Content Warnings: some body horror
“Gods’ Blood Rubies” by TS Porter
4,384 words, Short Fiction
CW: some body horror
Azulai lost patience with Nael quickly. The rich nobledwarf had asked for her, specifically, to join him at his home, but now that he had her attendance he hedged uncomfortably. He was clearly unwilling to bring up the reason he'd called for her. After a suitably polite amount of time, Azulai turned her attention to the mine foreman waiting behind him. Fonn's skin was the same blessed black of the deepest mines, her thick hair and beard twisted into a gleaming river of ropes. Her bright eyes weighed Azulai as she waited.
"Can you tell me why I have been brought here, sister?" Azulai asked. Fonn wordlessly pulled a silk wrapped bundle from her pocket and lay it on the desk before Azulai.
"It isn't really necessary to show the Good Sister..." Nael tried, but Fonn had already cut the stitches to lay it open. Azulai's breath caught; it would take a far stronger dwarf than her to be unaffected by jewels of this quality. They were unworked, a chunk of stone with corundum crystals clearly broken from a larger seam. At the heart were a few rubies, redder than blood, transitioning quickly to the vivid pink-oranges of padparadscha and fading finally to small yellow sapphires on the edges. The jewel appraisers would have a heyday arguing over which crystals had enough pigment to belong to each category once they were ready for market.
Azulai folded the loose sleeves of her habit back and reached out, cupping her hands an inch above the stone. Her arms lit up, normally invisible magic scars spreading up her forearms glowed the same rich orange-red as the jewels against the brown of her skin, like shattered pottery repaired with gold. Her scars pulsed with a slow double-beat, reacting to the magic in the stones, and Azulai met Fonn's knowing eyes.
"The blood of a god, crystallized in stone," Azulai said.
"That I told him," Fonn agreed. "But what kind of a god?"
"An old one." Azulai couldn't tell much from the shard, besides the echo of power. She reached for a vial on her belt as she began a chant, channeling the power through her hands and into the empty vessel. When she drew her hands back the stones were unchanged to the naked eye but the vial pulsed with their former power. She held it up to observe. "You were right to call on the Order of the Deeps and the Sainted Bones," she said.
"So, there really is something down there? It's not just miner's superstitions?" Nael tugged his mink coat closer around himself, drawing away from Azulai as she tucked the vial into a shielded pouch. Azulai could see the same frustration with Nael on Fonn's face that she didn't dare show on her own. Any dwarf should know there were strange things and old magics lost to the ages and preserved in the depths of the earth; the bones of ancient beasts and remnants of things far more powerful. No one knew those dangers better than miners.
"What am I supposed to do?" Nael demanded. "The mine can't be shut down and sealed. You saw the quality of the stones we're pulling out!"
"Peace my brother," Azulai soothed. "You have called upon my Order, and I will help you. As a Sister Collector I can contain any magics your miners unearth and bring them to the Order to be purified." For a price, of course. Azulai dug into the satchel at her side, reaching for the wealthy person version of the standard contract for him to sign. With his fine house and rich clothes, and the gems his mine was producing, he'd be more than able to afford it. "I trust you will find the Order's rates to be generous."
Nael's eyes bulged as he read down the contract. "This is..." he started, swelling up in anger.
Fonn leaned down close beside Nael's ear. Her voice was barely loud enough for Azulai to hear. "Sign it, or I will consider my contract broken. I and every one of my miners will walk, and bandits can take your cursed rubies."
Nael swallowed hard, still hesitating. Azulai could practically see him weighing the cost of her help against the risk of losing his miners and being unable to replace them if word spread he was stinting on safety.
"Forgive me. The Order of the Bones will not presume where we are unwanted." Azulai stood, bowing slightly and reaching for the contract to take it back. It was just enough nudge to sway Nael.
"I will be happy to pay the Order its due, Blessed Sister," Nael said, as though the words pained him. He reached for a quill and inkwell to sign. Azulai placed her signature beneath his, and Fonn signed as witness.
"It has been a pleasure, brother." Azulai smiled, blowing lightly over the signatures on her copy of the contract to set the ink. "Now if you can excuse us, I would borrow sister Fonn to discuss the finer details of the mining operation?"
"The Blessed Sister could join me for a meal in the kitchen?" Fonn invited.
"Yes, of course." Nael waved them both off, more than glad to be rid of them.
"The road has been long and weary," Azulai assented with her best regal nod and followed Fonn out of Nael's office and into a servant's passage.
"There's only going to be cold meat pies and ale, Blessed Sister, unless we disturb the cook," Fonn said, nearly an apology.
"Just Azulai, please." Azulai laughed. "All that 'holy sisters above the things of the world' stuff's for impressing the nobs, isn't it? We've got plans to make, and it'll go easier over pie."
Fonn laughed aloud, clapping Azulai on the shoulder with a strong hand. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy working with you!"
The mine was well constructed, when Azulai finally got down into it. She was dressed in the thick utilitarian stuff any miner would wear, only distinguished from them with the fancy braid that decorated her tunic to mark her as a Collector of the Order and the empty vessels that hung from her belt in lieu of a pick or chisel. Fonn's miners greeted Azulai with relief obvious on their faces as they respectfully touched their hearts or hats. Azulai nodded to acknowledge them as she followed Fonn down into the heart of the mine.
The air was fresh even deep down. Azulai could hear the air pumps running, keeping things moving. There were no dead spots that resisted ventilation for bad gasses to build up. Any weak spots were painstakingly shored up; there would be no cave-ins in this mine. Azulai nodded to herself, satisfied with Fonn's safety crew.
"You do know your mines." Fonn's voice held the warmth of a smile.
"I was mining in a sling on my mother's back." Azulai patted a support beam fondly on her way past.
"You can take a dwarf out of the mines..."
Azulai laughed and nodded along with the old saying. "I couldn't stay away, even if I'm a Collector instead of a miner now."
"Well, I'm glad we have you." Fonn sobered at the reminder of why Azulai was here. "Didn't think we were going to need a Sister, at first." Fonn gestured Azulai on with a turn of her chin, eyes briefly glinting green in the light of the glow lamps. "It started little, just a drop here and there. Pretty stones like you saw, but not many. Nothing we couldn't handle ourselves. Here we are, you can see we've got untouched deep water to pull the magic out."
"Very nice. Efficient." Azulai nodded over Fonn's setup. Silver-coated pipes fed into a small rune-carved trough to cleanse the gems. The water would be pumped up from the depths to wash over them when the mine was in operation. Let the elves experiment with spring dew and fickle moonlight―any dwarf knew there was nothing better than the rich dark of deep water to wash out magic residue.
"I wasn't born yesterday," Fonn dismissed. "This was enough when we found isolated drops, but with these latest big seams? I'm not the only one worried we're going to find whatever it bled from."
"I'm here now." Azulai touched an empty blade on her belt, waiting for magics to be poured into it. "There might be nothing but blood after all, or a faded echo of old power. If we're lucky, I won't even be needed."
"And if we're not?" Fonn asked.
"You heard of the Cruach ice plague?"
Fonn shuddered, turning her hand outward over her heart to ward the back luck away. Everyone knew of the dozens killed and far more injured by the magical backlash, and all to cut costs mining pretty blue diamonds.
"We won't let it come to that," Azulai promised. Cruach Mine hadn't called for a Sister, for one. "You've got the sense to seal the mine if I fail."
"You won't fail," Fonn said. "I've seen your record with the Order."
"I haven't yet." Azulai touched the magic scars on her hands, relics of times she'd come too close. She could feel the faint double-beat of a heart through them. "Why don't you show me the new veins?"
Azulai would never tire of mine song. She was the first in the mines at the beginning of the work shift, and the last out at the end. She entered in silence and the peaceful dark. The song started with a taptaptap as the first of the miners found their place and the slow sway of their glow lamps. The picks and hammers fell into rhythm, and then there was a hum to accompany it. There were harmonies picked up from dwarf to dwarf, carrying through the corridors with every voice adding to their complexity. There were rare words, called out in warning or celebration, weaving themselves into the tapestry of the song. The mine song was communication, joy and joining, and Azulai was an incongruous silence within the music. She only felt and listened, even when her throat burned to join in. She walked the mines silently with her scarred hands pulsing padparadscha orange in time to another beat.
Fonn's voice would sing out shift's end, and the tapped rhythms would fade away. Harmonies fell to hums, and then silence again and darkness as the last of the miners left. Azulai would check everything one last time and emerge to the living quarters where Fonn was always waiting for her.
"Nothing," Azulai would confirm, accepting Fonn's hand to pull her up the last few steps of the ladder.
"Nothing yet," Fonn would answer grimly.
The further they mined, the more likely it seemed they would find some power at the gems' source. The miners were wary, and Azulai was prepared. No jewel left the mine that wasn't double-washed in deep water to cleanse it first. They knew better than to release wild magics out into the world. Azulai anointed her vessels to keep them clean and untainted themselves. On their own they would gather echoes of magic and intention, rendering them useless. A drop of the Order's blessed oil and a soft cloth to wipe them down, and a steady chant to pull the magic out, took care of that. Azulai meticulously cleaned the short blades of different makes, the blown glass bottles, the bowls of stone or ceramic or metal, the simple beaded necklaces and pendants. Different magics were called to different vessels, and Azulai was prepared for any eventuality.
At the end of a week's work, Azulai would cleanse the miners' tools as well. They were in contact with the corundum crystals themselves and collected echoes of that magic. To pull the magic out of every helmet, hammer, chisel and pick in the mine was an exhausting task made easier by Fonn's presence. Fonn did no magic herself, but she organized the tools for Azulai and made sure whatever she needed was there the moment she wanted it. The warmth of Fonn's hand on the back of Azulai's neck eased the knots of bending over her work for too long, and a cup of sweet spiced tea restored her when she was done.
Unlike most, Fonn was not afraid of Azulai or the little glass vials of power she collected from the tools. The vials glowed the same deep red-orange as the stones they mined, and Azulai kept them individually wrapped in black silk to deaden the magic.
"What do you do with them?" Fonn asked, as Azulai put the latest vial away. It glowed brighter than the others. The magic in the stones they mined was growing stronger, and Azulai double-wrapped it for safety before she put it in her satchel.
"Take them to the Order," Azulai answered. That was where her responsibility as a Sister Collector ended. "They'll study the magic, tame it, and use the power for new enchantments."
"Get paid to collect it, then turn around and sell it," Fonn mused. "Not a bad setup."
"We earn our pay," Azulai answered. Every step in the process could turn deadly, and for every rich mine owner like Nael there were a dozen who could barely afford to pay for a Sister's keep. The Order of the Bones was well placed and respected, but no one joined it to become wealthy.
"I didn't mean to imply otherwise," Fonn soothed. Her eyes were sympathetic, and Azulai breathed deep, rolling her shoulders to ease the tension in them.
Everyone was on edge. The further they delved, the redder the rubies they pulled from the stone. The separate veins they mined began to converge. The harmonies of the mine song warned caution, but they also sang the beauty of the stones they mined and the sharp thrill of danger. Who else but they would dare take the very blood of an ancient god? Who but dwarves would mine so deep?
"Nothing yet," Azulai would confirm at the end of the day, after checking and double checking for any sign of the source.
"Soon," Fonn answered.
Azulai found herself lying awake at night. She mulled over her preparations and all her training and every other remnant of old power she'd collected. Azulai could not predict what she would be facing here, but that did not stop her from trying. Fonn, lying awake with her own worries, helped with that too. Azulai could lose herself in Fonn's strong arms and the velvet softness of her skin, the warmth of her mouth. They took miner's comfort together and slept back to back like sisters in arms after the release.
Azulai heard the surprised discovery in the harmonies of the mine song and was already running toward it by the time the shout of 'Sister' echoed back to her. The thudding padparadscha heartbeat of the mine burned like acid in her scarred hands. It was exposed now, disturbed after millennia locked in the stone: the reason Azulai was here.
"Get back, get everyone back!" Azulai shouted, unnecessarily. Everyone knew more than enough mine safety to get away. Fonn was already organizing an orderly retreat. Azulai pulled empty vessels from her belt as she ran, stringing two necklaces over her left wrist―one of clear quartz beads, the other plain gold chain. She held a delicate porcelain bowl in her left palm, a bottle in her right, and began her chant as she passed the last of the miners.
The old magic was thick and heavy around her, and Azulai pulled it in, channeling it toward the vessels she held. She stepped forward against the press of the magic, letting none of it past her. The power wrestled with her, resisting, but Azulai's chant was relentless. The magic flowed easiest into the bowl, and Azulai directed it there. It grew heavy in her hand as she stepped forward again.
The miners had found only a pinhole, but the stone around it crumbled into sand as the magic pushed its way out. Azulai stepped through into the hollow space beyond, the glittering geode heart, with grit grinding under her boots. The magic was strong, but old and directionless. Long dead. Azulai raised the heavy bowl above her head, chant rising to join it as she collected the magic. The bowl glowed with pulsing padparadscha veins to match those in the mine as it was filled to brimming with old power. This was a rich harvest, but an easy one to gather. Azulai spun the power around herself, pulling every last bit of it in and centering it on the bowl.
She didn't realize her mistake until far too late. A hint of motion across from herself, a hiss, and Azulai's eyes fixed on a twisted figure.
Azulai was not the only thing here.
It might have been a bat once, or a toad, or some unholy combination of the two carved of stone. It was all spindly webbed limbs and exposed ribs and huge distended stomach―some lost thing feeding on pure power for untold time. It snarled as it turned its glittering white eyes on Azulai, red ruby drops bleeding from its wide mouth. It pulled back on the power Azulai gathered for a fraction of a second before it struck with a burst of power and rage. Both necklaces around Azulai's arm blew first, shattering under the overwhelming pressure of the directed magic, then bottle and bowl in quick succession and Azulai had no vessel to direct the power toward. It tore into her hands, burning through her old scars and up through her bones beyond them, shredding her sleeves and shattering her arms past her elbows in white-hot agony.
Azulai screamed against the pain, no rehearsed spell but negation with all the power of her being. She pushed with everything she had, shoving the foreign power out of herself, pulling her arms together and slamming the magic out through her hands once she had hands to focus it with again.
The resulting explosion threw Azulai out of the heart chamber. She struck the wall with a sickening sharp crack through her ribs and fell tumbling down the passage. Azulai gasped shallowly through the pain, forcing her body out of its protective curl and back up to her feet. Fonn started toward her as if to help, whites visible all around her eyes in the light of the glow lamps, and several of her miners just beyond her.
"Evacuate," Azulai ordered, gesturing Fonn back sharply. "Seal the mine behind you."
The outpouring of power had stalled the creature in the chamber, but the pressure of its magic was building up stronger than ever. Azulai marched back toward it, chant on her lips as she rearmed herself with empty vessels. Sturdier ones, this time―a thick chain with a heavy copper pendant, a spiked iron collar, an etched steel bowl, and the sharpest of her daggers.
It wasn't going to be enough, but all Azulai had to do was hold it off long enough for the mine to be sealed. Whatever this thing was or had been, it was too strong for her to contain on her own.
Azulai struck the edge of the bowl with the dagger to make it chime, a challenge as she stepped back into the glittering heart. She planted her boots on the stone and pulled the power carefully now, dragging it into her vessels. Slow and steady, that had to be her strategy. The creature let out an ear-splitting shriek, lashing at Azulai with another burst of power like the first, but she was prepared now. She was not pulling in indiscriminately, and redirected it to rebound on the creature instead.
The power curled and pulsed around Azulai, thrashing in the grip of her chants, but she let none past her guard. It was always hardest to contain conscious magic that fought back, but she drained it steadily into her vessels. The dagger reached its capacity first and Azulai dropped it before it could shatter beneath the power, grabbing another off her belt to take its place. The creature wailed, high and plaintive, pulling itself forward on its knuckles with its heavy belly dragging. It could barely move, its physical body weak and weighed down with the burning red stones that filled it, but its magical power was more than enough to make up for that. It was all hunger, all rage. It lashed at Azulai, bucking against her control to send bursts of raw power through her burning arms.
Azulai couldn't judge every vessel she filled perfectly, not with the capricious power she fought. Several of the bottles and one of the necklaces burst in her hands, each with a corresponding shock of magical recoil through her body. Azulai dropped to one knee, bracing herself in the doorway as her strength flagged beneath the onslaught. Every vessel she filled undamaged weakened the creature further. Every bit of magic she drained out of it now meant an easier fight for the Sisters of the Order who would retrieve anything left of her body and collect the remaining power if the mine was eventually unsealed.
When Azulai had filled and dropped her final vessel, she lifted her bare hands between herself and the creature. She had nothing left but herself to hold the creature back, to keep this thing of ancient power contained. She was nothing but a line of defense, a ward; this the last act of protection every Sister knew she might be called to perform.
The words of the sealing chant came out of Azulai's throat in the long notes of mine song, music she'd been singing before she could walk. If she was to die, let her die with her voice ringing through carved corridors meant to carry voices like hers. Hers was a voice alone, her tune broken with shallow breaths for her cracked ribs, but she filled the space and held back against the push of the creature.
It must be a trick of the caverns that carried a harmony back to Azulai, hope to answer her sorrow. There were no other Sisters within days of travel and the mine was emptied and sealed. Fonn's voice could not be joining hers in support; but the warmth her voice at Azulai's back was real. The grim terror on her face when Azulai glanced back toward her was real.
The pick she stretched out to offer Azulai was real, too.
Azulai's fingers closed around the sturdy handle of Fonn's own pick, and it was an empty vessel. Just the night before she'd cleansed it along with her own tools, blessed oil and soft cloth wiping it down in smooth meditative motions. It was something to keep her hands busy until Fonn finished tying her hair up in her silk scarf for bed and Azulai put her tools away to join her.
The pick was big, heavy steel and wood seasoned as hard as iron; a tool intended for an entirely different purpose, but Azulai could adapt. Azulai's chant changed. The warded wall she'd built to fight against the creature's push reversed, pulling it in instead on its own momentum. It had been long years since she swung a pick, but Azulai's body remembered. She surged forward one step, bringing the pick down with all her might and her throat singing grim defiance. The glittering floor shattered beneath her blow, power broken surging around her, and Azulai pulled everything into the pick with both hands and all her strength.
It was far too much for any vessel to hold. The pick must shatter beneath the overwhelming power, and Azulai close after, but it did not. The power thrashed, burning against her grip, and the pick held. The creature wailed, high and despairing as it tried to retreat, but far too late. Azulai pulled every last vestige of the old power out of it and it crumbled―white dust and broken rubies.
Azulai slumped forward to rest her forehead against the floor, voice falling silent as the welcome dark of the mine closed back in around her. It was done. The hoarse shallow gasps of Azulai's breath were alone in the chamber for long moments until they were joined by hesitant footfalls and the light of a glow lamp.
"Azulai?" Fonn asked, reaching out as she hunkered beside Azulai but not quite daring to touch.
"We're safe. I got it." Azulai giggled at the absurdity of being alive and triumphant, but the motion shot fire through her ribs. She gasped at the pain, which hurt too, and finished on a high choked whimper. Fonn did touch her then, fingers warm against the back of her neck. "Just cracked ribs. I'll live," Azulai promised. She pushed herself up on her aching arms. They were physically unharmed, but the shredded remnants of her sleeves bore witness to the damage they'd taken. More magic scars to carry.
"Let's get you out then." Fonn was all business now, helping Azulai up to her feet. "We've got a few minutes to let my miners know we won. They don't need to seal the mine."
"You shouldn't have left it open," Azulai protested. "That was reckless." Calls like that were exactly how rogue magics escaped to kill good dwarves.
"Says the dwarf who makes a career of running toward deadly magic," Fonn said dryly. She got her shoulder under Azulai's arm to support her. "I couldn't leave you to sing your death alone; didn't have it in me. Come on."
Azulai leaned heavily against Fonn's solid side, holding her close and breathing shallowly as she was more than half carried out of the mine. Her head was swimming, she might not have found her way on her own, but Fonn was taking care of that. Azulai just kept a firm grip on the heavy pick pulsing deep red-orange in her hand―the blood power of an ancient god far more powerful than she would ever be, contained and collected as was her sacred duty.
There was no such thing as mining too far or delving too deep. The Order of the Deeps and the Sainted Bones made sure of that.
TS Porter is a tiny geek frequently mistaken for a collection of knobbly twigs wearing glasses. When not sleeping, they are usually found obsessively writing or baking sweet delicacies. TS’ physical location and momentum varies, but home is always online. They can be found at ts-porter.tumblr.com or on twitter @TSPorterAuthor