a/n: hey, thanks for checking out Starry Veins! This is the novel I wrote for Round V of LMS, and it's still a first draft! While I don't discourage any feedback, I prefer not to receive feedback on grammar! I'm not polishing this draft up yet, so I'm not as concerned about editing. I am, of course, open to all feedback, but I ask that you keep this in consideration! Thanks <3
Every day that passed after the ambush and Isadora’s injury was agony.
Isadora herself drifted in and out of conscious. Her brow was constantly doused in a thick sheen of sweat and she was always too warm to comfort anyone. Gracia constant and vigilant care got her back to the City of Bells, and her wound was treated. When the surgeons and healers had no more for her in the infirmary, she was brought back to Luthera’s manor, where she had been lying in a silent, terrifying sleep for several hours.
Mishal sat beside her, every muscle tense in his body. He hardly left her, and how could he?
If he’d just been a little faster. He should have reacted quicker. He’d frozen so badly, his mind jarred so violently at her injuries and the creature that had wrought them…
Gracia was on the other side of her bed, her face pale and drawn. She leaned back in her chair, watching Isadora as if that would do anything for her. Mishal gripped the arms of the rocking chair tightly so he did not tap against them or tear apart anything that found its way into his fingers. It felt like lightning ran through his nerve endings.
“It’s some form of venom,” Gracia said, frowning as Isadora murmured something in her sleep.
He clenched and unclenched and clenched his jaw. “What about it?”
She grimaced, as though she were the one who had been hurt. And with all the magic she had used in the last few days, she was likely suffering some of Isadora’s same anguish. “I don’t what I can do for her, Mishal. I don’t know what the thing was that did this. I can’t make an antidote for something I have no knowledge of. Even lessening the severity of the gash so she didn’t bleed out took most of my energy. I can’t draw out venom. Not that I could at full strength either. Weak doses of venom, of poison, I could probably do that, but this…”
At the mention of the beast, his mouth tasted of copper. He could picture it clearly. He imagined it even more vividly in his dreams, what few and fleeting that he had. It had sunk claws into his minds without ever having to touch him.
“It reminded me of something,” he said. “The beast. It sounded familiar.”
Gracia lifted her gaze. “What?”
“I said I thought it looked familiar.”
“I heard you, but how could it possibly look familiar?”
He shook his head, closing his eyes. “It’ll sound mad. But you noticed how… amalgamated it was?” He opened them again.
“I didn’t really look at it, I was more focused on getting you and Isadora away.” She leaned forward and gently touched Isadora’s temple. “If you have any insight, Mishal, please.”
It had been haunting him ever since they’d fled the ambush. “Golden crest of a wild cat, wicked point from a devilled arachnid tail,” he said. “But from its visage stares back eyes of ours, a glimpse that heralds doom and woe for those who face the mighty Manticore. It was from one Cassius’ poems.”
Gracia sighed and leaned away. “The manticore is a myth. They only ever show up in books that would also bolster pixies and shadowed boogeymen.”
He set his jaw and held it this time, glancing down at Isadora’s glistening face. “I may not be as read on my folklore as Cassius, Gracia, but I’ve listened to him enough that I’d stake my pride on that beast being a manticore. Body and mane of a lion, tail of scorpion, and face of a man.”
She shook her head.
Determination reared hot in his chest. It was insane, he knew it and he could hear it, but everything he’d ever learned of them… That thing was a manticore. “What’s that thing Professor Marita always said?”
“‘There is truth to every tale,’ but this isn’t a story. This isn’t one of Cassius’ fables.”
He met her gaze again. “Then what is it?”
She folded her hands together in her lap and her brow twitched. Isadora whimpered and shifted and whimpered again.
After a pause, Gracia put her face in her hands. “Even to entertain the idea that this… creature was a manticore, that would be of no use. I don’t know what can heal manticore venom unless by its own extract to make an antidote.”
He leaned onto one side of the rocking chair, putting one leg over the other. “If the tail was severed and brought back, would that suffice?”
She levelled him with a sharp look. “Don’t you dare get any ideas about that. That thing took Isadora out with one blow. We lost people to that thing while they were just trying to distract it away from us. Forestter, Remington, Liliana, Damona, Ursa.” She softened with a long exhale. “You can’t help Isadora if you’re dead. I mean that, Mishal. I wouldn’t suggest the most competent, strongest, bravest warrior take on that thing.”
He shivered. Whether from the cold of the stone floor, in the basement of Luthera’s manor, and the lack of warmth but that from the candles lit in the room or Isadora’s fever, or from the horror of the situation, he didn’t know, but it wracked through him. Light pooled in from the stairs that led above behind him, dousing the chamber in faint light.
Mishal curled into himself. His stomach ached from more than the tension he held in it.
“Then let me help extract the venom. You said you couldn’t do it on your own, so take my energy and latent magic to use. Take as much as you need.”
Gracia raised her head, possibly to consider or maybe to chide him, but her eyebrows rose, and she looked past him instead, as some of the light filtering into the room went dark with a shadow.
He turned. Margaretta stood in an oaken archway that opened into the room, where great logs of wood extended out from and bracketed the panels behind. She strode into the room, rolling up the sleeves of her jacket, and came to stand beside Gracia.
“I know what to expect, and I have had moderately more experience than Mishal with magic and have more awakened power.” Margaretta stared down at Isadora grimly. “Take as much as you need.”
Gracia looked up at her in surprise, blinking, then shook her head. “I’m not sure how much that is, or how potent this venom is. If what Mishal speculates is true, and that thing was a manticore… Margaretta, I don’t know if there’s enough people in the world to draw it out.”
Margaretta held out her hand. Pointedly. “If it takes all my magic and all my life’s force, or you have to transfer enough of that venom to kill me, and it’s still not enough to save her, then Mishal had already volunteered.” She finally turned down towards Gracia. “But not until you’ve used every last bit of mine.”
He sat up taller, off the back of the rocker. “Margaretta—”
Her icy gaze locked onto his. “You of all of us cannot deny that this is my doing. I should not have pushed us like this, I shouldn’t have forced this on her. I should have listened. My own hubris should not fall onto Isadora’s shoulders, nor yours. I will do whatever is in my power to save her. If you do not believe me, or if I’ve caused your trust in me to waver, I understand. But believe me on this, Mishal. She will not die.”
Mishal held her gaze, his chest winding itself even tighter. A lump rose in his throat, his breathing went shallow, and he looked back to Isadora again. She looked pained, even in her sleep, her brow bent and her mouth firm and tense.
She will not die.
He let out a heavy breath. He released all the tension he was holding, that he had been holding for the past several days. The weight rolled off his chest. He suddenly felt very small, as he slumped back into the rocking chair, and nodded slowly.
She will not die.
“Yeah,” he said, softly. He shuddered, staring at Isadora, and nodded again, swallowing hard. “Yeah.”
She will not die. And as Margaretta took Gracia’s hand, he realised that her words had the same weight that his mother’s used to have, when he was much younger. It was the relief that accompanied an adult’s perspective, and their knowledge and experience. Margaretta knew Isadora would be okay.