Their faces ranged from scared to sceptical. Mothers, and some fathers, all with babies in hand. All the ones who’d been born in the last six months.
That’s how long it’d been since Zyree had visited this shantytown. She had the whole of Araxia to get around after all. And that wasn’t easy these days, what with those two empires—Levac and the Golden Empire—carving up the country like a roast chicken. It wasn’t the safest place to travel.
Some of the parents called Zyree a witchdoctor, others a witch, some said it was all superstitious nonsense and branded her crazy. But no parent dared not to bring their child when she came to their villages, shabonos and shantytowns.
It was Araxian law after all—the one thing all those states and tribes could agree on—that when Zyree Sphereblood came knocking, you brought your child for inspection. Anyone who didn’t, well they risked their child being stoned to death, or tossed off a mountain—if there was one nearby.
There was nothing special about this place, just another shantytown in the arse-end of nowhere, built from all the scraps of old empires. Once you’d seen one, you’d seen them all, and Zyree had seen them all, along with every Araxian hovel, tent, hut, marquee and shabono.
This shanty was made of rusted steel, broken wood and scraps of anything else the villagers could get their hands on, after the previous wars the Levacians, Golden Empire and the tribes of the rainforest had waged.
The insides of the shanty were a dump, different coloured blankets scattered around the edges of the rectangular room. A few cushions in the corner, covered in hairs that looked like they had belonged to animals. A couple of cats sat on those cushions, kneading away at them with their claws. The first had three legs and no fur, the other was missing an eye and its tail. Maybe if you put them together, you’d make a whole pet. They still had the energy to groan at one another, which made Zyree’s ears ache.
“Get it over with then, witch,” said the old bastard lounging in the corner smoking a pipe. Zyree had tried to get rid of him, but he wasn’t having any of it. Fat bastard he was, white beard stained yellow and skin so creased it looked like a rock formation. He leant back on some sort of giant cushion with his hairy belly poking out in front of him.
There were a line of babies, eight in all. Some of the parents wore traditional dress—bright embroidered kaftans with colourful patterns—while others wore the clothes of the Merged Seas—shirts and trousers or breeches.
The first baby smiled at her. A girl, maybe four or five months old. She was mixed-race; that was becoming more and more common across Araxia. Once those Levacians had their way with the woman, they didn’t stick around for the part they didn’t want. They were as bad with Araxia’s women as they were with those precious resources they came here for.
Zyree hated this part, but it had to be done. She didn’t like babies, she never had. There’d been plenty of time to have one of her own if she’d wanted.
It still pained her to make one cry though, hurt her nearly as much as it did the parents. Zyree spent half her time healing people, she spent the other half making babies cry.
The first mother held her child up. Arms trembling as Zyree took the girl, gently as she could.
“It’ll be fine,” said Zyree. She tried to sound reassuring but didn’t offer a smile. Never smile. That was her mantra before she went into these inspections. It would be no good if these people thought she enjoyed making their babies cry.
The little girl kicked her legs and smiled, then fiddled with Zyree’s necklace, rattling those metal plates with the runes carved into them. It was usually a good distraction; one of the reasons she wore it. That, and it made the locals think she had some magical abilities. There was no such thing as magic. You live as long as Zyree had and you’d know how stupid the thought of magic was.
When she took the dagger out, a couple of the women shuddered. Some thought the gleaming orange blade was magic, they thought it was where Zyree drew her power from. But there was nothing magical about that sphereblood dagger, only the ability to kill an immortal if you stabbed them through the heart with it.
Zyree had done that. More than once.
As the baby was entranced with those runes, she made the cut on the thigh, as shallow as she could. It took a few seconds for the girl to notice that something was wrong. And by the time she started to cry and kick her legs, Zyree had already bandaged up the cut and handed the baby back to her mother.
There were winces and gasps as Zyree licked the tip of the blade. The baby’s cries died down after a few monstrous screams that tore the breath out of her, and the little girl had to gasp air in. Zyree closed her eyes, trying to sense what she could from the taste of the blood. Some took longer than others for her to split the cells and the platelets from the plasma. They bubbled and fizzed on her tongue. She was looking for that… something special. Unfortunately, there was nothing special about this one.
“A healthy baby,” Zyree said. Again, with no smile. Never smile. Don’t take pleasure in good health, or bad.
She tried to make the rest of the cuts as quick and painless as possible. Wasn’t sure who’s benefit that was for—could’ve been the babies, their mothers, or even Zyree herself.
She took more samples from the babies in the room, most were healthy, a couple had minor defects, but nothing too serious. The worst part of this whole process was finding one who wasn’t going to live long. Having to tell the parents broke Zyree’s heart every time, and there were hundreds every year. Delivering that sort of news made her immortality feel like a curse. But it had to be done.
There was one left. A boy. Couldn’t have been more than three months old. Dark-skinned with a sprinkle of blonde hair that shone just like that monster Levac Cloudhaven’s—Zyree hadn’t shed a tear when she heard the news that he was dead. Too bad his empire lived on. Just the thought of those shining blue eyes of his made her shudder, they could turn from water to flame in an instant. That stare was frightening. It was burnt into her memory, hundreds of years since she last saw him.
The boy’s mother had thick dreadlocks: a mix of brown and blonde tied into a ball above her head. That dress of hers was an explosion of colour. She was slim, but not as skinny as the other women in here. Maybe she had a husband who could afford to feed her, that was always a bonus in these parts. No doubt the old man in the corner sat on his arse all day long. Whoever was feeding him should probably cut his portions in half.
“Don’t worry, he’ll barely feel a thing,” Zyree said as she saw the woman’s shaking hands. There was even a tear in the corner of her eye.
Despite the visible nerves in her fingers, the woman’s grip was tight. That’s a mother for you. They have superhuman strength when it comes to protecting their baby. It’s the same in the animal kingdom as it is for humans.
She clutched him tight, reluctant to hand him over still. “Let me hold him,” she said.
Zyree thought for a moment, then nodded. She didn’t give any emotion still. Never smile, never frown.
“Thank you. He gets upset easily.”
Zyree nodded again with a blank face. No smile, no frown.
The boy didn’t look like much, scrawny, gangly little thing he was. He didn’t offer a smile or a frown either as she approached, sphereblood glowing on her dagger as she raised it and drew blood.
It took no time for him to realise how much it hurt. He cried louder than any of the others, kicking and screaming and wailing as Zyree tried to bandage up the cut. He bled more than the others too, though she was sure she hadn’t cut him as bad.
The mother gripped him tighter, which didn’t help. Zyree nearly gave up on the bandage when his fat legs kicked the dagger out of her hand, making it bounce and clang on the dusty floor of the room.
His mother stroked his hair and whispered in his ear, but it didn’t do a damned thing to calm him down. His face reddened, the screams and cries were ten times louder than any of the other babies. Soon a couple of them must’ve decided that something was wrong, since they were at it too, a symphony of echoing wails. He let out a scream so loud it took him a while to get his breath back.
There couldn’t be anything special about him. This trip had been a waste of time.
She gave the bandage one last try, seeing the trickle of blood drip from his toe. She grabbed his leg mid-kick and wrap that chubby little thigh up.
He still sobbed and whimpered as Zyree turned for her dagger. When she picked it up, it was covered in dust—she wasn’t licking that.
The boy was a little calmer at least, though he still cried, whimpering through his mother’s cuddles.
Zyree didn’t care what it was going to look like to those people who’d whisper about her when she was gone. Let them whisper.
She stroked his big toe, getting the blood onto the tip of her index finger and sticking it in her mouth, rubbing the tongue against the rough fingertip. Closing her eyes and tasting the blood on her tongue. Feeling the stickiness and the bubbling.
She closed her eyes and broke down the cells. No high hopes for this one. She tightened her eyes and tried to make sense of it.
Nothing special. Just as she thought.
It took a while to notice, of course it would. She hadn’t found one for a long, long time. So long she’d almost forgotten what it tasted like. That something special. She took in a deep breath; this blood was satiating.
He was the one. Zyree betrayed her only rule. An uncontrollable beaming smile raised her heavy cheeks. After all those years of searching, she’d finally found him.
Now to find a way to pry him away from his mother.
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