Hannah paced slowly across an ornate antechamber, decorated with arcane and foreign artifacts. It was a pleasant room -- typical to the grand villas of the wealthy families who lived near the heights of Heaven’s Reach and Kassandra’s Citadel. She wore the white robes of her office as a healer and her habitual serene smile, even alone. The smile was as important a part of her uniform as anything else. She’d called on this house to care for Commander Titus, and if she seemed worried, rumors about his health would spread like the plague through Heaven’s Reach. It was amazing how quickly information could permeate the Radiant City, and part of her duty as a healer was to protect the privacy of her patients.
Her smile today, though, came easily. The Commander was taking her advice and improving. Which was not always the case with the older Knights of the Radiant Order. Now, Hannah was eager to move on to her next house call, but a servant had subtly asked her to come here and wait for one of the ladies of the house. While being a member of the Order of Healers gave Hannah a high status in Heaven’s Reach, she couldn’t very well ignore the wishes of a noble lady in such a villa.
At least it was an interesting room to wait in. In his day, Commander Titus had been a respected knight -- serving the empire and the Light. In his later years, he’d become a noted ambassador and politician. The antechamber was decorated with objects he’d brought back with him from his travels: A precious jewel, pale pink and glowing with an inner light, came from his time as envoy to the Shara’zar. A fanciful and brightly colored spear was a token brought back from the strange Rinji goblins.
And then, there was the dagger. Hannah felt a sort of instinctive revulsion concerning the dagger. It had a rippling silver and black blade, like a wave, and a handle that seemed to be made from bone. A note beside it said asked that visitors not touch this blade, and said that it was traded to Titus by a merchant who claimed it came from somewhere far to the south, referred to as ‘Death Island’ by the locals.
Hannah snorted. She could well believe it came from somewhere with a name like that. The wicked weapon exuded cruel magic.
Hannah heard the soft slide of footsteps and turned, straightening and putting on her smile, in time to see a young noble lady enter the room. The woman - hardly more than a girl, really - wore a semi-opaque veil and was attended by two or three servants.
Hannah bowed to her.
“A lovely day to you, my lady.. You must be the one who asked me to wait after seeing to the Commander?”
The lady hesitated, before answering haltingly. “I am…”
The way she was standing worried Hannah -- her shoulders were hunched and fearful, her hands clenched into fists. She was terribly afraid.
“I’m so sorry,” said Hannah brightly, trying to look kind. “But I didn’t get your name? What are you called?”
“Antonia,” said the lady. “I’m lately wedded to Commander Titus’ youngest son.”
“Ah!” said Hannah, “Congratulations and the blessings of Kassandra on you and your marriage!”
“Thank you.” Antonia’s voice was flat and expressionless.
“Hmmm… I think we should speak privately?” asked Hannah. “It’s so much easier to talk when you’re not in front of a bunch of people, don’t you think? I’m sure I can help! Perhaps your rooms--?”
“No!” said Antonia sharply and an awkward silence followed.
The noble lady recovered herself and said to her servants, “Wait outside. Keep people out.”
They bowed and retreated obediently. When the door was safely closed behind them, Hannah waited for the lady to speak again, but she did not.
Careful not to let her smile falter, Hannah said, “Now then. Why don’t you tell me how can I help, Lady Antonia?”
The woman did not answer, and Hannah could see that she was shaking slightly -- her shoulders trembling. Like she was crying behind the veil.
Very gently, Hannah took a step forward and carefully lifted up the veil. The lady was, indeed, weeping. And her face was bruised, the mottled purple of new injuries overlaying older yellow and green hurts.
Hannah didn’t gasp, but she let the smile go.
“Oh, honey,” she said.
“It’s my fault,” said the noblewoman. “I make him angry. And then…”
Hannah bit her lip. She’d seen things like this before and it was always more complicated than it should be.
“Does anyone else know?” she asked. “Your family or his?” Old Commander Titus might be ailing, but Hannah didn’t believe him to be blind to the faults of his kin or willfully cruel. But it was difficult to know such things from the outside.
Antonia shook her head, horrified by the thought.
“He’ll be angry about the bruises,” she said, sniffing. “I thought, perhaps, you could…”
There was a shout in the hallway and the door slammed open. A young nobleman, handsome and with a baleful eye, straightened in the doorway -- pretending he hadn’t just shoved his way into the room.
“Healer,” he said, brittly polite. “What business do you have with my wife?”
Hannah put on her smile again and said, “Oh, just girl stuff! Lady Antonia had some questions for me. We’re not quite finished. Would you be so kind and wait outside while we finish our consultation, my lord?”
The nobleman glared at Antonia. “I’ll stay,” he said. “I’m her husband. Anything she wants to say, she can say in front of me.”
Hannah kept beaming and said, “I’m so, so sorry, my lord. But such things are considered the holy work of Kassandra and there are rules. Out you go!”
Hannah had stepped lightly between the two, and Antonia had replaced her veil. She wasn’t saying anything.
The nobleman snorted. He took a step forward and reached around Hannah, snagging Antonia’s wrist. He yanked her forward, clearly intent on dragging her from the room if he needed to.
Antonia let out a chirp of pain, and Hannah exclaimed, “Let her go!”
He didn’t listen to either of them, and the servants stepped aside from the door to let him pass.
Hannah was not an easy person to irritate, but she was angrier now than she’d been for a long time. With a short, sharp jab, she hit the nobleman’s wrist -- digging in her thumb just so and forcing him to let Antonia go.
Antonia pulled back, hiding behind Hannah again -- the healer could hear her whispering “oh no, no, no…” and the nobleman shook his hand, looking shocked. Hannah smiled into his consternation.
“We’ll really be just a moment,” she said again, still perfectly pleasant. “Go on, please. Out.” Once he was out of the room, she could talk to Antonia about how to keep the woman safe.
“You dare…” he spluttered, “In my house!” He looked around, Hannah’s calm demeanor unnerving him. His eyes fell on the dagger with the bone hilt -- and he snatched it up.
When he did, something in him changed. He’d been embarrassed and dangerous. Now he was enraged -- and more dangerous. It was like watching a sluice gate opened in a dam or wine poured fast into a glass. His eyes clouded and his lip curled and he was out for blood, not bruises. When he moved, it was snake fast and vicious, slashing and hacking at Hannah with the dagger. The healer skipped back, trying to get out of the way -- without putting Antonia in danger. Both women and the servants were screaming.
“Out of my way!” howled the nobleman at Hannah.
“Put that down!” she answered him. There would be guards and servants and other members of the household here soon. If she could keep him distracted…
The knife flashed down and, as Hannah jumped away again, the nobleman caught her arm and pulled her towards him. The knife slashed across her heart -- and the magic in the blade awoke.
Everything went dark.
The scent of dust and stale air filled Hannah’s nostrils. She bit her lip at the stinging pain in her chest -- and felt around with her hands. She knew her eyes were open, but she couldn’t see anything and she didn’t dare take a step without knowing where she was. She heard someone staggering around nearby and, after a moment, the sound of dry fabric or skin sliding over stone -- rough and abrasive -- something else moving towards her in the dark. She shivered, and new pain lanced through her, emanating from the wound on her chest.
The wound felt cold -- wrong somehow. And if felt like it was reaching into her -- spreading like poison.
“What’s happening?” The nobleman’s voice was high and panicky.
“Not helpful,” said Hannah of his question, irritated and frightened. She thought that the darkness wasn’t ordinary -- it felt muffling, and like magic. Something antithetical to the light of Kassandra.
With an effort, Hannah brought her hands together -- focusing on the light inside her, the light that was inside all Kassandra’s servants. It would lead her out of here. Silently, she began to pray.
“What do you have here…?” said a new voice. Soft and sibilant in the dark.
“Who’s that?” shouted the nobleman. Distantly, Hannah thought she heard him swinging that cursed dagger around still.
“Ahhhh… blood. Innocent blood. How delicious a sacrifice. Thank you, thank you… Have you nothing to say, dagger-lord?”
“Wh-what?” asked the nobleman.
Hannah could feel the smile in the soft voice and she knew it meant nothing good. “Have you nothing to say, dagger-lord?” And when the nobleman remained quiet, the voice continued: “No name of protection, that will allow you to wield that blade safely? No word of warding to carry you safely home… and out of my reach.”
“Don’t come near me!” said the nobleman.
“No…” said the sibilant voice. “No… that’s no use to you at all.”
There was a rush of sound -- like scales along the floor and then a whimpering cry from the nobleman, followed by silence.
Hannah reached with all her heart for Kassandra and the light, ignoring the sting of the cut. But it was hard to imagine, alone and surrounded by dry dusty air and deepest shadow.
“Now you, little sacrifice,” said the voice. She heard the smack of lips as her unseen tormentor considered her. “How did such an ignorant servant choose such an excellent offering, I wonder? How far did my dagger go?”
Instead of answering, Hannah began intoning a prayer to her patron out loud. “Lady Kassandra, whose light is that of the sun, whose bright eye shines down on all her chosen, whose right hand cuts down her foes with the sword...”
“Oh, ho,” said the voice. “A priestess? Well, well… your light magic is of little use to you here. You’re marked.”
Marked. The cut.
Hannah raised a hand to the wound over her heart. Most of her healing was practical: poultices and potions, splints and advice. A very little was magic. As she continued her prayer, she called on her tiny bit of magic to heal the wound and cleanse herself. She worried that this magic was beyond her skills - and still she continued:
“... whose left hand defends her people with the shield, and who’s smile brings bounty and blessings to us…”
As she said the word ‘smile’, Hannah found the expression coming easily to her face. She was a healer, and it was part of her work to be kind and welcoming. She smiled as she recited: “...accept the grateful praise of your servants…”
“What’s this?” asked the voice, laughing.
Light welled in the dark from Hannah’s hand -- a faint glow over the wound. Her skin hissed -- her own magic encountering the wicked magic of the knife. Hannah fought harder -- she would not be corrupted. She belonged to Kassandra, not the dark.
“You are marked for me,” said the voice. “There’s no help coming for you.”
“Help your servants to carry your Light to all corners of the world,” intoned Hannah. “As the day always conquers the night, as the fire the darkness, as the spring the winter…”
“Hush this nonsense!”
The light was growing… so bright that it was all Hannah could see. She might not be able to save herself, but she would not submit to whatever this evil was willingly.
That sound of scales came again and Hannah shouted the end of the prayer: “Let your Light prevail - in the world and our hearts.”
There was a rush of sound and Hannah thought she was about to meet the same end as the nobleman -- and she was prepared to do so, with the Light of Kassandra bright on her smiling face. Even as she thought that, the thing in the dark tried to touch her -- she felt the air of his movement on her throat. But more light burst into the place, defending her. The soft voice shrieked in anger and there was the sound of rattling steel: armor, a sword drawn.
For a moment, all Hannah could see was the light wrestling with the dark -- and then she was distracted by the searing pain of her wound. It felt as though someone were cauterizing it.
She gasped, fighting to find the words of her prayer again -- to shout them defiantly into this darkness. The world around her made no sense -- shadow and light, holy fire and writhing power. She called on Kassandra to protect her and then...
She blinked the dazzling light from her eyes -- and found herself facing the nobleman, back in the villa in Heaven’s Reach. The nobleman seemed to have been turned to stone -- his skin and hair a uniform grey. Hannah staggered back from him… and the movement in the air was enough to break him. He came apart like ashes. Hannah fell, losing her grip on consciousness, and as she did she heard Antonia wailing, “What did you do!? What did you do!”
Hannah woke some days later, in the Healer’s Hall. The structure was not quite as grand as those at the height of Heaven’s Reach -- but it was in the first circle of the City, just below where the Knights of the Radiant Order kept their headquarters.
Her chest hurt.
Immediately upon her waking, the healers had many, many questions for her. The masters of her Order wanted to know about the wound, her confrontation with a noble, the state of that noble, and her magic. Apparently, she’d been glowing since she was removed from Commander Titus’ villa.
Hannah answered them all as pleasantly and calmly as she could -- and asked some of her own questions about the wound.
Answers were not easy -- but the healers were worried about the wound. It was still infected with the dagger’s cruel magic. Hannah could feel that too -- she’d kept a little piece of the magic of the dagger inside herself and walled it off with her own magic. When she became annoyed with all the questions and tests her fellows wanted to do, she felt it grow stronger -- feeding on her anger and trying to take her over, to make her a sacrifice to wicked magic.
It grew weaker though, when she smiled.
Late one evening, Hannah was nearly asleep, when a knock came on her door.
“Hello?” she called, voice bright, refusing to be grumpy about being woken. It was easy this time, since any annoyance was replaced immediately by surprise.
In the doorway stood an older gentleman, with a thick mustache and a golden crown on his head.
“Grandmaster Areus!” said Hannah, struggling to get to her feet so she could bow properly.
“Please don’t get up,” said the Grandmaster, gesturing emphatically for her to be at ease, “I know you’re injured.”
Hannah did as she was bid, but it seemed very disrespectful to do so.
“Thank you, Grandmaster,” she said. “But what are you doing here? I mean -- to what do I owe this honor?”
“I heard what happened,” he said. “Well. All Heaven’s Reach heard. And I wished to know who it was that resisted the poison of a scrath blade.” Hannah wasn’t sure she’d heard that word correctly.
“A what now?” she asked, smiling pleasantly.
“It’s a cursed blade, from very far away,” said Areus, looking bemused. “I’ve never read or heard of anyone surviving a wound from one.”
“But that’s not true,” said Hannah, laughing a little, “As I have done so-- if you’re sure that’s what that ghastly weapon is?”
“I am,” said Areus. “And I suppose you’re right. May I say that you’re rather cheerful for having faced untold villainy and for…” He stopped himself.
Hannah didn’t lose her expression as she touched the wound. It didn’t look any different from an ordinary scab now - but she could feel the corruption there. Contained for the moment, but not gone -- a connection to whatever monster that voice in the dark belonged to. A claim on her life.
“For someone who knows, now, how they will likely die?” she asked gently.
“Yes,” said Areus.
“No reason to let that get me down, sir,” said Hannah, with her smile. “My life belongs to Kassandra twice over now. By her grace, it will be a long one.”
“By Kassandra’s grace,” agreed the Grandmaster.