By Amy Carpenter
“Is that blood on your knees?”
Mother Sanesh lifted my skirt with her pencil and stared with narrowed eyes and pressed lips.
I looked down at my dusty shoes, trying to quiet my thundering heart. “Yes,” I murmured.
Mother Sanesh dropped my skirt with a disgusted tsk. The hem scraped my barren, bruised knees before it settled across the top of my drawn-up stockings. My hair tumbled forward, mingling with two fat drops that fell from my eyes.
“Look at me, young lady.” The steel-haired woman yanked my chin up, forcing my burning eyes to look into her cold ones. “Did you go to the Pit?”
I choked on a whimper as it slipped past my vocal cords. I shook my head. Mother Sanesh’s clawed fingernails dug into my chin.
“Do not lie to me, girl. I am a servant of the great Eye of Jenua. I am her vessel. I know all as she knows all.”
Her fingers tightened, despite the tears falling on them like hot rain. I changed my shaking head to a nodding one.
“Just as I thought.” She released my chin with a satisfied huff. “You will learn the proper way to bloody one’s knees. Kneel before the Eye and offer one hundred oblations, hands to the sky, then forehead to the ground. Grovel like the worm that you are, and ask her forgiveness for seeking out the Demon of the Deep. Let the blood from your knees color the prayer mat and bring it back to me as proof of your devotions. If you return to the Pit again, I will have you whipped until your skin dissolves and all that is left is blood and bones.”
Another strangled whimper escaped my lips. Rage boiled beneath the treacherous fear. I clamped it down. What could a fourteen-year-old girl do against a powerful shaman like Mother Sanesh?
I shuffled from the room, barely staying upright. Mother Sanesh poked her head out into the darkened hallway, her falcon-like eyes following me as I headed toward the sanctuary. As I parted the veil covering the sacred hall, the door to her room closed. I let the veil fall again and turned away, running like lightning out of the abbey into the summer fields.
Children played wolf and sheep in the tall grass. A gong sounded in the abbey tower, signaling the call to supper. Farmers laid down their scythes, removed their hats, and wiped away sweat and grime. I ignored all, intent on making my way back to the source of my bloodied knees.
The gong had made its second and last call as I topped a crest and found myself looking down on the blackened slopes of the Pit. No grass grew in its foul soil, not even a weed. Steam rose in undulating waves, dissipating into the scorched, late summer air. I ran down the sides of the Pit, oblivious to the rock and dirt that slid beneath my feet. I had to get back to the sleeping Demon, had to escape. I would not kneel before the Eye again, would not submit to praying to a god I loathed.
I collapsed at the nadir of the Pit. The blood on my knees flowed into the soil, and I ground myself down further into the sharp rocks, opening myself, giving myself. Bubbles emerged from the dirt, exploding upward like earthen geysers. My breath left as I was thrown onto my back. I stared up, dazed and dizzied.
A specter hovered over me, shimmering like a mirage in the heat. I blinked my eyes, willing the image to come into focus. It fell to the ground like a swan landing in a lake before gliding over to me.
A feathered hand lifted me by the elbow, and a voice like lava glass coated my soul. Elesia.
I stiffened. It knew my name, said it with such intimacy, as if it had known me all my life.
Elesia, it said again. You have called me with your blood, with your rage. Too long have I watched you from beneath, waiting for you. But now you have finally freed me. I am yours to command. And you are mine to use. Your god. My vessel.
“Who are you?” I croaked, half in terror, half in anticipation.
I am Rejork, Brother of Jenua, innocent and condemned to a never-ending death in the bowels of the Deep. But you have freed me, and I am in your debt. You have suffered much at the hands of my sister. Your pain is my pain, your revenge my own. Accept me into your body, take me as your own spirit.
I did not have to think, to debate. My clandestine visits to the Pit had prepared me for this, though I had not known at the time what I sought. This was what I needed, what I had always desired. Communion with a god other than Jenua. To be a vessel like Mother Sanesh, yet not like her.
“I accept you, demon god Rejork. Take me as a vessel of your wrath.”
The feathered glass sharpened and shot into me like a spear of fire. I screamed in agony, then gurgled and sputtered, my gasps turning to breaths and then, calm.
My heart was a sea of fire, my mind as clear as a desert sky. I lifted off my back and righted myself, then rose in the air, extending my arms and finding leathery, flexible webs hanging from them, connected to my ribs. My fingers and toes were talons, ends sharper than a tiger’s teeth. Like a bride’s train, a powerful tail whipped behind me, lashing at the dirt. Sulfur belched from deep inside my gullet, erupting in flames that snared the trees at the edge of the pit.
I smiled a serpent’s smile and flapped my webbed wings, turning towards the abbey.
Supper would be a little burnt tonight.