This might be the first time in Blood Magic‘s admittedly brief history that I found myself concerned during writing that readers might think I was trying to make some kind of modern political commentary, which I definitely was not. As the episode summary indicates, the intention with In Contempt was to have an episode that explores further the differing personalities and the relationship between Kiluron and Doil, and to dig a little deeper into another aspect of how the eponymous Blood Magic permeates and affects the entire geopolitical structuring of modern Lufilna. Unfortunately, since I chose to use Rovis refugees and Merolate immigration policy to explore these concepts, I fear that those points may be lost. As much as I want my readers to take whatever they wish from these stories I write, the essayist in me wants to ensure that there is no mistake in meaning. Then again, maybe you would never have had the thought at all if I hadn’t pointed it out, so now that I’ve belabored this point far too much, let’s move on to talking about what this story is, instead of what it is not.
Granted that it is less “exciting” than some of the other episodes, and that it is arguably telling of a rather minor incident in the affairs of Merolate and even of the characters, I really like this episode because it seems to embody in many ways my goals for the Blood Magic series, and what are some of its strengths. The whole of episode five turns on the relationship between Kiluron and Doil, and the geopolitical implications of Blood Magic in Lufilna, which I think are arguably the two strongest pillars of the series (though you as readers are more than welcome to disagree, and I would be very interested to know what you consider the series’ strengths and weaknesses). Plus, it is truly episodic, just a one-off adventure that does some world-building and character development, but otherwise leaves things largely unchanged for the main story line when the episode ends.
The more I write about it and find ways to incorporate it into episodes, the more pleased I am with what I managed (mostly by accident, if I’m honest) to do with the Blood Magic idea. As some of you long-time readers might remember, the whole magic system and the series as a whole started out as an idea for a magic system in which the cost for doing magic, the limiting factor, was that most visceral of costs: blood. My earliest story snippets using a similar magic system come from early high school, and while if you could read them you would see some elements that have endured – the Isle of Blood was in those earliest stories, as was the idea of human sacrifice to power magic – the character and tone of the idea changed significantly when I uprooted it to live in a Arthurian-style fantasy world that in many ways leans into genre-tropes. When I wrote the very first Blood Magic episode, I almost on a whim decided that my sanitized Merolate Union (which in that draft was a kingdom with a Prince Kiluron) would not get along very well with these mysterious blood-shedding warlocks.
That decision has since become one of the driving plot points of the entire series, and has permeated my entire world-building for the stories. When I sat down and starting asking myself more about the magic system, and why it was treated the way it was by the people of Lufilna, I came up with the idea for the Blood Empire – that several hundred years ago practitioners of Blood Magic built a theocratic empire using the power of human sacrifice (there’s also some interesting history of Blood Magic’s use in Lufilna in Heart City and amongst the Gruordvwrold that will not be revealed just yet). This gave a basis for the modern in-world persecution of Balancers, or Blood-worshipers, since memory of the dark days of the Blood Empire, and decrees relating to it, still endure. Then I added a few more modern incidents to keep those memories fresh, and you have the perfect scapegoats for the various peoples of Lufilna.
In this particular episode, the premise is that Rovis, which is one of the few countries in Lufilna that has not become part of the Merolate Union, was affected by the Guardian’s destructive influences just as much as Merolate was. With fewer resources (and a generally less compassionate leader) than Merolate, they are facing famine, which gives them the perfect reason to get rid of some pesky Blood Worshipers they don’t want, anyway. But since I tend not to have pure good and evil in my stories, these Blood Worshipers are just people who happen to have beliefs that are considered unpleasant by the majority – they aren’t the ones practicing human sacrifice, and they don’t even know how to use Blood Magic. But while Merolate won’t actively persecute native Balancers, their Blood Decrees do make it illegal for Balancers to immigrate.
One of my concerns recently is that I have made the Blood Priests too approachable and likable (they are the ones who actually do Blood Magic and occasionally practice human sacrifice, after all), while not showing enough of what the typical Blood Worshiper is like. Witch’s Heir was aimed indirectly at that weakness, giving some insight into Blood Magic outside of the context of the Balancer religion, and this new episode is even more directly addressing that matter. I’m walking a fine line, wanting my readers to be uncomfortable enough with this magic system to understand and feel how big of a deal it is whenever Kiluron or anyone else from Merolate goes and deals with the Blood Priests, and to comprehend and be able to rationalize the existence of the Blood Decrees and similar policies and attitudes, but still have Blood Worshipers be essentially normal and sympathetic people.
Now that I’ve probably bored you terribly with my rambling about the thought I put into this episode and the world-building considerations that underpin the magic system/religion in these stories, I bid you go and read In Contempt. I think it’s a pretty strong episode, and not nearly as dry as I made it sound. And don’t forget to check back next month for episode six.
Thick, tangled underbrush tugged at Ovra’s skin and clothes as she ran, but she had no time to worry about the scratches and ticks and burrs she was doubtless accumulating, nor to pick a more careful path; it was all she could do to keep from tripping in the failing light. Behind her, she could the harsh voices of soldiers calling back and forth, the whining of hunting dogs serving as a terrifying harmony. Somewhere ahead she knew lay the Luovis River, and beyond it, safety, or at least as much safety as she could hope to find for the night. Though her bare feet were bleeding, and her breath was jagged in her throat, she kept running, and she stayed silent. Somehow, even a whimper seemed like it would have given her away, though her pursuers could not be far behind, not with those dogs to track her scent.
Maybe it had been foolish of her to wait; the other families had certainly thought so, and several of the mothers in particular had looked upon her with scorn when she asked them to see her children safely across the river while she stayed on the Rovis side. Now that she was moments from being back in the hands of the Rovis soldiers, she was inclined to agree with them. Yet how could she have not waited? They had agreed to stick together, and that meant taking risks if there was even the slightest chance of saving one more family. To set out with a dozen families, and to make it to the border with only five…Ovra’s heart wanted to break, but she held herself together and kept running. No time for tears or regrets; the others would need her on the other side.
She tripped over a sprawled tree root, skinning her knees and somehow managing to tear what small parts of her skirt weren’t already shredded; before the pain had even registered she was on her feet again and running, heedless of the limp that had developed now in her stride. She could hear the water just ahead, drowning out the sounds of pursuit. It would drown her, too, if the others hadn’t sent the raft back across for her as she had instructed. She trusted them, but she also knew that the temptation for freedom was strong, and besides any number of things could have gone wrong. Merolate was more welcoming to Balancers than Rovis, but not by very much.
In the darkness she almost missed it, but then she realized she was right on top of it, the thick, knotted rope holding the raft to the shadowed cleft of the riverbank, right where it was supposed to be. Her fingers fumbled with it, and she bit her lip in frustration, trying to will her hands to stop shaking so much and only managing to make them shake more. Finally, she got the rope free just as two dogs burst through the tall grasses. Bent down as she was, Ovra was staring right into their eyes. At the eye contact the dogs hesitated for a quarter of a moment, which was long enough for Ovra to throw herself over the bank and into the churning water below, moments before soldiers burst through the bushes after their hunting dogs.
Cold, raging river water seized Ovra and yanked her away, tossing her about like a jewel on a tumbler – there had been no time to make sure that she jumped onto the waiting raft – and she lost all sense of direction. She started clawing desperately at the water, hoping that she was heading towards the surface, but in the darkness there was no way to tell, and her lungs were already straining and burning, her vision was going white around the edges, and her heart seemed fit to hammer its way out of its boney cage. She needed to breathe, had to breathe, and it didn’t matter if that breath was air or water – she realized that she was still holding the end of the slimy rope, the other end of which was still connected to the raft. Without even the mental capacity to spare to curse her own idiocy, she hauled along the rope with all her strength, praying that it would not slip through her rapidly numbing fingers, and a moment later her head burst into warm, sweet night air in which she could gasp and splutter to her lungs’ content.
Except that there was no time to revel in the wonderful feeling of being able to breathe again; she could see soldiers running along the banking, paralleling her course, and she was still easily within bow range. With some hidden reservoir of strength Ovra managed to clamber onto the raft’s slick surface. The pole had disappeared, probably swept off by the river, but at least she was able to breathe, and she was a little less likely to get dashed to pieces on a rock for the immediate future. That was the only future she cared about right then.
With the raft spinning erratically, and no pole, it would have taken someone with far more nautical experience than Ovra to find a steady course, but there was no one else, and Ovra needed to get to the opposite bank. Once she was there, the Rovis soldiers wouldn’t dare follow; they’d be risking an armed incident with the Merolate Union, and no one would care that they had crossed in pursuit of a dirty Blood Worshipper. Laying herself on her belly, Ovra tried to steer the flimsy raft as best she could with her hands, trying to guide it towards the opposite bank. The running soldiers and barking dogs on the Rovis side made it easy to know which riverbank she was trying to avoid, but the thud of an arrow into the wood just beside her head made nothing easier.
“Blood and Balance, what do you Rovis fools think you’re shooting at!” a voice shouted across the water, and Ovra whipped her head around to look towards the source. She thought she could dimly make out a man in Merolate colors standing on the opposite riverbank; had she really drifted as far south as the nearest border post? “Are you trying to start a war?”
There was no reply from the Rovis soldiers, and the arrows trying to hit Ovra slowed; they must have been taking more care not to shoot too close to the Merolate side of the river. Then another voice came from the Merolate side. “Look, Sir! Someone’s in the water!”
Panicking, Ovra tried to kick her raft back towards the center of the current, hoping that she could outpace all of them. Being taken in by the Merolate guardsmen might keep her safe from the Rovis soldiers, but it would present its own dangers, and not only to herself. She heard a faint splash, and wondered if the Merolate guardsmen were returning arrows of their own. Then her raft rocked sharply, almost pitching her into the river, and a sopping wet, half-naked man with a rope tied around his waist hauled himself aboard.
“Nice to meet you, Ma’am,” he said, puffing from cold and exertion. He turned back towards the Merolate bank, and shouted “Alright, reel me in!”
“Thieving Unioners!” a Rovis solider cursed from the Rovis side, but the arrows stopped flying; whoever was in command didn’t want to risk shooting a Merolate guardsman.
Time seemed to stretch, but it couldn’t have taken long for the swimmer’s fellow guardsman to haul the little raft up to the Merolate side of the riverbank. Ovra felt dazed as a strong hand helped her to her feet, and someone wrapped a warm cloak around shivering shoulders. Voices were blabbering all around her, but she couldn’t make sense of any of them, and they all kept being drowned out by a ringing in her ears that came and went in heaving waves. It wasn’t until she had been bundled up by concerned guardsmen to lay before a roaring fire in the border post that she was finally able to regain some semblance of rationality, and almost she wished that she hadn’t; her new circumstances were so overwhelming.
She didn’t want to tell the guards about the other families, but she had to explain the raft, and they just kept asking questions – kind, good-natured questions, in concerned voices and with considerate framing, accompanied by loaves of hard bread and sour broth and apologies for the quality of both – and Ovra was too distraught and too exhausted and too frightened to come up with any reasonable story but the truth. For four days she was allowed to rest and recover in the border post, and then on the fourth day a pair of guardsmen came back, leading the five families who had crossed the border before her. Two days later, two guardsmen set out from the border post with Ovra and the five families for Merolate City to have their case judged by higher authorities. It was exactly what Ovra had feared would happen to them.
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