Hop and Vix were nearly indistinguishable when they stood beside one another like they were now save for two small discrepancies. Hop had a jagged scar that peaked out from the neck of his tunic, the reminder when his clavicle jutted from the skin. Vix was missing his left ring finger at the knuckle. Otherwise, identical. Even the gore had splattered across their faces in the same spots when Hop had caved my father’s skull in with his cudgel. Or maybe it was Vix.
My mother knelt beside me, sobbing. I, however, did not make a sound. I never did. The small room became an echo chamber for her pitiful wails. There were five other occupants including myself in the space, four of which that were still alive, and none seemed interested in silencing her. Perhaps on another day, my father would’ve known the right words to calm his wife. Not today, though. His glazed eyes saw his crimson reflection in the pool expanding around his wound. His ears heard nothing. So my mother continued to cry.
The sixth figure moved, stepping into the light of the candles that sat on our dining table. She had been largely passive in the night’s affairs. Hop kicked the door down. Vix disarmed my father before he could defend us. Perhaps it was the other way around. I just know that she had done little more than watch. My father recognized her even in the shadows, knew that his fate was sealed the moment she stepped through the shattered wood that was once our door. He didn’t beg after that. She didn’t say a word at all. It seemed only my mother could do either.
“Get her out of here,” the woman said to her twin shadows. She had a voice like ice cubes hitting glass. Cold. Rhythmic. “Leave the boy,”
I wasn’t someone who frightened easy, but the look that Hop and Vix shared chilled me. They made for a vile reflection. My mother sensed their intention and her mourning evolved. Now she cried for the loss of her innocence, not her partner. One of the men—did it matter which?—dragged my mother out the back door into the alley while the other followed closely behind. They at least had the decency to close the door behind them. It would help muffle the screams.
Six became three. The woman stepped around my father’s corpse to find a seat at the table. The candlelight seemed to accentuate her blonde hair and her white skin. Warms colors that masked the blackness beneath. “Your father borrowed money,” she said matter-of-factly. “More than he was capable of paying back. Had he simply defaulted, my employer probably would have hurt him. Perhaps he would’ve paid it back with this house instead of his life. Your father, child, made the mistake of gambling it away. He put everything on black.” She gestured with a flourish to my father at her feet. “Perhaps he should’ve bet on red.”
A primal cry reached my ears from behind me before a meaty thump cut it off. “Seems he paid the least of all of you. Dying is easy; it’s living without hope that’s so damn difficult. Your poor mother is losing her last shred of dignity out there while we sit here right now. Tonight she learned that neither forts nor flesh nor faith will protect her. Who do you think received the better deal?”
I shifted my weight from one knee to the other, uncomfortable. The unsanded floorboards ate into my skin through the thin layer of wool. Even kneeling, I was able to practically look the woman in her eyes from where she sat. Even at my young age, I was close to six feet tall, a lankly youth with more growing to do. The woman was little over five and a half feet, but yet it was I who bowed. Power, it seemed, could come in a wide range of packages.
She noticed my discomfort and gestured to the chair beside her. “Sit,” she ordered, moving her legs so that I could pass around her without bumping into them. I was hesitant, cautious. It was the first fear I had felt that night because for once the focus had been placed on me. But then I looked into her face and saw her knowing smile. My fears washed away after that. I pushed myself to my feet and move to the table. I circumvented the pooling blood on the floor and sat gingerly down on the stool beside the woman. My legs were stiff from the position I had held for the last half-bell.
“I did not expect an answer from you, child,” she said, shifting around to face me. “My sources informed me of your . . . lacking shortly after your father approached my employer for a loan. I’m sure they saw it as a disability. Perhaps you did as well. But believe me, child, that there’s just as much power in the unspoken word as there is in the spoken. Men will underestimate you. They will ignore you. They will put you out of their mind, never once realizing that by then you’ll have already taken everything you wanted from them.” She paused, staring deep into him. And then, spoken more to herself than to me, “Yes, your potential runs deep and is yet untapped.”
Pride. I felt it blossoming within me, stoked like a budding flame with each passing word from the woman. She spoke to things I had wanted to believe about myself. Truths that I could not consider valid before. No one else seemed to think the same of me. My parents thought my silence a curse to bring them to invocation. Their faith in the immortal were nothing more than a response to my inabilities. That had been my purpose, my place, for so long to them both. A mute with a message. Nothing more. This woman, however, dispelled the doubts in a single breath. She spoke of him not in the past tense, but in the future. I had potential.
She noted my change in posture as I sat straighter in my chair and met her eyes without fear. “I think you can feel the opportunity in you as well. Stifled, neglected. There wasn’t a chance for growth in this hovel you called existence and that was dissatisfying.” The woman had a way to know the things I thought. Well, the things I felt, both in the moment and for my entire life. It . . . intrigued me. The woman leaned back, again sensing my processing. “Curiosity. Desire. Both are desirable in those who serve beneath me. The brothers outside have the same drives buried deep beneath their mass, though it is largely limited to the physical. Admirable, but the ceiling is low for advancement in that realm. The most valuable men are the ones who would be willing to dive into the mind.”
I sat forward in my chair, listening. I felt seized by a singular focus on the woman and her words. I had nearly forgotten that my father was dead at my feet and my mother was being violated outside. I knew only this woman and the truths she spoke.
“Child, I seek a student, one willing to learn the craft that I wield. A student willing to shirk the accepted normalcy of our existence, to seize the strength within himself. One willing to balk at the accepted authority of human hierarchies or immortal pantheons. You would serve beneath me, yes, but you would not be a devotee. And because I will not restrain you under my thumb, your potential for growth will be boundless.” Silence held in the air as the pair stared at one another. “The cost of failure, however, is death. Whether tonight through initiation or another through wanton ambition, both are dangerous and both are likely. But that’s life, isn’t it? We all die if we do not succeed, physically and in the memory of the world.” She leaned forward, looking deep into my eyes. “Are you willing to pay the cost?”
A moment lingers. Then, I nodded.
She sat back again, taking a deep breath. “Best you sit back, then. This is going to take a while.” I followed suit. We locked eyes and my body seized upon itself, holding my steady as time slipped away from me.
We sat opposite one another, unblinking, for an inordinate amount of time. At first, I could not sense a change, but slowly I began to feel a foreign presence in my mindscape. Emotions that were not my own were made tangible and present in my psyche, bearing with them a power unknown to me. The threads began to intertwine with my own emotions to create a pathway for the soul to travel deeper with me. Similar emotions that were strong in both tangles—ambition, curiosity, distrust—melded together without difficulty. Other emotions that were strong in my heart but not in the heart in my woman were expertly diverted so that they did not impede the progression. The hardest emotions were the ones the woman bore that I had not felt before. Confidence. Joy. Willful. Many of these threads bore an attachment to speech and I had never known that.
I did not become aware of my own threads until the spark had begun to lodge itself within me. My surface emotions, the ones that changed a hundred times in a day, proved an easy obstacle to overcome for the woman. She was forced to really latch onto the core emotions I felt that were similar to her own and use that as a foundation. Abandonment was overlooked. Distrust was passed by. Independence was considered for a moment but ultimately decided against.
Late into the third bell, I found myself drawn again and again to a rich purple hue buried deep within me. It was a subtle, encompassing emotion, one that had developed gradually over the trials. I had to attempt I liked the shade; I had been colored by it for so long that I found comfort in it. So I selected it and she approved of it.
Of family. Of society. Of the Immortals themselves. I had no faith in any of them. I was not deceived by the powers they offered to conquer my existence. And though I was still too weak to overcome them directly, my conviction against them was unbreakable. Given time and opportunity, I would acquire a strength to oppose them all. My only master would be me.
I felt the power settle itself within me. A success. The woman sighed as she ran her hands through her hair. She looked tired but elated at the same time. I could see that in her expression and in another place too. An aura had appeared about her, an ever-shifting collage of hues. For now, there was a mix of dark blues and bright greens. I did not know the meaning of it, but I knew it came with the new power I wielded. I knew I would come to understand it with time.
The woman looked past me and I turned to follow her gaze. Vix and Hop were leaning against the wall, my mother unconscious at their feet, her clothes torn away and her body bruised. They had found food somewhere in the kitchen and were munching on it. The men were both illuminated by bright greens and pinks. They seemed satisfied and sated.
The light in the lone window at the front of the house spoke of a dawn that had come and past. It was morning. A new day.
“Your name, child,” the woman said, “no longer matters. It was given to you by parents who in their ignorance thought it good. I do the same, but my name for you highlights the internal strength you possess, not a cry for a blessing from another. Your name now is Mute.”
I nodded again. The name suited me.
“And my name, Mute, is Gwen. Remember it because one day you’ll need it. You’re an Empath now, sure, but you’re going to need more training to really deserve that title.” She stood up, seemingly unfazed by the bells that had passed. I stood to follow but she stayed me with a shake of her head. “I cannot bring you with me at the moment, child. My foothold in this city is young and tenuous, at the moment. Returning to my circles with a student in tow would cause the more paranoid to act against me; they’ll think I’m looking to usurp them. I don’t have the strength yet to prevent them from forcing me out. So for now, Mute, you are to stay here. Your mother will certainly need the company.”
She headed to the front door, stepping over the wreckage, while Vix and Hop trailed behind her. She turned in the threshold, catching my eye one final time. “When you are ready, find me. I will do the same.”
And just like that, they were gone. If not for the door and my broken parents, I might’ve thought it all a dream. And this new power within me as well. An Empath.
I looked down at my hands and noticed the markings. All ten digits were marred by tiny scars on the tips. Instead of being white, they all shown a dark purple hue. I smiled.
I waited until my mother awoke and moved to comfort her as she began to relive the horrors of the night before. I decided I wasn’t going to her about my newfound powers. She didn’t need to know.
And it wasn’t like I could even say anything anyways.