe I will. What do you think, Kae, darling? Dresses with short slee— Whachu looking at me like that for, Ma?”
Madear glared. That look struck abject terror into the hearts of anyone she turned it on.
Anyone except for Momma. She was blissfully immune.
Kae envied her.
Madear swung at Momma, who disappeared in a burst of light and reappeared on the other side of the room.
“I knew you’d take a swing at me with that bad temper of yours, you sourpuss,” Momma laughed, but was interrupted by Madear’s cane, which lengthened and grew long enough to knock her in the forehead.
“Bet you didn’t expect that, you dingy girl,” Madear barked as her cane returned to its usual size. “Don’t be like your momma, Kae. She ain’t got no damn sense.”
Momma snorted. “My bad. I thought we wasn’t talking bout it in front of my baby no more.”
Kae frowned. “I’m not a baby, Momma. I’m twelve.”
“Hush, child,” Momma hissed. “I’m trying to keep your narrow hind parts outta trouble.”
Kae snapped her mouth shut and dumped the crushed lavender in a spare bowl. She suddenly felt very small.
“Ma’ Tina!” Daddy’s voice echoed through the house, amplified by panic and magic. “It followed us!”
Everyone froze. Daddy rarely used his magic. Especially not for mundane things like voice amplification. This was real bad.
Whatever was coming, it was about to be in a whole heap of trouble.
Kae’s fingers caught in the strings of her apron as she tried to pull it off and stumble after her momma and grandma, who rushed for the front doors of the house. When Kae reached them both carved-wood monstrosities were swinging wide open on their hinges. She bolted out onto the porch that traversed their house, her momentum sending her tumbling into the railing just off to the side of the steps. Her daddy ran down the oak-lined road that led up to the house, his speed hampered by his telltale limp and the little body half draped across his back. Behind him, Auntie Ealda, with her skirt rucked up around her knees, steadily flung spells at something just beyond the bend in the road.
Momma rushed down the porch stairs, sparing a glance as she passed Daddy and his burden. She snatched a double-barreled shotgun out of thin air and stopped halfway down the roadway. Auntie Ealda paused her casting and sprinted over to her. They spoke hurriedly, and Momma’s grip on her shotgun tightened.
This wasn’t good.
Daddy finally reached the house, grunting as he tried not to jostle his burden. Up close, Kae could see that it was a boy, his skin ashen and covered with blood. Daddy stumbled as he ran up the porch stairs, and as Kae reached out to steady him, one of the boy’s bloody hands brushed her face. She felt a jolt, like someone pinched her.
This one…. Yes….
A voice. One she didn’t recognize. It sounded far off….
“Ma’ Tina,” Daddy said as he adjusted the boy on his back.
Kae jerked away. But that just-pinched feeling stuck with her.
“Y’all got some mean mess heading this way,” Madear said. She kept her focus on the road. “Get that boy inside while we handle it.”
She lifted her cane as Daddy nodded and rushed inside. Power, bright and blazing red, gathered at its tip, ready to answer to her will. “Kae, child, when I tell you, I need you to cast the strongest shield you can around this whole house.”
A tree groaned and thundered to the ground beyond where they could see. “Do you understand?”
Kae looked over at her grandma, feeling like she was suddenly wading through water. “Yes, Madear.” She shook her head and tried to focus through the buzz at the edge of her mind. What was she saying again? Her head was so loud she couldn’t— She needed— Kae saw Madear staring at her and took a steadying breath. “But you’re a master. Your magic’s stronger—”
“Do as I say, child. Unless you want us all dead.”
Kae flinched and nodded. Casting a shield was the first thing she’d learned, a spell she could do in her sleep. If Madear thought she could do this, then that was the truth of it.
Kae pressed her hands together and closed her eyes. She pictured the area around the house that she wanted to protect: from the path just before where her momma and Auntie Ealda stood, around the gardens creeping along beside the wrap-around porch, all the way to the massive backyard.
Another tree fell with a bone-jarring crash, closer this time. Then silence.
No birds. No cicadas. Nothing.
Kae opened her eyes. “What do you thin—”
The creature crashed down the path, towering as high as the oaks on either side of it. It paused, four legs set wide as it stared down Momma and Auntie Ealda. Its gray body was long and unnaturally thin, covered all over in scales. Spiky protrusions of bone extended from the joints at its front and rear legs. Nostrils flared at the end of a long, narrow snout and its mouth gaped open, baring massive fangs in a snarl. Saliva dripped from its maw in watery yellow rivulets, hissing and smoking as it touched the dirt path.
There was no way something that large should have — could have — been able to keep so silent.
Kae’s back slammed into the wall beside the front bay window. She hadn’t even realized she’d moved.
“Don’t back down now,” Madear hissed. “We dead without your shield.” Her grin turned feral. “Besides, we ain’t afraid of some lil ol’ lizard.”
Kae swallowed the lump in her throat and wished her grandma’s confidence was contagious. Down the road, Momma cocked her shotgun as Auntie Ealda called power to her hands.
The creature took a deep breath, and that was all the two women needed. Momma fired off two glowing rounds as Auntie Ealda sent blasts of blue fire from each hand.
Momma’s first shot struck true, obliterating the beast’s eye in a burst of deep green gore. The second went wide as the monster dodged right into the path of Auntie Ealda’s fire. Auntie Ealda struck twice more as Momma pulled two rounds out of thin air and reloaded her shotgun. The creature stumbled back once, then again, as Momma pumped two more rounds into its shoulder.
“Stand back!” Madear shouted from the porch steps, her cane pointed directly at the monster.
Momma and Auntie Ealda threw themselves into the grass as Madear released the red energy gathered at the tip of her cane. It zoomed down the path, waves of dirt coursing into the air before it slammed into the creature. The beast tumbled end over end and rolled to a porch-rattling stop.
Momma and Auntie Ealda sprinted back up towards the house. When they passed the imaginary line Kae pictured as the edge of her shield, she threw out her hands, open palms outstretched.
The creature stumbled back to its feet and Kae pushed the energy forward. The iridescent shine of the shield shot down the path, hitting her mark and spreading outward just as the beast slammed into it.
Kae felt the impact deep in her chest. It knocked her back like a physical blow. Furious, she pushed more energy into the spell. She felt that strange buzz at the edge of her awareness again, but ignored its insistent pull.
She needed to focus.
The shield blasted out in all directions, up and around until it surrounded the house. She felt the moment it connected with itself and sealed. It gave a little sigh, like relief, and rippled once before becoming transparent.
Outside of the protection of the shield, the creature roared and rammed its spiked shoulders into the invisible wall, each strike sending rainbow ripples along the protective bubble. It didn’t knock her back, but Kae still felt each hit.
“Well done, child,” Madear said. “That’ll keep that beast outta our hair for a while.” Another hit.
Momma laughed. “Maybe it’ll tire itself out.”
“If you knew how far that thing chased us,” Auntie Ealda said, “you’d know it probably ain’t getting tired no time soon.”
Kae frowned and rubbed her chest. It wouldn’t be able to break through, but it didn’t look like it would give up trying. And she’d feel the echo of each blow rattle through her.
And that buzzing at the edge of her awareness just wouldn’t stop….
Madear or Momma would know what to do. She’d ask them after they figured out how to destroy the creature.
Another strike rattled through her bones, her brain reeling as that wretched buzzing overtook her thoughts. Kae grunted and shook herself hard. She couldn’t stand much more of this. The beast struck again and she clenched her fists, nails biting into her palms. She wished the shield could hit back. Could be a weapon instead of only protection.
She wished she could stop this beast herself.
The very air surrounding her seemed to hold before releasing with a shiver. Kae jerked as the sensation swept across her skin.
Madear cast her a strange look. “Are you alright, child?”
The monster slammed itself into the shield again.
Kae shook her head.
Iridescent ripples flowed outward from the point of attack and held before speeding back to the point of outset. The shifting rainbow of light coalesced on the bony shoulder spike it had shoved against the shield.
The buzzing in Kae’s ear got louder. It almost sounded like words.
Something pulsed deep in her. Startled, she pressed her hands to her stomach.
The creature shook itself, trying to pull itself loose from where the light, the shield, wrapped around it. Flames shot out from where it was stuck and engulfed the rest of the creature’s body in an iridescent fire.
It shrieked as the shifting kaleidoscope of flame covered it from head to foot, inhuman and unnatural, high and wild and frantic. The sound rang in her eardrums like an explosion and itched under her skin like knives scraping against glass.
Kae shoved her hands over her ears as her momma, grandma, and Auntie Ealda did the same.
The creature writhed and screeched as it burned. It was unbearable. Its shrieks pitched higher, so high Kae was sure that the windows behind them would be lost to the assault of sound.
Kae uncovered her ears and looked up. A scorched pile of bones, blackened and smoking, was all that was left of the monster.
“My God,” Auntie Ealda said. “Kae, baby, what did you do?”
“I— I don’t—” Kae shook her head. “I— I didn’t—”
“Enough,” Madear said. “Will the shield hold?”
Kae opened her mouth to speak as her grandma turned to her. No words came, but under the sharp stare, she managed to at least nod.
“Good. We’ll talk about this when we get inside.” Madear turned, taking Kae’s arm and dragging her along back into the house.
Kae followed, stumbling over her feet. She fought to keep the shivering from overtaking her whole body. Only her grandma’s firm grip on her arm kept Kae walking.
What had she done to that creature?
They crossed the threshold and she couldn’t hold back. Her body shook in great vibrations. Her knees buckled, and she dropped to the foyer floor.
“Get yourself together, child,” Madear said, “we ain’t safe yet.”
Madear released Kae’s arm and rushed into the great dining room where they had taken the boy. Kae stayed where she had been left, her eyes taking in the scene before her.
The boy — he couldn’t be any older than she was — lay face-down on the table. Daddy gently dabbed at the bloody gouges carved into the boy’s back, but it didn’t seem to help. The few unbloodied patches of brown skin that she could see were a sickly gray. Every so often the boy’s hand or foot would twitch, the only signs that he was still alive.
“He’s just a child,” Momma whispered as she approached the other side of the table. “He ain’t got enough magic yet to make this worth it.”
Kae took a deep breath; the sight of blood helped steady her. She was used to seeing injuries. Blood was normal. Injuries were normal, blood was normal, but a monstrous beast burning to death after touching her shield….
“Qual ain’t want him for his own magic,” Auntie Ealda said as she stepped up beside Momma. “He just needed a vessel. Look at the marks.”
Kae shook her head, grabbing a basin and several herbs from the sideboard. That buzzing was back, louder this time, but she couldn’t bother with it. The salve needed to be exact. Pulling the wrong ingredient could make their patient turn for the worst. She needed to focus.
Behind her, she could hear Madear giving orders to her daddy. Kae ignored what they were saying, concentrating on pouring the right amount of each ingredient into the basin, filling it with water, and setting it to a magical boil. This was normal. This she could handle.
Wrapping the now-hot basin with her apron, Kae brought it over to the side of the table beside where her grandma stood. She put it down and finally got a better look at the boy’s back.
Kae’s hands flew to her mouth. What she initially thought were just random cuts were a specifically carved set pattern of shapes. Runes.
Someone had carved the ritual markings into this boy’s back. They made their way across the entire expanse of his skin.
“Good that you got him out when you did,” Madear said as she gently cleaned the boy’s wounds with the mixture Kae had made. “The sequence ain’t finished yet.”
Come closer, Little Sister….
Daddy nodded, arms folded as he leaned back against one of the sideboards. “Won’t do him much good. The elemental’s already on him.” He had removed his blood-stained jacket and waistcoat and stood in only his shirtsleeves.
“Kae, what are you doing?”
Kae jumped back from where she had been about to put her hand on the boy’s bloody shoulder. She turned wide eyes to her grandma, who gazed back at her with equal alarm. Pulling her hands to her chest, Kae stepped further away from the table.
“You need to busy your hands? Fetch me some bandages.” Madear set back to cleaning the deep cuts. “Ealda, don’t just stand there gaping. Make yourself useful.”
Kae bustled over to the cabinet that held their more medical supplies as her momma and aunt moved over beside Madear. Momma cursed.
Kae whipped her head back around to the table. Her momma had removed the rest of the boy’s ruined shirt to reveal his arms, carved just as meticulously as his back. The runes were sliced into his skin all the way down to just above his wrists.
“This is….” Auntie Ealda went pale. “What the hell was he trying to summon?”
Come on, Little Sister….
“Something we can’t let cross over,” Daddy said. He pushed away from the sideboard.
Hurry, Little Sister. He’s coming….
Kae shook her head. She heard the strange voice’s words clearly now.
“Ain’t nothing we can do for this boy now,” Madear said, stepping back from the table.
Just one more touch….
Who was talking to her? It sounded like a woman, but not one she knew.
That’s it. Touch him….
“Kae, no!” Madear grabbed her shoulder but Kae’d already wrapped her hand around the boy’s wrist.
Well done, Little Sister.
The boy’s eyes opened, wide and unseeing, glowing an unnatural red. One by one, the runes on his skin caught the same light.
A smell like rotten eggs filled the air.
“Shit!” Momma scrambled for the windows.
Kae let go and threw herself away from the table. Her back slammed into the open cabinet, sending supplies tumbling down around her.
A hazy tendril of something reached up through the boy’s chest.
Madear stepped in front of Kae. “Stay behind me, child.” She slammed her cane down on the floor with a thud that rattled Kae’s bones. Another tendril appeared. An arm. Something pulled itself from inside the boy, its form still hazy.
Something Kae had released.
She wrapped her hand around her grandma’s apron strings.
“Delor, now,” said Auntie Ealda, who stood opposite Momma and the open windows.
Daddy moved fast, water blasting from his hands and dousing the boy, the table, and the elemental pulling itself free. Momma and Auntie Ealda raised their arms at the same time. The water running off the table snaked up and merged together, forming a liquid bubble around the spirit. It howled.
“We’re sorry someone summoned you like this,” Momma said through gritted teeth, “but we ain’t got no use for you here, fire.”
The elemental screeched again. Kae felt it echo in her head and threw her hands over her ears to block the piercing sound.
Auntie Ealda’s fingers tensed. “You’re free now. We ain’t trying to hold you.”
Not that they had a choice. It was too strong for them to contain. The best hope was that it’d leave before it killed them all.
Kae shivered. She didn’t want this. Didn’t want any harm to come to her family. It needed to go.
Only for you, Little Sister.
Kae flinched. It — the elemental — was talking to her again.
The water surrounding the elemental evaporated in a hiss of steam, leaving behind the vague shape of a woman made of flames as it cleared. She gazed around the room and looked directly into Kae’s eyes.
Madear shifted. The spirit glanced at her. She pulled one foot out of the boy’s chest and placed it on the table. Smoke rose around the blackened spot of wood where she made contact. She dragged her other leg free and stood there.
Behind her, the boy gasped as the runes pulsed once and went dark. He exhaled, then went still. He didn’t breathe again.
The elemental reached a hand towards him and his body burst into hot iridescent flames. Soon nothing was left but ashes. Then the elemental was gone.
That’s when Kae felt it. Like a punch in the gut.
Something broke through her shield, the force of it leaving her gasping.
There was nothing protecting them now. She had to tell her family.
But she couldn’t catch her breath. Her heart raced.
Momma took a step towards her then stared out the window with wide eyes. “Get down.”
The windows exploded in a burst of white flame. Momma moved fast. The table flipped on its side and flew across the room.
Everyone dropped to the floor. Kae felt the heat scorch her skin before a rush of cool water doused everything.
Daddy leaned against the wall, breathing heavily with both hands raised. “White flames,” he hissed.
“It’s Qual,” Momma said. She spat the name like a curse. “He must’ve tracked the boy here.”
Kae scrambled to her feet. “Momma, I’m sorry. I couldn’t—”
“Kae, stay down.”
“But I can—”
“I said stay down!”
The shout hit Kae like a blow. She jerked back. Momma’s face was harsher than Kae had ever seen her, like she had been carved from stone.
“That man’s stronger than I realized,” Madear said. “Seems this wasn’t the first time he tried summoning something from beyond.”
Momma grunted as another blast of white fire hit the table. “Well, we’re finna make sure this is his last. Ealda!”
Auntie Ealda leapt to her feet and sprinted towards Momma, hands glowing bright blue, but a column of brutal white flame engulfed her three paces from the window.
Madear cursed. Daddy grabbed Kae’s arm and practically threw her out into the foyer. Kae hit the floor as Madear, Daddy, and Momma stumbled out after her. Momma slammed the door shut, her face contorted in horror. Inside the workroom, Auntie Ealda screamed as she burned alive. Kae didn’t think she’d ever forget the sound.
“He’s dead,” Momma said. Her shotgun appeared in her hand. “That bastard is good as dead.” She cocked her gun and disappeared. Blam! Blam! Blamblamblam!
Rapid gunfire sounded from behind the house. Then feet running along the porch and more shots.
The house rattled on its foundation as someone exploded through one of the front doors and slammed into the wall down the hall. The dust cleared, and Kae saw her momma stagger to her feet. Her beautiful dress was singed all over and her hands shook where they held her gun. Kae screamed her name but jerked to a stop as her daddy held her back.
“Get her out of here, Delor,” Momma said. She limped forward a few steps then sprinted back through what was left of the door.
Outside, gunfire and explosions sounded. Dust rained down on their heads as the house shifted and rattled under the attack. Kae’s eyes burned.
A sudden scream.
Kae listened for more gunshots, for her momma’s cry of victory.
Madear moved past them, knuckles white from the vice grip she had on her cane. She tapped the end of it against the wood frame of what used to be their front doors.
“Whatever y’all hear,” Madear said, “don’t you dare open these doors.”
She stepped up to the hole Momma had left behind and stopped.
I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough. Kae felt the words jam in her throat, choking her. I’m sorry I couldn’t keep us safe.
As if she heard, Madear looked back at Kae and smiled. She jumped through the hole, more spry than Kae had ever seen her, and was gone.
A rumbling, scraping sound echoed from deeper inside the house. Daddy pulled Kae into his arms and threw himself against the wall just as the scorched dining room table burst through the hall and slammed against the broken-down doors.
More explosions. A roar of flames. Then nothing.
Kae’s heart beat so loudly she could hear it. “What’s happ—”
Daddy shushed her and hurried to the hall closet. Behind them, the great table creaked and fell away from the windows with a crash.
“You know what to do,” Daddy said. “Don’t turn back, no matter what. We’ll come find you when it’s safe.”
She saw the lie on his face as the words fell from his mouth. He smiled at her. Kae tried to smile back, but she couldn’t force her lips to turn up. Then he closed the door. Kae heard the metallic click of the lock as she crouched in the tiny, dark closet. Boom!
The floor shook with a heavy clatter as something enormous fell. The big front doors must’ve finally been forced off their hinges. “You’re the last one standing?” a man laughed. He sounded jarringly plain, his voice flat.
“You won’t get past me,” Daddy growled.
Someone grunted as water splashed under the closet door. A heavy thud rumbled along the walls. Another rush of water, this time streaked bright red with fresh blood.
Her daddy shrieked loud and long as the smell of burning flesh clogged the air.
The sound rattled her teeth and buried itself in her brain, in her heart. Right next to Auntie Ealda’s. It seemed to echo off the walls even after it stopped. Kae shoved away the thought of why it had stopped.
“Children,” the unknown man cooed. “Where are you, children?”
Kae threw up a shield faster than she’d ever done in her life. She focused on making herself invisible.
“No use hiding,” he said. “It’s only you and me here now. No one else.”
Kae froze. He couldn’t have….
The closet door burst open.
She couldn’t breathe. You can’t see me, she thought. You can’t see me.
He stared right at her but didn’t react.
You can’t see me. You can’t see me. You can’t see me. She kept repeating it over and over again in her head.
The man’s face was just as nondescript as his voice, skin clear and brown with no scars or blemishes. His hair was parted at one side and slicked down harshly.
He frowned, and Kae swore her heart beat loudly enough for him to hear. But she kept thinking, You can’t see me. You can’t see me. The man looked around the inside of the closet one last time before humming and closing the door. Kae heard him wandering off, his hard-bottomed shoes clacking against the wood floors.
Kae waited until she heard his feet stomping up the stairs, listened for his heavy footfalls on the creaky boards of the upper hallway.
She dropped the shield and fumbled along the wall of the closet as quickly as she could. There was a latch built into it, if only her shaking fingers could find it. Something gave under her hand. She pressed hard and the piece slid away with a click.
“Found you.” The man grinned as he threw open the closet door.
Kae slammed her hand into the open panel and the floor beneath her disappeared. She hit the dirt under the house with a thud as a blast of terrible white flame shot through the closet where she had just been.
She covered her face as the heat of it rushed over her, then scrambled towards the glimpse of sunlight that marked the end of the house’s foundation.
A sudden shaft of white flame burned through the floorboards beside her, close enough to catch her clothes. Kae screamed, slapping out the flames devouring her sleeve. She threw up a shield as a blast broke through above her.
She rolled over but was jerked backwards as a hand twisted around her locs. She slammed against an intact board as he pulled her up into the house. Kae hit the floor with a grunt as he threw her down. The smell of dried herbs surrounded her. They were in the workroom.
And Madear was—
She shoved the thought away.
“Well, aren’t you a troublesome little thing,” the man sneered as he stepped on her shoulder. “Where’s the boy?”
Kae grit her teeth and tried not to scream.
“You heard me, girl. Where is the boy?”
“He’s dead.” Her eyes watered. “He’s dead because of what you did.”
He pressed harder.
Kae cried out and turned her head away. That’s when she saw it: the big stone mortar Madear used to crush seeds, the one nearly as big as Kae’s head.
It was just beyond her arm’s reach. But it wasn’t beyond her magic.
She focused. She felt the moment her magic grabbed hold of the stone bowl. Screaming, she threw it at the man with all the force she could gather. It hit him directly in the crotch, knocking him off his feet. He collapsed with a high-pitched wheeze.
Kae scooted out of his reach and ran towards the front porch. The great wooden doors lay across the floor, broken and splintered. She stumbled her way over the scattered pieces, and had almost cleared them when she heard the man scream behind her. The white flames hit her shield as soon as she threw it up, the force of the blast sending her flying backwards.
She slammed into the big white column on the porch and tumbled down the stairs, rolling to a stop on the dirt pathway. Her shoulder blazed with pain and she looked down, expecting a scorched nub where her right arm used to be.
It was there, but she couldn’t move it as it hung from her shoulder at an unnatural angle.
But there was no time to think about that. She pushed herself to her feet with her good arm.
The man yelled again from inside the house.
Kae didn’t look back. She sprinted towards the tree line, every step shooting pain up her side.
She had to hide.
Kae’s arm hung limp and useless at her side, and her shoulder throbbed and ached and burned as if it was being engulfed by the same flames that were devouring the house. She could still see the bright white glow of fire and hear the crackle and break of wood and memories from her hiding place deep in the tangle of oak trees that lined the south side of the front road.
It was taking all her focus to keep the invisibility up on her shield when every breath magnified the pain. Her eyes burned with smoke, and the sounds of her home burning to ashes rang in her ears. But the pain — the pain was good. The pain kept her grounded in the present, in the now. It kept her from thinking too hard about anything else. Like her family. It helped her ignore the destruction of everything, to push it aside. She needed to be alert and sharp because she was being hunted.
Kae tried to tune her ears to the area around her, but couldn’t hear anything over the thundering of her heart. Her injured shoulder shrieked with pain.
“Found you again, girl.”
Kae whipped around, strengthening her shield just as a blast of white fire hit it. She could just barely feel the heat of the flames against her outstretched palm.
Too weak. Her shield was too weak. That’s how he’d found her, how he’d seen her. Grunting, she forced more power into it, feeling the air around her cool, then heat again.
Still too weak.
“You are a tricky little one, aren’t you?” The man who had killed her family stood over her, his suit and hair still as immaculate as they had been when he stared her down in the closet.
“That supposed to be a compliment?” Kae gasped out as flippantly as she could manage between shocks of searing pain. “I don’t think tricking you is that hard.”
His thin lips spread in a sugar-sweet smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “All right, you little bumpkin, you’ll have to drop that shield. I know someone like you can’t hold something as strong as this for much longer.” He crouched down, bringing himself to Kae’s eye level. “Now, you can drop it right this second, and I will make sure your death is quick. Or we can wait until this shield drains you of all your magic, and I can assure you that anything I do after that will be far from quick.”
“I ain’t doing that.”
“You’re wearing out my patience, girl.” The man’s face went absolutely still, as if someone had frozen him mid-motion. Only his shoulders moved as he took a deep breath in and released it slowly. His nostrils flared. He took another deep breath and slammed his fist into the shield.
Kae screamed when he connected, a sharp shock speeding through her body. She contorted from the pain and her shoulder throbbed in protest at the movement. Her focus wavered and, in that moment, his fist broke through. She tried to close the shield, contort it around where his fist had split it open, but his hand was already wrapped around her throat.
“You should know not to speak to your betters like that.” His face stayed calm as his grip tightened, but his eyes were bright and sparking with power.
Kae clawed at his wrist, struggling to breathe. Her eyes felt like they would fall out. Her lungs burned and ached. Her heart pumped faster and faster as everything around her shifted into sharp focus, even as her vision started to darken around the edges. Time slowed.
No, Little Sister, you ain’t gotta go yet.
Kae blinked. She could feel that man’s hand around her throat but somehow she could breathe easily. How…? Just off to her side knelt a woman with curly copper hair cut close to her head and a pretty red flush dusted across her pale brown skin. A bright grin showed blinding white teeth as her pure white eyes turned in Kae’s direction. She was draped in red and orange fabric that seemed to move all on its own and left the freckled skin of her shoulders and arms bare.
I ain’t gonna let this one steal what’s mine.
The woman reached out and took Kae’s injured hand in hers.
Let me help you teach him a lesson, Little Sister.
Kae could feel power thrumming beneath the woman’s skin. Something old. Something strong.
Accept me, Little Sister, and we’ll make him regret what he’s done.
She grabbed Kae’s other hand, her eyes urgent.
Contract with me and no one will ever stand against us.
It took Kae a moment to notice she didn’t feel any pain when she moved her useless arm.
Let me save you and together we’ll destroy this beast.
Revenge. Yes. This man — this stranger — had destroyed everything she held dear. Was trying to kill her now.
I am fire. Will you accept me?
A contract with an elemental would change her forever. But what did that matter when she had nothing to go back to? When she could make him pay?
Do you accept me, Little Sister?
The woman’s grin spread wide across her face and her grip on Kae’s hands tightened. It’s done.
She surged forward and Kae’s vision went white. An ache started low in her belly, like eating too much too fast. Pressure rushed up through her chest. She couldn’t breathe. There was no room for air around this power.
Let’s make him pay, Little Sister.
Time picked up. The man’s hand still squeezed her throat but that didn’t matter now. He was done hurting her. Kae lifted her hand, blazing with iridescent flames, and touched it to his wrist. A sizzling sound, like bacon in a skillet, crackled as his skin roasted.
The man bellowed in pain, his grip releasing as he attempted to tear himself from Kae’s hold. She could breathe again, and the smell of burning flesh filled her nostrils. But that little burn wasn’t enough. He deserved more. So much more.
She held fast to his wrist and looked up at his face. It was no longer cold and calm but contorted in rage and pain. His eyes cleared, and his hand opened, the beginnings of white flames gathering in his palm.
Kae felt the ache in her belly again, but this time it pressed out directly from where she felt it. Around her the shield pulsed once with iridescent light and the opening snapped closed around the man’s arm.
He screamed again, loud and high and panicked as he pulled away from the shield and stumbled backwards. He clutched the smoking stump of his arm close to his body. Inside the shield Kae held his hand and forearm in her flaming grip.
This was good. But he deserved more. So much more.
Kae shifted her grip on his disembodied hand, letting it hang loosely from her fingertips. She glanced down at the appendage — the skin around the wrist was charred black — then turned her eyes back to the man just as she willed the entire thing to be engulfed by iridescent flames. Kae felt her lips spread in a wide grin as his face dropped in shock.
“You little bitch,” he sneered. “I’ll pay you back tenfold for the injury you have done me.”
Oh, Little Sister. That sounded like an insult.
Kae smiled. “Can’t do much with one hand.”
No, that’s not enough.
An inhuman growl ripped from his throat and he sent a blast of pure white flame at her. Her shield devoured his magic as soon as it struck.
Kill him, Little Sister.
Kae nodded at the words only she could hear.
Repay him for what he did.
She could feel the power building in her belly, the shield sucking in his power and twisting it for her to use. She could feel it waiting for her will, waiting for her to give it form, give it purpose.
There’s power in death. He don’t deserve your mercy.
“No, he don’t.” Kae looked down at the man.
“What are you talking about, you stupid girl?” the man sneered. Another blast of white flames.
More for her shield.
Another insult, Little Sister. Don’t let that one pass.
Kae looked the man in the eye, everything around her coming into clear, sharp focus. “I ain’t gonna.”
The magic built inside her. More than she’d ever felt before. She only needed to shape it.
And she knew exactly what she wanted.
The walls of her shield slowly tilted inward, compressing until it just barely brushed against her head. There was a low hum, a deep vibration, and the man stumbled and stopped his next attack. The shield glowed, iridescent light whipping up and down its surface.
Fear, true fear, rippled across the man’s face.
Kae started laughing. This was perfect. There was no better way they could have chosen to punish this peon.
The shield touched the man’s outstretched hand and he yanked it back, rainbow-colored flames whipping up the sleeve of his jacket as he scrambled away from her. He turned, awkwardly ripping himself out of his burning jacket, and tried to disappear in a tower of white fire.
Kae extinguished it with a wave of her hand.
The man screamed and shot a blaze of white flame at Kae. She tilted her head to the side as it flew past her. Kill him, Little Sister.
She twisted her fingers and black fire engulfed his remaining hand. He stumbled back but the shield slid over his feet, iridescent flames crawling up his pant legs.
Ain’t going nowhere now, is he? Well done, Little Sister.
Faintly, Kae could hear him screaming and sobbing, but it sounded so far away. Too far away to matter. She could only hear the voice of the elemental in her ears.
Kill him. Kill him.
“Pl—please, p—please, n—no m—more.” The man collapsed, his face a mess of snot and tears and spit.
Kae watched him cry. “You’re Qual, right?”
“Yes,” he choked out. “Yes, I am. Please, spare me. I’ll do anything. Please.”
She thought about Momma and Daddy and Madear and Auntie Ealda and that white fire destroying everything she loved. She looked down at the man who had ruined everything, now cowering and useless without any hands to cast a spell. Helpless. Like that boy.
No mercy, Little Sister.
Well, if he liked to play with death magic so much—
“No mercy,” she said.
She heard his begging intensify as she aimed both of her open palms at him. His body burst into black flames, his piercing shrieks cut off abruptly as he was near instantly turned to ashes.
Kae clenched her jaw in the sudden silence as the smell of burnt flesh assaulted her nose.
That’s it, Little Sister.
Something surged, invisible to Kae’s eyes, but she could feel the press of it against her skin.
There’s power in death. That’s ours now.
Her head tilted back as she felt it rush down her throat. She stumbled backwards, gasping for air. Her skin tingled all over and she felt the tense pressure of something deep in her belly. She laughed. She suddenly felt like she could do anything.
So much power. So much strength.
The shield exploded outward, rushing across the ground as it spread.
She couldn’t stop laughing as the shield moved out over the grove, turning trees to dust as it passed them. It tumbled from her throat, high and hysterical as it devoured the house, or what was left of it. She couldn’t stop it. She wouldn’t stop it.
There was nothing left to save.
She felt a breath of calm wash over her and bring her back from the edge of hysteria. Her laughter slowed, voice quieting and breathing evening out before she finally went silent.
The shield burst.
The iridescent light shot up into the sky. Kae felt the prickles of it wash all along her skin, the rush of it rustling her clothes and making her hair whip through the air like unruly tendrils of magic. It rushed up and up and then it was gone.
Well done, Little Sister. Well done. I knew I chose well with you.
Scorched oaks reached towards the sky like skeletal fingers. The stripped carcass of her house loomed in the distance.
Kae sat in the dust and ashes of everything and wept for all she had lost.