Ida woke to the smell of peaches. Her nose twitched at the pungent aroma. The inside of her nostrils seemed to prickle with it, and it felt like a thick coat on her tongue. She squeezed her eyes shut and pulled her blanket tighter around her, trying to block out the thick scent and the chill that pierced through the air. She tried to push her way back into her dream, but between the fruity stench and the sudden cold it was useless.
Ida sat up, wrapping herself into the threadbare blanket. Normally it would be enough for these warm summer months, but it must have stormed for this chill to invade its way through. The room was dark with the night, but her eyes adjusted after a few minutes. She could make out her sister, a lump under the blanket that pulsed with breath. She poured herself out of bed, the blanket dropping to the floorboards around her like a luxurious cape. Her stomach hollowed with hunger over the night -- she was sure her mother wouldn’t mind if she stole a small scone from the bakery’s baskets…
As she stepped to the door, her toes suddenly dipped into a puddle. She leapt back. The water had been warm, almost hot, and it felt thick between her toes. She crouched down and could barely see the clumping edges of the puddle. It seemed to be thickening, oozing from beyond the door. Ida’s stomach tightened with hesitant fear. She was sure that someone had just spilled something, or perhaps turned over a jar of honey and it’d just now made its way through. For a moment, she considered ignoring her stomach’s growls and going back to bed just so she wouldn’t have to clean it up. She shivered under the blanket. Her parents would be frustrated if they saw it. She had better clean it and save her and Amice from their annoyed barks for the rest of the day. She lifted her hand from the folds of the blanket and pushed the door open.
A frozen breeze gently blew over her face, carrying the aroma of peaches. Ida took a step forward before every muscle in her body turned to ice. She wanted to turn and run, but she could not tear her eyes away from what lay before her.
Her parents lay on the floor of the bakery, neither moving, both leaking ruby red blood. Her mother’s head was turned toward her, her eyes peacefully shut as if she were sleeping, her fiery red hair fanned out on the floor around her. A sour wound festered in her chest, open and cold and clean. Her father had his head on her stomach, his arms wrapped around her. The skin of his forearms had been split open, turning his pallor white as milk as a lake of blood formed around him and trailed down the hall. A slicing knife had been nearly swallowed by the puddle, the cool silver blade consumed with red.
“Oh, child…” a soft voice purred, heavy with tears. Ida turned, then fell back a step. Her feet caught in the blankets and the warm puddle, causing her to stumble. She caught herself on the doorframe, allowing the blanket to fall and splash blood onto her bare shins and knees.
A crone sat in a chair against the wall, the one provided to customers while they waited for their bread and pastries. She was taller than any woman Ida had ever seen, her skin like dried parchment, folded over and over in a mess of wrinkles. Her iron gray hair piled in her lap beside her gnarled hands, her long nails delicately holding a fuzzy peach. Her gown was blue like sapphires and more extravagant than anything Ida had ever seen, loosely hanging from the woman’s rail-thin frame in satin folds and lacy designs. Her chapped lips hung open in a frown, her eyes fixed on Ida. One was blue like her dress, the other brown like bark. Ida couldn’t help but feel like she was generating the freezing air and the peachy aroma.
“I know you are scared. I wish there was a better way, but all magic demands a price.” She turned her mismatched eyes to Ida’s parents. “They were good people, sacrificing themselves, for you and your sister. For the good of us all.”
“M-m-my parents aren’t wizards.”
The eyes drifted back to her. “Wouldn’t you like to be? You haven’t seen magic, I know, but you’ve heard stories, have you not? Mighty men and women who could bend the world to their will, make the impossible possible, stand up for what is right and beat down what is wrong. Is that something you would like to do?”
Ida felt the cold in her soul. She looked back to her parents’ bodies. Every time she looked to them she felt more shock and pain. They couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t imagine a world without her mother’s laugh, her father’s powerful hugs, her mother’s stern words of admonishment, her father’s well-intentioned lessons. She could not comprehend a world where she could not run into her parents’ arms at the end of the day.
“Are they dead?” she whispered, the words barely making their way from her throat.
The crone sighed. “I am afraid so. I know it seems scary, Ida, but you will be strong without them. You will make them proud.”
Ida clapped a hand to her mouth as a sob rushed out. She could not breathe, and hot tears began to form rivers down her face. The crone looked to the peach she was cradling.
“I believe the time has finally come. I have waited centuries for this end to come. I thought I needed to stay away, but it is clear you all won’t know what to do without a little push.” Her talon punctured the soft skin of the peach. Watery juice dripped down the side. “I have already given the others guidance through dreams. I see now that working together is the only way you may complete your Lessons.”
Ida sank down to her knees, kneeling in her parents’ warm blood. Sobs shook her chest, and her stomach ached with pain.
“Stay strong, Ida. You can make it through this. You must, for I promise that with the life you have been given, this is not the worst thing that will happen to you.” The woman slid her nail from the peach, then turned it at though it were a blade. It sliced easily under the skin of the peach, peeling it. “I wish there was a better way, this is the only way I can see to keep magic alive on this continent.”
“What are you talking about?!” Her voice cracked. She turned her eyes to the crone. “I don’t know magic! I don’t know anything about magic! I’m not a wizard!”
The peach was now naked. It shined under the light of the torches lit on the walls. She set the peach back in her lap and held the ribbons of peels in her palms. “No. You are a Sorcerer.” Her eyes flashed, but the word meant nothing to Ida. “You have the ability to become the most powerful woman in the entire world, Ida. I have given you that. I have given you a Guardian too, your tough little sister.” Her gaze turned to the door. “With her by your side, and the assistance of the others, you can fulfill your destiny and save your people.”
She looked to her and nodded once. “I know you can’t understand it. It is difficult to explain, and impossible to comprehend. You are young, but not too young. You are at the perfect age for your Lessons, and I think you might just become more powerful than the others for the simple gift of your youth and moldability.”
“I don’t understand,” she sobbed. “Why are my parents gone?”
She rose and swept over to Ida. She crouched before her, blood creeping up the long trail of her blue gown. Her eyes locked onto Ida’s, forcing her to make eye contact. There was something in her eyes, something that felt ancient and unholy and inhuman. It made Ida shiver more than the cold.
“Your parents sacrificed themselves for me. Long ago, I placed a great Curse on Throndor. Your regents, the clan of Darkhunters, have banished the practice of magic from Throndor, have established the Witch Hunt to ‘cure’ their land of magic. They fear what they do not understand, what they can never understand. Their blood is black, you see, and magic is repelled by their very bodies. They want to make the entire kingdom like them, but I will not allow it. That is why I cast the Curse, why your parents sacrificed themselves. By taking their own lives, they have imbued you and your sister with power that no other human has ever had. It is a Divine gift, Ida, and you must treasure it. You are one of the first people in all of Eirondor who actually has the ability to become Master of All Magic. You can conquer all the Schools of Magic: Wind, Water, Earth, Fire, Flesh, Thought, Light, Dark, and Soul. With that power, you shall destroy the Darkhunters…” She took Ida’s hands. Her fingers were cold and wrinkled, like a paper just pulled from the snow. “And restore magic to Throndor.”
The crone placed the peels in Ida’s hands and closed her fingers around them. “You will need these to Bind yourself to your sister. She must swear herself to protect you, even if it means giving her own life. Once she does this, she will have unprecedented power. She will know when you are in danger, how you are feeling, and where to take you. Her intuition will be her power. She can guide you to the Nine Masters of Magic, and from them you will learn your Lessons.”
Ida shook her head. “I didn’t ask for this…” she whispered.
The crone pulled her hands away. “That is what your father said.” She dared to have sorrow in her voice. “I am sorry that you must carry this burden, but it is for the good of not just Throndor, but for all of Eirondor.” She turned her gaze to some far off point on the ceiling. “I foresaw that with the cursed Darkhunters as rulers, it would set a dangerous precedent in the world. Soon their kind would consume Eirondor and herald the end of magic forever. It would mean the death of us all, of our way of life.” She looked back to Ida and raised her chin. “Be strong, Ida Walsh. Be strong, and face your destiny with head held high… and venom on your teeth,” she added with a hiss. “They will taste your bite.”
She leaned forward and pressed her dry lips to Ida’s forehead. Ida squeezed her eyes shut and sobbed. This had to be a nightmare. She must still be asleep. The air warmed around her, and the stinging reek of peaches faded. She opened her eyes and the crone was gone. Ida was left with a handful of peaches, abandoned alongside her parents’ cold corpses. She fell forward and wept.