The Proving Ground

Adam, a man made of dirt

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It Begins with Blood
What is the price of things as they used to be? A single phrase. A single gesture. Even just a single drop of blood. That is all I need to know that magic hasn’t deserted me.

This late at night, desert heat still fills my place. I squat in an unfinished basement unit of a condemned apartment building. The air conditioner pumps in air that is only slightly less hot; it just makes my sweat-soaked shirt heavier. Three days have gone by since the moon was full.

Every night as the moon grew I lit the candles and held the image in my mind: I stand tall and confident and I glow with inner radiance. In that vision I am powerful and I am not afraid. Every morning since I started that visualization I wake with the dread knowledge that it didn’t work, that it’s still gone.

It should’ve been better by last night. I should be better right now. Magic as I have always known it can’t be lost to me forever.

I first notice it when my bloodcatcher goes dry. Other folks hang dreamcatchers over their beds or in their windows for protection against nightmares. I sleep with a bowl under the foot of my metal bed rack. The chipped ceramic dish, wide and shallow, is filled to the brim with fresh milk and my mandragore boy.

Every night I pierce between two toes and shed three drops of blood into the bowl to activate the protection. Blood is necessary when nightmares are the least of your worries. My nightmares are filled with the dogged cadence of endlessly marching iron boots.

This is the way I live, in squalor and fear, cowering under a rock. Except someone lifted my rock away, and I squirm, exposed.

I miss the nightly tickle of mandrake root suckling at my slippery red-slick toes. These days I’m a wreck because I’m scared of sleeping too long without defenses.

Tonight is the last night I can do this. If it doesn’t work, I’ll have to go back to the streets, selling myself just to get enough spark to cast a simple warding. Worse, I might have to start reading the cards again. I have gone too long with my freedom from them. Never again.

I sit on my bed—my mattress is bare, but every hard-won thing in this tiny room is mine. Beside the bed is my altar, covered with an old silk pillow case. There’s an unused black birthday candle in the center, a stack of oversized playing cards to the left, and a black handled knife to the right.

I reach under the bed and grab the bowl. The milk is just a moldy, flaky film and the mandragore is dried and cracked. The whole setup reeks, the stench of a well-balanced system in decay. I never learned how to dispose of this spell. The milk has always been fresh and the root never dried out before. Blood is all I have left.

Waning moons are the time for banishment, and it’s the final thing I have to try. If I cannot call my power back to me, I’ll be damned if I can’t get rid of whatever keeps me from it. I take my knife in my right hand, press my tongue hard against the guard, and lick from base to tip before I reconsider the danger. Flat copper tang floods my mouth. This must work for me. I’ve heard that the tongue heals faster than any other part of the human body, so I work the gash between my molars to keep up the flow. My mouth fills with blood and bile.

My stomach flutters but I grip the knife firmly between my knees, exposed blade to either side. I clasp my hands in mock prayer around the warm steel and draw them along the same path as my tongue. The knife bites deeper than I thought as I pull my hands up swiftly. I clasp them too tight. The cut is angled wrong and there’s more blood than I expected. I blink rapidly and pant through my nose to ease the gag of blood in my mouth.

A mandragore takes three months to make. Blood went into him at the beginning, and after he was carved, and every day once I buried him in the ground to grow back his skin. When we were first together, I tucked him into bed with me for comfort. I made him for the same reason a child gets a night light. I made him mostly according to recipe, but I so desperately wanted it to work, so I improved on the milk and water ingredients.

I drop the knife and grab the root figurine. I turn him over and over, coating him with a sanguine glaze. I hold him up to my mouth and we kiss. His hands grab my face and he is more real in that moment than anyone I have ever known. The yearning in my chest explodes and my lip throbs as he bites it hard. I shout and pull away, but his teeth hold on my lip and it tears. Blood rushes down my chin, my neck.  My arms are numb from all the blood pouring out of my hands.  I faint in a sticky red pool of wasted dreams.

At first it sounds like a too fast heartbeat. It is a sound I have feared nearly all of my life. A legion of iron boots marches inexorably closer. I feel my chest heaving and stop panting and the sounds separate. My heart races the boots. Before this it was always just the boots, but now I have a chance to look up. Their faces blur, but my wavering vision shows a sea of red. I groan and know what brought them here. I see my mandragore boy, grown into a man, stand at attention above me. A pair of heavy boots steps towards us. They stop and someone throws down some kind of rag in front of my face.

My former protector, my mandragore lover, kneels beside me. He picks up the cloth slowly and gently wipes my face off. He sops up the rest of the blood and then kisses my hair. He puts the rag on his head. It is a cap, and it is crimson with my death.

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This story was inspired by the Merry Sisters Field Guide to Redcaps.
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(Deleted comment)
Thankee, lady. How to say...I am excited to see my writing grow! This one was tough for me, but eventually I just had to post, and that's the point. I will try less for the next one, and maybe get more:D

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