“Why do you go away? So that you can come back.”
-Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
The fever stroke her halfway through her trip, and she had to cut it short for the first time since she can remember traveling through the Polyverse.
The land was inhospitable, sure, damp and ruthless through and through, traversed by a huge green river the waters of which, heavy with tiny creatures and soft underwater plants, were so thick they felt like jelly when Manila tried to pass her fingers through them.
The people too were cold and isolated. Four tribes living at the four corners of the world, as far from one another as they possibly could. They weren’t interested in war, not even when Manila explained to them that war was just a pretext, a chance to make contact, and after that, once one of the people would have emerged victorious, who knew what could have happened? Perhaps a new era would’ve begun, a time of communion and cooperation that would’ve strengthened them all.
They wouldn’t hear about it. They were straight-out hostile, in some cases. They spoke of demons and warlords, of ancient curses and of a sacred land, the entirety of the land right in between their territories, a circular region surrounded with ancient wrecked buildings that they said were inhabited by evil spirits. No one goes there, they said, for if you do, the illness catches you, and you cannot be rid of it anymore.
Manila spent hours arguing with their leaders. There are no demons, she said, there are no curses. No evil spirits. The only magic in the whole of the Polyverse is me, and I am all-powerful, and I am all you need. But they weren’t interested – they wouldn’t hear about it. They had all they needed, they said, why would they risk it for nothing?
But you could win supremacy over anybody else, she said, shocked at her reaction.
All the leaders had answered the same way. “Therefore, nothing,” they repeated. She had never met before people so frightened by the idea of dying that they wouldn’t risk it all for a day as winners.
Outraged by their response, she decided to explore the strip of land the locals believed cursed. She traveled alone, as she always did. She studied the stars and the constellations to find the direction she had to move in and she started walking, and when she arrived she found nothing but an old town, built in white and gray stone. The place reeked of something she couldn’t quite point out, but it was deserted. No demons, no evil spirits. She felt nothing, actually, nothing but emptiness.
As she walked around the ruined buildings, dust making the air heavy and hard to breathe, she raged on against the stupid people of this planet. Terrified of nothing, terrified of the void. She could understand being scared, but she couldn’t accept being scared for no reason.
These people, she concluded, didn’t deserve her and the opportunity she was offering. If they didn’t want her and her cleansing war, well, they wouldn’t have had her. She spit on the ground, cursing the place. That you can never advance, she said, ripples of magic dancing around her, making her hair float, that you could never prosper. Then she left.
The sickness caught her off guard – she is rarely ever really sick. As a matter of fact, she could remember a few childhood fevers, perhaps some stomachaches, every now and then over her hundred years of lifespan, but nothing ever so serious that she couldn’t hold herself together.
When she felt her temperature rise past the limit of her control, when she started losing knowledge of where she actually was in the stream of space and time because her mind was so clouded she couldn’t recognize the folds of her magic flow, she chose to divert and changed her direction. She wanted to find her next land, annoyed by her failure. She wanted to recover there and then start a new war right away. Instead, she chose to head home.
She planned to land in her bed – she did it already in the past, she located it, she visualized it, she concentrated on it and her magic simply brought her there, letting her body fall on the soft mattress, she sheets puffing up around her. But something didn’t work quite as expected, perhaps her calculations weren’t precise, because she ended up appearing right above the bay, a few feet above the water. She launched a quick yell and then she held her breath, diving in among the waves, swimming up to stick her head above the surface. She splashed out, she gasped, she filled her lungs with oxygen and then, tossed about by the waves, she tried to access the magic flow again and couldn’t. Exhausted, aching all over, she realized access was precluded to her, possibly due to her sickness, and she resigned to swim to shore.
Took her longer than she expected – she was weak and she couldn’t move her arms and legs properly – and when she made it ashore she was completely spent. She collapsed on the sand, the fine white grains sticking to her lips and to her skin, weighing her down, and she tried to stand up and found out she couldn’t.
She felt herself, listened to her body. She was burning like fire and her head felt like it was about to explode. She realized she wouldn’t have made it to the Summer Palace by herself, and so, in a panic, she started calling for her brother.
She had never done that before – trying to call him with her mind. She stretched what was left of her magic, she turned it into a tiny, slithering appendix, impalpable and opalescent, and she let it ripple through the air, up, up, up to the windows of the palace. She could see through it – the dark corridors, empty, silent, the closed doors. She pushed it forward. Following her brother’s scent, his aura. Following his tiny sparkle of magic.
She found his door. She tapped against it. Then she lost consciousness, and she could feel nothing anymore.
When she wakes up again, she’s on fire. She doesn’t feel any better than before, but she is dry, and warm, and a little more comfortable than she was on the beach. She turns her face just a little, even though it hurts to do even that – her muscles aching, her head pounding with every accelerated beat of her heart – and she sees her brother sitting there. He’s exactly like she remembered him, young and strong and endlessly concerned for her. He’s frowning and his hair, long and wavy, are left to flow down his broad shoulders, contrary to the way Manila’s used to see him, with his hair tied up behind his head. They seem darker, in the darkness of the room. His eyes seem darker too.
“What happened to you?” he asks. He leans into her and Manila inhales his scent, strong and masculine, and something switches inside her, her button her desire always ends up pressing when her brother’s around. She didn’t think it would still turn on despite how bad she feels.
“I’m not sure,” she answers weakly. She’s shivering, and she feels at the same time hot all over and desperately freezing. “I… the land I visited didn’t want me there.”
“Did someone attack you?” Lacros frowns deeply and she can see his rage swelling already behind his clear eyes. He’s already thinking about finding this person who dared hurt his sister, find him, whoever he is, wherever he lives, and kill him with his bare hands. “Were you poisoned?”
“No… I don’t think so,” Manila closes her eyes and tries to sit up. She can’t – but her body temperature keeps rising, and she starts panting. “The people over there didn’t touch me with a finger. They didn’t want anything to do with me. Claimed their land was cursed. That they wouldn’t battle for it because it wasn’t worth it.”
Lacros backs away for a second, genuinely surprised by her answer. He never heard of something like this happening – it certainly isn’t told in any of the books he’s having to study to become High Priest. “Then… what did you do?”
“I was angry,” she pouts, shifting uncomfortably on the bed, “I couldn’t believe their words – a curse, that sounded ridiculous. So I visited the cursed place and I found nothing. There was nothing there, I swear. And I left in a rage, but while I traveled…” her voice trails off, and she looks down at her pale hands above the covers. They’re shaking, and she’s as white as the moon. She’s always been pale, but now her limbs look like the limbs of a corpse.
“…you started feeling sick,” Lacros wraps the sentence up for her. She just nods, and he falls into a pensive silence. “Do you think the curse might’ve caught you?”
“The only real curse I know of if the one that runs in our family,” Manila sighs, turning away, “And that’s linked to our magic, our blood. All the other curses I have ever seen were gossip and rumors. I have no reason to believe this is different.”
“Except for the fact that you are sick,” Lacros frowns, as though he couldn’t believe that she could ignore the most obvious evidence against her argument.
She sighs again, diving in her pillows. Her body aches like a broken thing, but there’s something in her core pulsing, like another heartbeat. Something that’s not precisely her and that yet is inside her, demanding to be heard. “I’m fine…” she tries. She’s lying, she knows. She doesn’t just get sick. There is always a reason behind a Seer getting sick, and she should be trying to investigate it, instead of sweeping it under the rug. “I’ll be fine in a day or two. Then I’ll leave again.”
Lacros looks at her silently for a few seconds and then sighs, resigned. “You could stay,” he tries, “At least for a little while.”
“You know I can’t be here.”
“I know you don’t want to be here. That you’re running from something that is here and that you don’t want to see.”
“I’m not running,” she frowns, “I’m being kicked away. By you.” She recalls their conversations, before she left for her first trip as a Seer. They had all different tones and different specific contents, but their general meaning never changed. Since she was born, and her brother and her started sharing space in the Polyverse, they’ve always been telling each other the same thing, over and over. She keeps repeating him that she wants him. He keeps answering that he wants her too, but cannot have her. She replies citing the Laws, citing their history, their whole family’s history, that clearly states that love between siblings isn’t forbidden, on the contrary, it can be ideal. And to that he always answers the same way. That it isn’t that he thinks they couldn’t be allowed to be together. It’s just that he knows he couldn’t allow himself to do that to her. Whatever he fuck that means – only Lacros knows, and he surely never tried to help Manila understand. He prefers to keep his reasons hidden, her brother, he prefers not to give explanations. Because when you explain your reasons you have to explain yourself. And that’s the only thing he definitely will never do.
“Let’s not have this conversation again,” Lacros sighs, passing a hand over his tired face, “Not tonight. Not while you’re sick.”
“Healthy or sick never made a difference for you,” she looks away, and the moment she stops looking at him that pulsing core inside her starts beating again, and it hurts. The pain subsides only when she looks at him again. That’s strange.
“I beg you, please, let’s not,” he insists, groaning, “I just want to make sure you’re alright. You can do whatever you want after you’ve healed.”
“I don’t even know what’s wrong with me…” she whines, wearily turning on her side, “I’m in such pain.”
Lacros sighs and reaches out for her, touching her forehead with the back of his fingers. “You’re burning up,” he says softly, but what hits her the most is that the moment his skin comes in contact with her own her temperature rises again.
She gasps and holds her breath, looking up at him in bewilderment. “Wait…” she says confusedly, “Something… something changed when you touched me.”
Lacros frowns, tilting his head to the side. “What changed?”
“I don’t know…” she moves towards him as much as the bed allows her to, “Touch me again.”
That’s a sentence she used many, many times already in the past. And each of those time it had a very specific connotation, and very precise meaning. He would stroke her cheek and she would ask for more. He would kiss her chin and she would ask for more. He would hold her and she would ask for more. So naturally he feels like he should draw back, now that, once again, she asks for more.
“Manila,” he says weakly. She shakes her head, denying his protests.
“I need to understand,” she whispers, “Touch me again. Wherever you want. Just make me feel it.”
Lacros swallows – he knows how dangerous this is. He knows how hard it’s been in the past to withdraws when he found himself having crossed the line too broadly. He managed all the times, up until now, but he can’t be sure he will be able to do it again.
And yet, she’s asking. She’s asking so desperately, and she’s so desperately sick, that he can’t find it in himself to deny her anything. So he reaches out for her, his hand slightly trembling. He touches her neck and she shivers and moans, throwing her head back.
“It feels…” he swallows, trying to get her dry mouth to water again, “It feels like my whole soul’s burning, not just my body.”
“But what does it mean?” he asks confusedly.
Manila shakes her head – she has no idea. Like most things in her life, she’ll have to learn about this by experiencing it. She places a hand on her brother’s and guides it down her body. Lacros’ hand moves on his skin slowly, with building tension. Down her collarbone, following the delicate curve of her chest. The profound valley of her belly and then again the sudden rise of her hips. She can’t help but moan because her brother’s hand feels heavy and cool on her burning skin. Her body yearns for his touch, she’s aching for him.
Maybe that’s another curse she can believe in. Her own personal one. Wanting him so desperately, when he so desperately denies himself to her.
“Lacros…” she whispers, searching for his eyes with her own, “I… I feel better when you touch me.”
“No,” he shakes his head right away and tries to withdraw from her, but she clutches her fingers around his hand and keeps him exactly where he is. “Manila,” he pleads then, “Let me go. I don’t want this.”
“That’s not true,” she keeps speaking softly, sitting up, his closeness allowing her enough respite from the pain to let her move, “You do want it. You do want me. I can read you, brother, you can’t lie to me. You want it, you just won’t do it.”
“Exactly right,” he nods, his voice breaking. He’s still so young, so inexperienced. Sometimes Manila has visions of him as an adult, a serious, stern High Priest. In those visions, he’s still passionate and distant at the same time. In those visions, no matter how much time has passed, she still wants him. “Don’t make me,” he begs her, “Please. There would be nothing good in forcing my hand with this.”
“I won’t force your hand,” she closes her eyes and rests against the pillows, heaving, as he feels her whole body open up, bloom like a flower. Whatever it is that’s living inside of her, whoever this second heartbeat belongs to, it’s someone that wants. They want and their wanting is unstoppable. “I just know what’s going on. And I need you to fix it.”
“I can’t help you with that. I’ll call you someone else. One of your boys or one of your girls. I know you have them on your back and call. They won’t refuse themselves to you.”
“I don’t need them,” she insists, shaking her head, “I need you.”
“But why?” his voice breaks as he tries one last defense against her attacks, “Why me?”
Manila exhales, closing her eyes. She always feels the vision when it comes, and this isn’t different. Even though it’s prompted by something else than her magic alone, even if summoning it has more to do with the second heartbeat inhabiting her than her natural ability, when it comes it washes her over, forcing her lips parted, her breath heavier. Her heartbeat slows down but the second one is suddenly faster, and she isn’t on her bed, next to her brother, anymore. The village is the same that she remembers from the last Land she visited, that ruined town filled with half-collapsed white and gray stone buildings. They’re not broken, though, not yet, not at this point in history. The roads are barely drawn in the ground, they’re muddy and dirty, and there are many people around, and they all laugh together and talk together and do business together and spend time together. Together – but not with her.
She lives alone in a wooden house with a hay ceiling, right outside the town borders. She’s young, and she could be beautiful weren’t she bent over by years of solitude, weren’t her features permanently twisted in a disdainful grimace.
Her name is Yvian and she’s been living alone in the house for as long as she remembers. She’s grown within the clothes she had as a child, she’s just added fabric, stitching old rags to the ones she was already wearing, every time her skirt became too short or she started not to fit anymore in her bodice. She’s got long brown hair, graying in streaks, even though she’s not nearly old enough to justify that. Her lips are plump and red, and they look soft, but no one ever tasted them.
Eight years ago there was sickness in the village, and a few kids died. And the villagers said it was her fault, Yvian the witch had cursed them. Because she was evil.
Seven years ago there was a drought, no water could be found for miles, the closest fount being the green river she remembers seeing during her trip. And the villagers said it was her fault, Yvian the witch had drained the water from the whole land. Because she was evil.
Six years ago the cows started dying, some mysterious ailment striking them one by one. The villagers lost half of their livestock and they said it was her fault, Yvian the witch had killed them. Because she was evil.
Then nothing happened for a few years. And three years ago there was an invasion of vicious parasites who devoured their crops, and the villages said it was her fault, Yvian the witch had sent those insect to torment them. Because she was evil.
Two years ago, once again, another sickness, this time the old died. The bad cough ripped them from their families by the dozen, and the villagers said it was her fault, Yvian the witch had wished the sickness upon them to take them away. Because she was evil.
Last year the fires spread in the nearby forest. All the creatures the villagers used to hunt flee, and the smoke was so dense many people stopped breathing and died of asphyxiation without even waking up. It took three days to stop the fire from spreading, the villagers only barely managed to save their gouses, and they said it was her fault, Yvian the witch had started the fire. Because she was evil.
Now, apparently, something else is happening. Some strange sickness is hitting the chicken – but this time Yvian doesn’t wait for them to blame her for it. Resentment and loneliness have been building inside her for years, and when the first person points the finger at her she just explodes in a scream that makes the whole land shake, and a darkness spreads from her, flowing out her eyes, throat and nostrils like a cloudy river. The darkness envelopes the whole village, kills everyone in it, poisons the land, muddies the waters.
When the darkness subsides, the village is empty, except for the bodies. Yvian the witch is gone. Behind her, only the echo of her pulsing heart. I only wanted you to accept me. I only wanted you to want me. I only wanted to be part of your people. Well, now there’s no people to be part of. And there’s no me. And there never will be again.
Manila opens her eyes again as her vision blurs and then comes back into focus. “Manila,” her brother’s calling her, a note of pure worry in his voice, “My Little One-- Are you alright?”
She nods slowly, slowly batting her eyelids. “I saw her,” she whispers. Inside her body, the second heartbeat pounds furiously – it’s the only sound she can hear. “She lived in the abandoned village… before.”
“What?” Lacros frowns, “What are you…” then his eyes clear up, “The cursed village?”
Manila nods again. “She turned herself into a curse. She was shunned, abandoned and despised by everyone around her. No one wanted her close and the only thing she wanted was to be wanted.” She breathes in and out, adjusting to the feeling. Yvian stretches like a kitten in the sun, spreading through her body. “Now she’s within me.”
“…you didn’t catch an illness,” her brother utters breathlessly, “You’re carrying a person.”