It had taken a week of scratching rock against rock, but Princess Mishna had finally completed the magic circle she would use to make her desperate gamble. Sitting back on her heels, she worked her sore fingers into the strained and starved muscles of her shoulders. Not like the action was going to provide any relief. Everything ached from sleeping on straw strewn over stone for the better part of two weeks.
Mishna glanced down at the completed pattern to appreciate her work and felt her gaze slip to the side instead. She tried again and the effort made her insides squirm and robbed her of breath. Even focusing on the little bit framed by her knees was difficult now that energy was starting to flow. With each breath, the sense of presence grew, and it was not long before her proximity to the completed circle was making her hair stand on end. There was could be no doubt that this was old magic. High magic. She was starved and weak and about to wrestle with the power of the Sleeping Ones. Mishna had no idea what would happen, but death waited at the edge of her awareness, waiting for her to hesitate.
Moving so that she faced to the south, the captive royal put her right hand to the grimy floor and evoked the sleeping gods as the dusty tome had instructed. As prayers to the long-lost deities tumbled from her cracked lips, the stones beneath her began to shake beneath her fingertips.
She had done magic before, it had been her only distraction from the droll tedium of being a highly coveted national treasure, but this felt... different. The air was getting hotter, and even here, in this fetid place where political enemies were taken to die, the breath of a breeze fluttered her matted hair. Her fingers began to tingle, then her arm.
Before she could even think about pulling away, the sensation enveloped her. It felt like she was buzzing with captured lightning which kept rebounding off the sides of her soul. With each ricochet, the speed and strength of the power rose. When it felt like she would surely fly apart, the sharp pain of a blade's point blossomed in her arm at the curve of her wrist.
Cutting pressure moved up from there, scoring a single line into her sun-starved skin. Mishna bit her lip to keep from crying out, but another cutting sensation gripped her other arm, then her hips and her calves. The spell was carving itself into her but Mishna did not yield. In fact, she put her other palm on the floor and resumed her chanting.
The energy from the circle was flowing into her even faster now, turning her being into a roil of static and pressure. The pain kept escalating as the designs grew more and more ornate. It felt like every inch of her body had felt the kiss of invisible steel. Finally, after what felt like an hour of agony but had likely only been a couple of minutes, the feeling of blades on her flesh ceased.
Her blood began to bubble up along the hairline cuts and painted the intricate pattern carved into her with the crimson of her meager life force. Had the spell succeeded? The feeling of power flowing into had faded, but she felt no less delicate and frail. Had she not completed the spell? Was she just going to bleed out?
Too weak to do anything else, Misha uttered one last prayer as her blood began to affix to the circle's shape. The twin tides of red flowed along until both reunited on the far side of the engram. The moment her essence was one with the circle, there was a flash like her blood had ignited. It bubbled and foamed, consuming the circle and her knees. A glowing white fluid flowed into the network of cuts on her body. The numinous liquid was pushing inside her now, seeping in through the pattern carved by the spell.
Was this the truth of the outcome she had sought? Has she not been strong enough? Was this... Was this the end?
Even as it sank through the cracks in her flesh, the tacky liquid enveloped her limbs and torso. It flowed up her neck and forced itself between her lips. Mishna's lungs began to burn. The world went dark. It felt like she was falling forever...
Sunrise brought with it the scrape of iron on stone. The shrill screech was enough to rouse Mishna. She pulled the threadbare blanket around her for modesty before turning to face her second cousin, the new Emperor. The princess affixed him with a glare that should have rendered the traitorous snake dead on the spot.
No such miracle occurred.
"Well?" he asked, ignoring her expression. "Do you swear to be mine?"
His voice was the same sort of whining sneer as always. The sound of someone who believed themselves above everyone else. Her cousin was the sort of guy who thrived on the paradox of believing he was owed every scrap of the world while insisting to his followers that he had earned each piece with fingers made bloody from the effort.
Mishna chose not to reply. Her hands itched. She scratched at the back of one and realized the itch was from a mass of thin scars. Had the spell completed after she passed out? What had been with the light show?
"Fine then," he snapped after she had been silent for a few minutes. "You shall die this very morning, wench!" The Usurper left with a flourish of his cape of pristine white silk and the door to Mishna's cell dragged shut again.
Once he and his retinue were gone, Mishna jumped to her feet with a strength she had not felt since before the siege. She held up her arms and gasped. Raised pink lines wrapped around her as if the spell had been sewn into her skin. The scars were a marked contrast from her pale, sun-starved complexion, but something about having come close to dying to acquire them made them beautiful.
Sure that her feeling of rejuvenation was a sign that the spell had worked, she tried to pry the bars, but her thin arms only shook with the effort. Had she endured that pain for almost nothing? No, she was forgetting something. What was it?
"This spell is a path to strength," she recalled. "It is not strength itself." What did that mean?
True to her cousin's promise, Mishna was marched with other prisoners to a holding area beneath the arena floor. Standing there, trying to figure out why she had not gotten any more powerful, the princess heard a whisper. Then another and another, until it seemed like she was standing in the middle of a bustling market and not a dour cell. Heat was building in her starved muscles. Her scars were throbbing. Between one breath and the next, her arms gained a definition that had been discouraged and her feet were straining against her sandals. The tingle she had felt from the touching the spell circle sparked here and there in her body. Each time it did, she felt a small change, but it would not be long before her transformation would be noticeable. Lost High magic or not, the princess had not expected the spell to have such a pronounced effect. The ancient tome had said the enchantment was supposed to let her drain strength with a touch, but the feeling of energy flowing into her from the other competitors standing nearby was undeniable.
The tender princess who had never harmed anyone had a flash of guilt that her mere presence was causing the other captives to weaken. In her bid to survive, she was dooming them to certain death. In a moment of terrified disgust, Mishna tried to dispel the enchantment, but the words of unbinding only tickled her skin. This was awful! She had only wanted to survive the fight, not become some kind of vampire from legend. Then again, what other choice did she have? She had to survive! Only she could prevent her cousin's aspirations becoming generations of greed-fueled war and this was her only hope to do so now. The Usurper had forced her hand. Yes, were it not for his betrayal she would not be doing this.
All of a sudden, her guilt flared into a fury Mishna had never felt before. Sure, these people were criminals or political opponents, but they did not deserve to die merely to satisfy her cousin's lust for blood. By consuming their essence, she would carry their essence and lay the injustice of their deaths at the feet of the new Emporer. Then, she would strike him down with the might of the masses behind her fist. It was the least she could do to repay their sacrifice.
Her spirit galvanized, Mishna's hesitation evaporated. She stopped resisting the sensation of energy seeping through her skin, and the spell's intensity increased tenfold. More than mere vitality flowed into her now as those around her began to collapse. Memories, instincts, and emotions she had never felt before flooded her being. She made sure to whisper the name of every soul she absorbed, carving them into her mind the way the spell was carved into her flesh. Skills acquired from the dozen or so bandits, rogues, and brawlers coursed through her. Her confidence began to soar. Each moment that passed further transformed her cloistered, well-read but naive mind into that of a battle-tested warrior-scholar who had never been defeated.
However, she knew it still was not enough.
The princess walked through the crowd, draining more strength and energy from her fellow captives. Her bones cracked as her developing build outgrew her petite frame. She exulted in the feeling of pound upon pound of muscle swelling into existence beneath her scar-laced skin. Soon enough, she had the stature of a peerless warrior. While she grew, she had begun taking on the tan of someone who had lived under the sun for most of their lives. As her milk-fed complexion weathered, the pink of her scars brightened until it looked like she had tattoos that glowed with her power.
Her growing strength whispered sweet promises that she would thrive in the arena, much to the chagrin of her duplicitous cousin. She had already grown so much, and this was just from the passive absorption of those around her in one of the many holding cells. Many of these folks had been imprisoned for weeks, they were far from their peak. The first fight she was in would no doubt see her growing a considerable amount. The deposed princess began to revel in the trap presented by her spellcraft. They could either leave her as a combatant in The Fights where she would surely grow more powerful as she faced greater and greater champions or they could release her, and she would surely kill them at the first opportunity while she served house arrest. Either way was good for her. Her mother had wanted her to be a strong leader and a woman of the people. She was going to exceed those expectations in every way imaginable.
The gates above them opened and there were orders to climb out. Only she rose through the floor of the sand-filled space. Her gaze rose to her cousin's box. She could see his eyes widen from here. That moment of fear stoked the flames in her heart. She was ready. She was prepared. This was the path she was going to walk and she could accept that.
Now, what was her first meal going to be?