By Peter Sartucci
This story takes place in the World of Shadow and Light. It earned an honorable mention in the "Writers of the Future" contest.
By Peter Sartucci
This story takes place in the World of Shadow and Light. It earned an honorable mention in the "Writers of the Future" contest.
“Somebody’s going to conjure a dragon?!”
I was so startled that I spoke aloud, and almost fell off the roof. The Sulfur Serpent Inn is a tall building, four stories plus a big attic where the DiUmbra acrobat troupe practices, so it’s a long way down. But I’d left that practice and climbed up here to talk privately to my secret brother, not to splash myself on the cobblestones. I hauled my butt back a-straddle the ridge-slates, shut my fool mouth and thought at him.
*Are you sure? How is that even possible without a real one to give a pattern?*
Terrell answered me with that exasperated tone of thought that he gets sometimes. I could feel him drumming his fingers on the altar rail in the Royal Chapel, smell his cinnamon and the incense of a room halfway across the Arisen City. I know being Prince-Governor of Silbar must be pretty frustrating, but by all the Seraphs, he’s the one who wanted the duty. I wouldn’t take it on a bet.
*I have no idea. I am no conjurer! Perhaps ancient bones will be enough pattern. Perhaps he’s discovered some truly new magic. Kirin, regardless of how he plans to do it, I need you to stop this mage before he succeeds. Anyone who can create such a powerful construct is a formidable danger – and this man is also utterly ruthless.*
*How do you know?*
*Because I’ve Forseen what he’ll do with his creation. He’s going to seize the Vettore tax caravan.*
I gulped. The cities of Silbar’s Vettore Coast are fever-hot with trade and gravid with gold. A large piece of the Crown’s revenues come from there, gold coin and silver ingot packed on mules over the Bright Mountains into Silbar proper. Gold to fuel commerce; silver to fuel sorcery. Guarded by two hundred men of the Royal Silbari Army.
*Salim’s Tail!* I blurted. *You’re sure this was a real vision? Even you can have a plain old bad dream.*
*It was True. Look.*
I could taste the acid churn of his stomach in my own mouth as he sent me the vision.
The famous rock spires of Fanged Pass, celebrated in the great fresco in Terrell’s palace. A dragon descending on the caravan belching flame, its wings wide as the sky and the sinuous snake of its body armored in ruby scales big as platters. Men and horses withered beneath it, scorched meat on a barren mountainside – and a deep voice laughed and said “Mine!” One of the officers was thrown from his horse, got up and raised his sword in defiance just as the flames overwhelmed him.
I knew the man.
“Menandir!” I choked. I’d learned sword-work from him in my first year as a knight. Despite a patrician bloodline he’d given freely of his time to me, a gutter rat jumped into knightly rank by Terrell’s royal fiat, while other knights looked down their noses and declared that I’d never make it.
*He asked for a field command this summer, and I picked this one for him,* Terrell whispered wretchedly.
I shivered. My twin’s visions are always true – but not complete. And they are things that might be, not things that must be. I held onto that.
*You weren’t puffing about that mage’s power,* I said. *His dragon looks real as these tiles under my rump. Any idea who this guy is? Is he a Silbari? Imperial? Foreigner?*
*No, that was everything I Saw. Not even his face – just his works and that voice, which may not even be his own. I don’t know a single thing that I could use to identify him.*
*Hmm. So all we know is that he’s a high-ranked caster who’s got power to spare and a nasty sense of style. That must fit a hundred mages right here in Aretzo.*
*Or more. But two things are evident – he’s bold, and he understands Silbari people. This is meant to terrify us with a memory out of deep time, to drive beasts mad and men to despair. And it will – you saw how most of my soldiers simply stared and died.*
Morbidly, I had to ask. *Will any escape?*
*Very few. I Saw three of the vanguard hale enough to make the ride to Narvi in haste, nearly killing their horses to send me word – too late. A handful that will flee the attack, perhaps a dozen in all. The rest will die on the mountain.*
I felt his anguish over that. Fifteen survivors out of two hundred!
*Kirin, I can’t let this happen. With that much wealth and the means to feed more sorcery in his hands, only The God knows what this mage will try next. And there are only two men that I am confident can take down someone who flaunts that much power.*
*Two? You’re sending me with Penghar?* I cringed at the thought. *There’s a baaaaad idea.*
*Oh stop it!* He snapped back. *You are both proof against magery, if in different ways. You are both Knights of the Old Order, sworn to do justice. And you are my Hands.*
I snorted rudely. *Only because you talked me into taking that damn oath. I like being an acrobat better. Anyway, oath or not, Pen still thinks I’m a demon in disguise, ready to sprout horns, claws, and a tail and start ripping up everyone around me.*
*He does not!* Terrell gets riled every time I bring this up.
*You’ve seen how he looks at me. And he’s not so far off the truth, is he? This Shadow that lives inside me . . . *
*You are not a demon! You are my twin brother, closer to my heart than any other. Even Pen, though it would pain him needlessly to hear me say it. So don’t tell him.*
Terrell opened his heart to me as well as his mind, the raw naked trust that sears me worse than fire. I flinched more than I would from a blow. How can he bear to do that? We’re not identical - I’m Darkness to his Light – and the One God didn’t make me that strong, or that good.
*Yes you are, and someday you’ll understand,* he told me. *Kirin, every minute’s precious. That caravan starts up the far side of the mountains in less than three days – too soon for a courier pigeon or even a message-construct to get there and stop it.*
*You could use those to send riders after it from the Vettore side of the mountains,* I suggested. *That’d be easier than racing to get ahead of it from this side.*
*But it doesn’t stop this mage from trying again, and next time I may not have any warning.*
*I get it,* I sighed. *You have to let Menandir and the caravan be bait to draw the damned mage out.*
We both tasted the bitterness of that decision. I wouldn’t take on his burden for anything.
*It’ll reach the Fanged Pass ten days from now,* Terrell continued doggedly. *Whoever he is, he’s bound to know I’ll move against him as fast as I can. He’ll have a plan to escape with his loot. I can’t let that happen. Please, brother, put aside your love of the flying trapeze and your acrobat tricks. I need you to ride with Pen, today. Find this mage and stop him. Take him alive if you can, dead if you must, but stop him before my soldiers die. Show everyone that my hand is held in guard over my people.*
I sighed one more time. *I’ll do it. But you can’t make me like it – or Pen either.*
He snorted back at me, gave me final instructions, and left my mind.
I climbed off the roof and down into the Sulfur Serpent to change. Riding leathers instead of my shabby rehearsal tights, boots instead of the soft slippers we wore for aerial work. My badge and knight’s ring completed my transformation. That amethyst-and-gold band winked faintly in the dimness of my room as I slipped it onto my finger and clenched my fist. When I left the Sulfur Serpent Inn the acrobat would stay behind and the knight that Terrell needed would ride out.
“You’re going away again.” A familiar voice spoke from the door; I hadn’t latched it.
“The Prince wants me to do something for him,” I answered, turning around and buckling on my sword and beltknife.
“He’ll use you up someday,” Sevan Sule DiUmbra admonished as he stepped into my room and crossed his powerful arms. A couple of his cousins crowded behind, looking worried. They were all still wearing sweaty patched hose for trapeze practice up in the attic – the very practice that I’d snuck out of to go answer Terrell’s mind-call. I’d hoped to slip out of the Inn before they realized I was gone and leave awkward explanations to later.
“I swore an oath,” I reminded him, tapping my badge. “I took his salt and his silver. When service is required of me, I go.”
He couldn’t argue with that, so he sighed, reached out and pulled me into an embrace, pounded me on the back. I squeezed his ribs in return, like hugging a tree, while the others clapped me on the shoulders and muttered worried good wishes. Sevan bent down from his ten-finger height advantage to whisper in my ear. “Be careful, little brother, and remember that your family loves you. My sister made you a DiUmbra forever.” He touched the scars in my sideburns, the ritual marks of grief I’d cut at Maia’s graveside.
“I’ll never forget. I will be back,” I answered, shoving the heartache down deep. If I’d never learned what I am, I could have been happy in the Troupe my whole life, raised children to follow me onto the trapeze, and in time laid my bones in the ground beside my wife and her ancestors, content.
But I do know what I am.
I pushed him aside and strode down the hallway to clatter down the stairwell. My sword banged off the rail as I vaulted over it on the last flight. My boot heels slammed the floor and sent an echo up the well to their watching faces. I raced through the tavern on the main floor, out to Sulfur Street and the glare of daylight.
Away from my adopted family, that knows me only as the orphan-child they found abandoned in the gutters. The family that took me in, raised me, gave me a place, a name, a wife, and a purpose. But two years ago Life and Death diced with us as pawns and the Kingdom at stake, and now my family doesn’t know what to do with me.
I ran up Sulfur Street, dodging wagons, beasts and people. The authority of my badge, the threat of my sheathed sword, and maybe even the unseen terror of my hidden Shadow cleared my path. Tears not due to wind or sun leaked from the corners of my eyes.
Sevan calls me brother even though anyone looking at us can see I’m not. Terrell got our real Mother’s brown skin and round ears, only Father’s blond hair marks his half-blood.
I wasn’t so lucky. In the land of rich brown skin-tones, I am a pale golden-tan. Amidst a sea of brown hair, mine is blacker than night. Where Silbaris have round-topped ears, mine are pointed as any God-cursed Slaver – or my conquering Imperial father. I am a half-breed in the land of the pure, and anyone can see it. My adopted family ignored the whispers and the derision and tried to bind me to them with chains of love. But only the one who shared Mother’s womb with me truly knows and accepts everything that I am.
And because he asks, but never commands, I’ll go battle the nastiest Mage in the world.
Sir Penghar Veryhs DiLione waited for me at the Old Order Chapter House. I had a room here too though I rarely used it, which gave him heartburn. He didn’t approve of my ‘slumming’ down on disreputable Sulfur Street. The courtyard boiled with action, grooms organized horses, squires packed equipment and weapons. It looked like Pen and I weren’t going alone.
The Master of the House stood by Pen’s side on the doorstep with his gray hair uncovered to the sky. Technically he ranked the two of us as mere Knights, but Pen and I both wore something he could only gaze at in helpless envy. The silver hand on a purple field ringed by double overlapping circles, the badges that make us the Hands of the Prince. People call us the Right Hand and the Left. Nobody needs two guesses to figure out which one I am.
“Sir Kirin DiUmbra,” the Master greeted me with an unforced smile.
“My Lord Sir Berreghar Aambar DiViga.” I saluted as I gave him his three full names and then clasped wrists with him in the Warriors’ Grip, which made us equals for protocol. Courtesy is cheap, and besides he’s a decent man at heart or he wouldn’t command the Chapter House. He’s just never had any idea what to make of half-breed gutter-trash jumped-up me. “Is my gear ready, Master?”
“In moments,” he promised, and inclined his head toward the frenetic bustle.
“Thank you, my lord,” I told him, and suppressed a sigh as I turned. “Hello, Penghar. I’ll bet ten gold Royals that you’ve already organized everything the way you like it.”
Pen squinted at me. He’s twelve fingers taller and several shades browner than me, a lot like the Master. Only Pen has rich chestnut hair above a chiseled face that’s handsomer than any statue in the Corridor of Perfection. Maidens yearn for him everywhere he goes, though it does them no good. Pen’s more celibate than an anchorite sealed in a monastery cell.
I wonder if that’s why he’s such an asshole?
“I’m in charge of this mission.” He growled like a surly bear. “You follow my orders.”
“As long as they’re not stupid orders,” I answered equitably. Terrell hadn’t said anything about command so I would bet that Pen was pushing the limits of his authority. “Who else are we dragging along?”
“Just four of my Horse Guards.” He sneered slightly in aristocratic snobbery.
I don’t have a troop of men waiting on my command, nor a hereditary estate to support them. When I found out who my parents really were I made Terrell promise never to stick me with that burden. I smiled innocently.
“Is Handsome ready?”
Pen’s sneer turned sour. I did have a horse that turned him pea-green with envy, not least because Terrell had gifted it to me right out of the Royal Stables. “Yes,” he grunted.
“Then let’s go.”
I saluted the Master again and turned on my heel. Two of the Chapter House squires held our mounts, the four Horse Guards ready behind them with a string of remounts and some pack horses. I checked Handsome’s saddle girth. He liked to play tricks when the grooms let him get away with it. They’d been careful today, so I mounted up. Pen had already done the same with his own mare and he sat on her back with an open impatience that I ignored. We cantered out the Chapter House gate under the ancient stone arch carved with the words Duty and Honor.
Pen set a hard pace once we cleared the City’s north gate. The Kings’ Road has a grassy sward on the east edge for messengers and Royal agents and we took full advantage. Handsome enjoyed the chance to stretch himself and I got reacquainted with his fluid gait. We switched horses regularly to spare them as much as possible – there were three remounts just for me. And we ate the miles, riding till dark and rising before dawn in these long spring days, in a race against time.
First three nights out we found inns and I made excuses to avoid Pen as much as possible. But the fourth night we camped in an orange orchard. Swelling green fruit had begun to bow the leafy branches overhead. Two of the Horse Guards set up camp under the moonlight while another built an economical fire of scavenged twigs and started cooking supper. The last Guard, Cantin something-or-other, helped me tend to the horses, as we had done the last three nights. We had bought grain and mash for the beasts from the orchard owner, to soften the terrible strain we were putting them through.
“You be a verra good horseman, m’lord,” Cantin remarked to me in the Guards’ brogue; from his men’s speech Pen’s estate must be in deep country. The youngest of the four, Cantin spoke to me shyly with a little head-bow for my rank. It was the first time he’d said anything to me that wasn’t straight pass-the-feed-bag-please business.
“Thank you. I try.” I wasn’t raised a horseman, I’m city-bred, but Terrell’s memories of caring for his own horses had guided me ever since I agreed to be knighted. There are many advantages to mind-speaking. “But Handsome makes it easy.” I ran a brush down the big yellow gelding’s withers and he sighed with horsey pleasure and leaned into the strokes.
“An’ he be a fine battle-steed,” Cantin nodded admiringly, wielding the curry-comb on one of Pen’s remounts. “The way he moves, his lines, I kin tell he’s had war-trainin’ too. Tis a shame about his head.”
“You mean his lumpy face and bobbed ears? Well, that’s why I named him Handsome.” I switched to picking burrs and twigs out of his mane.
Cantin chuckled. He seemed genuinely glad to have my help, the first thaw in the Guards’ oh-so-formal correctness toward me since we started. When we finished a minimal combing job on each of the remount horses we walked back to the fire together.
Penghar sat on his saddle near the flames and cleaned road-mud off his sword-sheath. Riding this fast got us amazingly filthy. I yearned for a bath after only four days, and was dismally sure I wouldn’t get one any time soon. His sword Irreneetha stood up out of a rock into which he’d thrust her point, piercing stone as easily as cutting cheese. That alone proves what that sword really is.
The angel within the blade turned and looked straight at me.
I paused under the weight of her regard – what do you say to an angel? I settled for mute staring, wondering if she meant to speak to me and whether I’d even be able to hear her voice. But after a long unblinking study she only gave me the tiniest nod, as if in dismissal. I didn’t know if that meant I’d measured up – or never would.
I answered her with a little bow, then Gerdon handed me a bowl of stew. Even dried meat and desecrated vegetables taste good when your ass aches from too much riding. I squatted on my hams to spoon up supper and all the while Pen’s eyes followed me. It set my teeth on edge and spoiled the meal. It was almost a relief when he finally asked, “Why did you bow to her?”
I swallowed a last mouthful before I answered, too tired to be deferential. “She’s a lady, Pen. You’ve told me yourself - a knight should always return courtesy to ladies.”
“’Return courtesy’?” He set down his cleaning rag, leaned forward. “What courtesy do you mean?”
I really should have shut up then. “She looked me over, gave me a nod, I bowed – what in the Nine Hells else should I do? It’s not like I spend a lot of time around angels!”
The men muttered, drew away from me slightly. Their eyes looked bigger in the night as the fire died to embers. They all knew she was there – Pen and his sword are rightly famous – but unless she chose to manifest to them, they couldn’t see her. I cursed my tired brain for letting slip the knowledge that I could.
Pen glared suspiciously at me and his knuckles tightened on the sheath. “No surprise. You prefer the company of devils.”
I glowered at him, bit back the first thing that crossed my mind, and the second and third, settled for saying “I do not. His Highness trusts me – I don’t have to prove anything to you!”
“Oh yes you do, gutter-boy,” Pen said softly, pulling Irreneetha out of the stone and wiping her blade while he stared at me. “You have everything to prove.”
I threw up my hands, took my bowl and spoon over to a little irrigation ditch to wash them, and got ready for sleep. The men all avoided me as they doused the fire and sought their own bedrolls except Bellir on watch under the light of the Two Moons. In the dark sky, Calm waned as Madness waxed; the omen was much too fitting for comfort.
The Guards had set up four lean-tos for us in case of rain, one each for me and Pen and two for themselves. I rolled myself in my own blanket under the canvas and pointedly turned my back on Pen.
He could run me through in my sleep, if his honor would ever allow it, but I’d be damned if I was going to let him think he worried me.
Before I’d quite finished listing Pen’s sins and well before I got to sleep, a scent of cinnamon came to me and Terrell spoke inside my head.
*What?* I growled.
*Something’s troubling you.*
*Pen,* I answered shortly. *His damn sword looked at me tonight, so he had to be a prick about it.*
Terrell winced at my description of Irreneetha. I was too resentful to care.
*He keeps jabbing me with words,* I grumbled. *I’ve put up with it for four days already and I’m getting mighty damn tired. Worst of it is, I can’t even let him pick a real fight with me – I’d kill him. And then you’d be sad forever, and I couldn’t stand that.*
He was quiet for a while, just nestled there inside my mind. Usually that made me squirm, but tonight it was weirdly comforting. When I was little the woman I’d called Mama had held me much like that. Though dead for over a decade, she was still more real to me than my actual birth mother.
*You know that Pen was raised with me as my foster-brother,* he began.
*Yeah, you told me he was a cradle-substitute for me when Mother feared our sweet-tempered stepbrother would find a way to kill us both – which Osrick thought he did, with me.* I scowled. The craziness in my birth-sire’s family could scare me spitless when I thought about it too much. *Why are you raking that up now?*
*Pen spent his growing-up years thinking of you as a tragedy safely in the past, and at the same time trying to live up to the role he thought you were meant to play in the Dynasty. Brother and shield to me. He built himself around it.*
*Yeah, yeah, so Pen got to grow up in a palace and even got a fancy sword out of the deal. Meanwhile I ended up abandoned in a gutter. If the DiUmbras hadn’t taken me in I would have died for real. And somehow I’m to blame for him getting the sweet end?*
*You’re sure he’sblamingyou?* Terrell’s mind-voice was soft. *Or might he be envying you?*
*Envy? The virtuous Sir Penghar, the noble, the chaste, stooping to commit a sin as mundane as envy? Surely not.*
*Be as sarcastic as you want, but think about it. He was my most trusted companion, my only agemate and confidant, for eighteen years. Then you appeared, dripping Shadows and talking and acting like the antithesis of nobility, and suddenly I elevate you out of the gutter and into the Old Order at his side, and even make you one of my Hands. To his eyes you’re the first stranger I ever gave my trust to, and he doesn’t know or understand why. I should have foreseen that would make him feel threatened.*
*Threatened? Salim’s Tail, I’ve been bending over backwards toavoidthreatening him!*
*Kirin, he’s feeling hurt and can’t allow himself to admit it.*
*So he turns himself into a big prick instead?*
*Inelegant phrasing, but essentially correct.*
I ground my teeth. *And you want me to just put up with his dung?*
*Please. I haven’t asked you two to work together before, it’ll be grating on him too. Give him time to get used to you, time to see you as a man and not a symbol. Time to become your friend too.*
*Aauugghh!* I almost groaned out loud. *I don’t want to be his friend! I want to knock his teeth in!*
*Which would give you a little ephemeral pleasure at the cost of cut knuckles. Please, Kirin; give him time.*
I grumped some more but finally promised to try to befriend the arrogant sonofabitch. Why do I let Terrell talk me into these things?
I tried. I really did.
And I succeeded pretty well for two whole days. I was polite; I was friendly to the Horse Guards and obedient when Pen rapped out orders. And his orders weren’t even stupid, most of the time. The couple that were, well, I gritted my teeth and obeyed anyway, mostly.
Our route had turned west and started climbing the long road to Narvi. The dry foothills of the Bright Mountains rose around us and the road began to imitate a snake, bending back and forth across grassy slopes dotted with cedar and rosemary. Startled deer bounded away, shepherds minded flocks, and sheepdogs barked at us with no respect for our ranks. Sometimes we threaded the edges of sharp canyons where roaring streams cut their way down to the flats. The hot valley air thinned, became cleaner and colder. The distant peaks drew closer.
That mountain-road was only lightly travelled. Spring lay far behind us and the Fanged Pass had been open for a month. All the pent-up caravans waiting for the snows to melt had long since passed through. The manure they left behind bred clouds of flies to plague us. It was a relief to climb into true forest.
Then it rained.
Thick-needled deodar cedars crowded the curving road and dripped on the stones, the horses, and us. Clouds dimmed the Two Suns overhead and we could barely see a hundred feet. Pen was in front and I’d just swapped into the middle after a turn at tail. The grade was gentle so we were all riding at a canter, fast enough that when we rounded a bend it was a surprise to find a stopped wagon.
The bandits massacring its riders were almost as surprised as us.
Smart bandits would have kept a better watch. Smarter ones would have run before we got within reach. These were more brave than smart.
There’s nothing wrong with Pen’s wits. He had drawn Irreneetha before the first bandit shouted warning. Her white light glared, which meant she had no doubt evil was being committed before our eyes. I saw two uniformed guardsmen bleeding in the road with six ragged men worrying them like wolves. In the wagon a youth with an arrow in his shoulder failed to parry the gut stroke that killed him an instant later. A graybeard sprawled on the wagon-bench, another arrow in his chest and a ragged man cutting a ring from his finger.
“Surrender to the Crown’s Justice!” Pen shouted, but their blood was up from the killing. They growled at us and raised their weapons instead.
Pen leveled his blade and yelled “Attack!” even as the bandits’ lone archer drew and shot. The arrow flicked at us and a beam of light from the sword met it in midair. Splinters and feathers drifted toward the ground.
We were six to their ten. They fought on foot with knives, clubs, spears and one bow. We answered from horseback with swords, Light, and Darkness.
The Horse Guards drew their blades and pressed forward. I filled my left hand with Shadow and hurled it into the archer’s face. He staggered as inky night plastered his eyes. When it flowed up his nose he dropped the bow and screamed as he tore at his face. I filled my right hand with more Shadow and drew my sword in my left, urged Handsome forward with my knees.
I threw the second Shadow at a spearman before he could stab Cantin. I hit the bastard’s face off-center, but still half his world went dark. His thrust went awry and Cantin didn’t give him a second chance.
Irreneetha blazed in Pen’s hands like a splinter of Sun. A black-toothed thug with a bloody longknife leaped off the carriage right at him. Pen’s glowing blade split the man’s head to the jaw. Red ruin dropped into the mud as Pen pivoted his horse and slashed at another bandit. Irreneetha was an arc of light and a club-man dropped. A young spearman gaped as the head of his weapon spun away from the shaft, and then Pen’s return stroke removed the boy-bandit’s own head.
A knife-wielding scarecrow came at me from my right side, where my blade had the least reach. I signaled Handsome to pivot under me and he lashed out with a hoof that sent the man toppling. Gerdon stabbed downward as he passed me and his own horse trod on the body. I grabbed more Shadow and flung it at another bandit, then charged Handsome toward the archer. The man had scraped my Shadow from his eyes, squatted down to pick up his bow, and realized I was too close. He came up snarling with a longknife in each hand.
Never threaten a battle-steed or his rider unless you’re riding one yourself.
Handsome kicked again and grazed the bandit. The man staggered and dropped one knife. Then I jabbed my sword into him. It grated on metal; he had some kind of armor-piece amidst the rags. He slashed at me with the other blade. I barely parried it as I passed. Then he was behind me and Handsome bucked into a tremendous back-legs kick. This time the blow was no graze. I heard bones break and the man squealed like a dying rabbit.
And then it was over. Two bandits broke from the pack, tried to run. One went straight up the road and got maybe ten strides before Pen rode him down. The other ran downhill into the woods and we lost him.
I urged Handsome over to the wagon, climbed in to see if anything could be done for the two riders. It was hopeless. Blood spattered the boy’s lips. The bandit’s longknife had stabbed high enough to pierce a lung. The lad tried to speak, spraying me with the last of his life, and then went still. He had the barest suggestion of a beard, not even old enough to shave yet. I made the Sign of the One over him, grieving. I didn’t know what kind of man he might have been becoming but he’d fought valiantly to defend the oldster.
That one was also dead. The arrow had missed his lungs but split his heart. By the resemblance between him and the boy I thought he must be the youth’s father. There was gray in his brown hair and wrinkles on his face, I judged him past forty but not quite fifty. His hands were remarkably smooth but ink-stained; a scribe. He had the dual white scars in his sideburns, the cuts that mark a Silbari widower.
My heart squeezed within me. I had done the same only two years ago, and knew how little the ritual helped. Maia’s memory hammered me while I closed his staring eyes and made the Sign again. “Go find her,” I whispered.
Pen rode back to us. “Any still alive?” he demanded.
“Not here,” I answered bitterly. “We were too late.”
“Bellir?” Pen’s voice rapped out.
That horse guard nodded, his hands busy with one of the bandits sprawled against a tree. The sword-stroke that had removed the man’s right arm left an opened artery that spurted into the mud. “This wound will kill him, milord, but he’s got a few minutes left.”
“Good!” I snarled as I vaulted out of the wagon and dropped to my knees beside Bellir. “He’ll spend them talking!”
And I poured out the Shadow that lives inside me, split the Skin of the World beneath the bandit, and bared his soul to Hell.
“Speak!” I roared as I dangled him over the long fall that lies beneath the illusion on which we stand. Bellir scrambled away in terror. “Why did you attack these men?”
The bandit’s eyes were white all the way around and he’d already fouled himself in his pain. The new terror on his face bit me like a viper.
“The Narvi mine payroll,” he gibbered. “He’s the pay-clerk! Money’s in the cart! With that much gold I could pay off the others and get me and my boys a farm again!”
“Your boys?” I stared at his weathered face, looked around at the heaped corpses. The head of the bandit Pen had beheaded lay nearby, staring at me. The features were a match. “So you’re a family of bandits?”
“No!” The man wailed. “I lost my land to Duke Anagni! He threw us off so’s he could put my fields into horse-pasture! Turned me and my three boys out on the road. We couldn’t get work in the mines, had to beg.” He ran down as his life leaked away. “Better to turn robber than watch my boys starve . . .” Then his voice died with his heart as the red flow stopped. I felt his soul depart between my fingers.
I let the Skin of the World close under him, set his shoulders gently down on the chill ground, and closed his eyes. I sat there numb for a moment with my Shadow pooled about my knees. I was no stranger to the desperation that could overcome a poor man’s scruples when the survival of his family was at stake. Two men and their sons.
It took me a while to remember where I was, another to realize that the rain had stopped. The four Guards had drawn away from me. They stood in a rough line staring at me, hands on their swords – two drawn, two not, and Penghar astride his horse behind them with Irreneetha at the ready.
Painfully, I forced the Shadow back inside me, drawing it in through my skin. The fourth Guard, Darbin, spat an oath and drew his sword. That made three facing me in addition to Pen’s angel. Cantin’s grip tightened on his own pommel but he didn’t quite draw.
“Evil sorcery?” Bellir half-asked, half accused, trembling so badly that his sword-point twitched in circles.
“No,” I told him. Then I forced myself to my feet, swaying a little. Using my Shadow has a cost not measured in gold. “Never that. Terrell – no.” My brother had saved me from that deadly temptation, not the least of the reasons why I choose to serve him.
I curbed my traitor tongue and drew my head up to face them proudly. My ring glinted in the weak sunslight. “I am the Left Hand of Prince Terrell, the rightful bearer of the crown of Silbar. I gave him my oath freely, as did you all. And by that oath I will live and die.”
I raked them all with my eyes. All four guards flinched. It is no small thing in Silbar to wear my brother’s badge. Pen met my gaze unblinking for a long moment, and then glanced aside at Irreneetha.
The soul-sword’s light had dimmed once the last bandit died; now it faded out entirely. Before she went back to being merely an insanely sharp sword, she looked at me once again, and this time I thought I saw cool approval. Pen blinked, frowned, and slowly sheathed her.
“Let’s get busy,” he grunted. “Collect the bodies. We’ll use the wagon to haul them to Narvi. If this really is the payroll clerk, somebody there needs to be chewed out for letting him travel with only two guards and a boy.”
I bent down and lifted the dead bandit-leader first.
The wagonload of bodies slowed us. We had to tie on some of our remounts to get it over the rougher places in the road. It took another day and a half of brutal work to reach Narvi perched on its mine-riddled cliff. Pen pushed us hard and I didn’t even mind, much. The dead were a burden on all of our spirits.
When night caught us we had to camp on the roadside. We set fires around us to discourage the beasts drawn by our bloody cargo. As usual, Pen began to clean Irreneetha’s sheath while the Guards set up camp. It’s downright unnatural how picky he is about caring for her.
The skies threatened rain again. I didn’t look forward to spending a night wet and cold in the company of corpses.
I used one of our canvas shelters to cover the bodies stacked like cordwood in the wagon. We had set the bandits on the left and their victims on the right, but the jolting trip had thrown them together. After I lashed the canvas down in the flickering firelight I leaned on the wood with my hands on the cloth. I let my Shadow seep out through my palms and poured it over the corpses. I commanded it to slay the small-lives that had already begun to feast on the cold flesh; that would delay the rot for a while. It was dark, I thought I was being discreet, but Pen caught me at it.
“What are you doing?” he asked me quietly as he stepped up to my side, for once sounding like he actually wanted to know. He held Irreneetha unsheathed while he polished her with an oiled cloth, not threatening me but just there between us. Her blade winked in the firelight, the steel marked by ripples that drew the eye inward and inward.
“This’ll stop them from stinking for a little while,” I grunted, letting my Shadow flee back inside me. It didn’t like being close to Irreneetha. “Until they can be put in the ground. It’s the only dignity I can give them.”
“The bandits don’t deserve dignity.” Pen scowled at the canvas.
“All men deserve dignity. Not enough get it.”
Pen jerked his chin a little at that, gave me an odd look. His hands stopped polishing Irreneetha. She gleamed in the firelight, just a dappled piece of steel – until her face looked at me again. Those ghostly eyes, like pools beyond the World.
I still didn’t know what to say to her.
So instead I went to the cook-fire, ate more trail-stew served by Bellir who watched me with too-large eyes, washed my bowl and spoon, and went to my bedroll. Pen and I had to share the third shelter tonight and it was barely large enough. I put my back to his bedroll, not caring to watch him at his prayers. It had been two years since I could pray to the One God without bitterness. But I couldn’t shut out the quiet mumble of his voice, counterpoint to the drizzle that began to tap on the canvas overhead.
He finished and paused, kneeling with Irreneetha between his palms.
“Do you ever pray?” his quiet voice asked. I could barely hear him over the rain.
I was so startled that I sat up and stared at him in the close confines of the canvas. He stared back at me, chiseled perfection in the flickering light of the smoky guard-fires. Even when he’s slogged through mud he’s still a goddamned perfect statue. There was nothing in his face but a curiosity that was the more infuriating for being calm and reasonable.
“Not any more,” I finally said.
“Why not?” His eyes were on me, steady, just waiting. So were Irreneetha’s.
I held up one hand, palm uppermost, and filled it with Shadow till darker-than-darkness dripped between my fingers. A thought and it grew into a sword of night balanced on my palm and reaching for the Moons, then collapsed as quickly into a roiling mess of chaos.
“Since I figured out it was the God of our ancestors who stuck me with carrying this around.”
The Shadow dribbled down my forearm and quickly vanished back inside me, fleeing Irreneetha. Pen remained rock-still as I closed my fist on the last of the Shadow and took it all within once more, but his eyes had white all around the edges.
“That’s why I don’t pray. Good night, my lord Sir Penghar Veryhs DiLione.” I hoped my voice dripped with more sarcasm than my hand dripped Shadow. At least, I meant it to be sarcasm. I’m too strong to show pain in front of Pen.
I rolled over and pulled my blanket back around me against the mountain chill. I wondered if he’d take this chance to drive her blade through my unprotected back. Wondered what would happen when the Angel met my Shadow inside me. Would I die? Would she? Would he?
By The One, I was feeling downright morbid tonight. The thirteen bodies in the wagon were cold and silent, but I could practically sense them individually. Thirteen lives, now thirteen lumps of meat. Somewhere in the forest a wolf howled. The Horse Guard on watch added more wood to the fires.
Then soil crunched as Pen thrust the soul-sword’s blade into the ground between us. I didn’t have to roll over to know that the Angel was looking at me still.
“Your mind is a lonely place, Sir DiUmbra,” he said quietly.
Pen rolled himself in his blankets and was snoring in minutes. I silently cursed him as the night wore slowly on. It was a long time before the rain finally gave me sleep.
We delivered the wagon to the civil authorities of Narvi. A scribe at the City House took our testimony. Most of the bandits were unknowns never reported before. The Magistrate guessed they were landless men who must have recently drifted in. I confirmed that based on the dying words of the bandit chief. No one mentioned how I’d extracted that confession, but I felt anew the wretched man’s desperation like a sickness in my stomach. Every soul that touches my Shadow makes a mark on mine.
With two Prince’s Hands involved there’d be no official questions about their deaths, but one of the dead guards left a widow and daughter who’d have to be told. Pen handled that while the rest of us waited, dirty and bruised, outside a neat little house in the wan sunshine. It was the first time in the whole trip that I was grateful to him. The daughter was shocked, and then wept; the widow just wept. My heart ached for them. Pen spoke quiet words, I don’t know what they were but I hoped they helped.
Then we took the payroll to the mine and Pen delivered a couple hundred words of stern reprimand for the mine manager, which made me feel a little better. Though in his place I’d have been more bitter and angry.
“And one more thing,” Pen added. “See that his widow gets a pension sufficient to support her.”
My brows must have climbed. I hadn’t expected that thoughtfulness from him and had been preparing to demand it myself ; Terrell would approve it. Pen saw my expression and his own face went wooden. He brushed past me and I let it go.
Only then could we head off to get lodging. The Two Suns were descending the sky and tomorrow we had to find a murderous mage.
Narvi Abbey stood near the mines, a walled enclave of peace next to its famous hospital filled with pain. The mines yield a harvest of injured men as well as copper and iron. Pen pounded on the entry gate and showed his badge and ring. The porter let us in at once and took us to their guest-house.
“My lords, Her Grace the Abbess will be pleased to welcome you at supper after evening devotions,” the man told us with practiced deference.
“Not while we stink like this,” I protested. We were all still filthy from travel and bloody from fighting. “Where can we get clean first?”
“The bathhouse is through that door and down the corridor, milords,” the porter told us while he and a groom took our horses. “The attendants on duty will see to your laundry as well.”
“Good Seraphs bless you!” I said, and meant it, as I heaved my pack onto my shoulders. The rest grabbed their own and followed me.
We were all relieved to wash up and then soak in a hot pool fed by springs issuing straight from the mountainside. Pen had Irreneetha with him while the attendants cleaned her sheath and our clothes. I’d never seen her more than arm’s reach away from him. He laid her lengthwise on the rock rim of the pool and leaned his head back against the flat of the blade, eyes shut. Water didn’t seem to touch her, and a soul-sword won’t cut its bearer. I was glad the angel had hidden her face from me; it would be damned unnerving to be naked in front of her. Then it dawned on me that clothes are no defense against the eyes of a being that can read your soul.
Then I tried very hard not to think about that.
“Five hunnerd miles ‘n eight days, ‘thout killin’ any horses!” Cantin boasted for all of us. “Bards‘ll sing ‘bout this journey!”
“Ifn we live,” Gerdon answered dourly, slouching down until his graying mustache floated. He was the eldest of Pen’s Guards and seemed to distrust everything.
“Don’ be fergettin’ that Dragon-castin’ mage,” Bellir reminded us.
“Keep quiet about that,” Pen ordered, his eyes still closed. “I’ll tell the Abbess myself, but no-one else is to know why we’re really here. Keep your tongues still and your ears open while you eat and drink. If anyone in the Abbey or the town tells you about a new mage or other stranger in the area, I want to hear it.”
“We’ll find out more and faster by asking questions,” I pointed out.
“And maybe alert our enemy that we’re coming. This could be our only chance to stop him before he attacks. I don’t want him to retreat and make his move somewhere else.”
“Pen. If Terrell’s Right and Left Hands riding into town isn’t enough to spook him, a few questions won’t do it.”
He opened his eyes and stared at my skin, my hair, my ears. “You don’t know that – and if you’ve been heeding Desirey The Temptress, remember that She’s the queen of lies.”
I bit my tongue while fighting down the temptation to choke him for that insult. The others looked at me uneasily.
“Enough lazing around. Let’s get presentable and call on our host,” he added, climbing out of the water.
Dona Lucida D’Ivor Galidi, the Abbess of Narvi, was a round little woman with the five stars on her wimple that marked her as a Quintissima in the Temple hierarchy. She wore her authority like an old and well-used glove. She met us in the Abbey’s Great Hall, which was plain as a barn. I guessed that Narvi Abbey wasn’t the most well-endowed institution, but nobody there looked like they’d ever missed a meal. We made proper bows, civil authority to a religious, proffered our badges and rings, and formally claimed shelter for the night. I held out my own ring first for her inspection, beating Pen to it, and he tensed a little but said nothing. I thought her bright eyes caught it nonetheless.
The Abbess opened her cellars and storerooms to wine and dine her knightly visitors in style. Acorn-fed ham, trout cooked in wine and dusted with chopped pine-nuts, egg-and-mushroom pie, all of it excellent. The pleasant Cerrai vintage served with the meal was a treat in itself. I could get used to eating and drinking like that. Below the salt I could see the Horse Guards were being fed well too, and talking to servants and workers at the hospital. Abbey and Hospital apparently ran a common kitchen and ate together.
Dona Lucida took me and Pen aside afterwards to a private sitting-room overlooking a cloistered garden watered by the overflow from the hot springs. There she served us more wine in silver-chased cups – and got straight to the point.
“When the Right and Left Hands of the Prince come calling, it’s not because they want to smell my herb-garden,” she observed. “What does His Highness want of me, my lords? And what do you each want?” She looked back and forth between us, eyes needle-sharp in a face otherwise bland as milk-custard. To her credit, her eyes didn’t linger on the markers of my half blood. Of course, with her rank she’d probably have been present at Court for Terrell’s formal accession to Silbar’s throne, and would know first hand the evidence of his own half-blood. But a lot of people give royalty a pass that nobody else gets. It was a nice change to have that extended to me.
The food and wine had mellowed me. I generously decided that Pen could speak first, and waved a hand to show that I deferred to him. He told her our mission using that clipped spare voice of his that makes even disaster and slaughter sound mundane.
“And so, Dona, we fear that a powerful mage could be planning to waylay travelers on the road,” he concluded. “And the tax caravan is coming.”
Her face had become grim. Priestesses are none too friendly to Mages, preferring all Power only be managed by female hands. “Your warning fits well with two things we learned only today. Smoke from a fire was sighted on the pass by a fast courier riding from the Vettore. He didn’t stop, thinking it a campfire left unattended that set a patch of forest alight. But it was burning among the Spires and nobody camps in that cold place by choice.”
“Spires, Dona?” I asked. “Is that another name for the Fanged Pass?”
“No, the two mountains called the Fangs straddle the pass itself,” she explained, searching through a big flat leather case. “The Spires are a group of rocks a little lower down on our side, north of the road. One of my nuns has a gift for sketching – and here it is.”
She handed us a large paper covered with charcoal strokes enspelled to prevent smudging. I tamped down hard on my Shadow to keep it from devouring the magic, and let Pen hold the paper while I leaned on the arm of my chair and looked over his elbow. The image was amazingly lifelike, down to the fine strokes of willow-branches along the stream at the bottom. What it showed was forbidding, a sprawl of big stones separated by passages wandering deep into the mountainside. The taller ones were flat-topped while shorter spires came to rough points or rounded caps. There was a confusing crowd of them, more than I could easily count even if I took off my boots and Pen’s too. A tiny horse in the foreground gave perspective. The whole was wider than some cities.
“The road is on the near side of that stream and follows it for two miles and more,” she continued, pointing. “You can see how the Spires make an enormous maze. Most are ten times and more the height of a tall man. Some of the passages are broader than this room but many are barely wide enough to enter. Others become caves, and nobody knows how far into the mountains they run.”
“Nobody?” I wondered aloud. “No shepherd seeking a lost sheep ever explored the place? No adventurous miner-lads from Narvi daring each other to go the farthest into a dark passage?”
She scowled. “Quite possibly, but they never reached the end or did not return. You have not seen the place, or heard it, Sir Kirin. Our mines are quiet and still, we sanctify them every week to keep them so; after our hospital it is this Abbey’s chief duty. The Spires are larger and more rugged than all the mines of Narvi put together. Shades of the dead get caught in the twisting passages, moaning their distress to any who will listen, which is very unwise, as their voices carry madness and they do not love the living. In past times there have been darker things, possibly driven out of the mine-deeps by our sanctifications. Some foolish folk claim ancient giants built the Spires, though they show no mark of chisel or maul. If giants did build it, they left a spiritual cesspit too large for me and mine to ever clean completely. Caravans know to stay on the road and pass it quickly. Whatever evil finds its way there is contained; more than that we cannot do.”
Pen frowned slightly. “So this place is a sort of shadow trap?”
She nodded. “I have heard it called that, yes, Sir Penghar. It is a part of my duties as Abbess to go there twice a year and banish whatever may lurk in the nearest passages, to keep the road safe. Safer. I go in spring and autumn; I did the spring cleansing only a fortnight ago.”
Her lips twisted in distaste. “There was a particularly vicious shade this year, a cutthroat who’d been trapped there by last winter’s storms. He was eventually reduced to eating the bodies of his victims before the cold finally slew him. A vile man who made a disgusting shade, but thanks be to The One I was able to put it down. I can only hope it didn’t leave any company back in the deeper passages where I could not reach.”
“From your lips to the Good Seraphs’ ears, Dona,” Pen muttered while making a pious gesture. “So if a Mage was strong enough not to need worry about shades, he could hide in there and none would dare follow.”
“No one from Narvi.” She looked from his badge to mine and only then did her eyes travel to my face, my ears. “You, perhaps, might be bolder.” Her gaze flicked to Irreneetha slung at Pen’s hip, and back to my own knives and sword. “And better armed. I cannot give you more counsel than this. Be very careful.”
“Thank you, Dona,” I answered. “But you mentioned two things? What was the other?”
She looked bleak now. “The courier passed a small caravan just starting down from the pass. It should have been here by now, but there’s no sign of it.”
Pen and I looked at each other. “It might be advisable,” he said heavily, “To pray for them. We’ll need to depart by dawn.” He handed the drawing back, stood and bowed formally. I gulped the last of my wine and hurried to do the same.
“Fresh provisions will be ready,” she promised, showing us out. “My prayers will go with you.”
“It seems pretty clear,” I said to Pen as we walked back to the guesthouse through dim moonslight. “Our mage has a perfect ambush site he can use to attack travelers on the road. I’m amazed no bandit gang has set up there before. They could charge a hell of a toll.”
“And bring the Crown’s displeasure down on their heads.” Pen touched Irreneetha at his side. “As this mage has done before he starts. Yet anyone powerful enough to attempt this should be smart enough to know we would respond soon, and relentlessly. Is taking even the tax caravan worth being hunted by all the might of Silbar?”
I nearly missed a step. “You’re joking, right? It’s seven hundred thousand gold royals and a couple tons of silver!”
“And how does he cart it away afterwards?”
I stopped, stared at him. We were in the courtyard just outside the guest house. “Err... the easy way would be to use the same mules.” I thought again about the vision Terrell had shared with me. “But that’s not what this guy’s planning, is it? Most of the mules will die with the men.”
Pen gave me a sardonic look. “You did pay attention to Terrell’s brief. Answer me this, then; even if this mage takes the caravan intact, where does he take it afterwards? Between here and the Vettore foothills, there’s no side-roads, not even a side-trail big enough for such a large pack-train. Nothing but raw cold mountains for a hundred miles north and south – and this one road.”
I thought it over. “I don’t know.” Irritated, I spit back, “What do you think he’ll do?”
“My Lord of the Shadows, I don’t know either. And that worries me even more than you do.”
I glowered at him while my mind raced. Fly it away? All the mages of Silbar couldn’t lift that much metal into the skies. A hidden bunch of henchmen waiting with horses? How’d such a mob get here without causing gossip from one side of the range to the other?
“Dung,” I growled. “Maybe he’s just crazy.”
“That’d almost be a relief. Let’s hear what my men discovered over dinner and drink.”
Darbin shook his head to Pen’s question. “No Sir, no word at all of anyone strange goin’ through; only t’usual caravans run by t’usual drivers. Mayhaps t’Mage is hidin’ out among t’passengers, but there weren’t many this season and nobody spoke ‘bout anybody unusual catchin’ their eye.”
“Milords, t’mage we’re hunting coulda come up t’other side of the pass,” Cantin pointed out. “If he rode with only a few trusted men, nobody on this side’d know.”
“Or if he came in t’missing caravan and killed t’rest of ‘em,” Bellir suggested ghoulishly. “Might be he’s a blood-mage who needs murder to make ‘is magic work?” His eyes glanced toward me and then darted away. “Sounds loike there’s a hunnerd places up there t’hide bodies.”
“A shepherd’s missin’ and ‘is flock too – forty sheep,” Gerdon told us, hiccupping slightly. “Missin’ four days now – ‘is mother’s been askin’ everybody if they’ve seen ‘im. ‘Sposed to be grazing just this side of a place called Sp – Spa - Spires.” He belched – he’d taken the ‘drink’ part of Pen’s instructions literally.
“The bastard is stocking up,” I muttered. “Maybe that ‘missing’ caravan was him and his own men. How many might we be facing?”
“Good question.” Pen jerked his chin at the Horse Guards. “Anything else?”
Gerdon shrugged. “A hunter sez he saw a giant snake in t’woods, would’ve et him if he hadn’t run. Said it broke grown tree-trunks loike twigs.”
“Another said he saw giant bats carry t’snake off.” Cantin mimed something swooping out of the sky, grinned. “I tink they were drinkin’ together.”
“One of t’mines is got Kobolts.” Darbin made the Sign against evil; the malicious little cavern-spirits were a famous danger to miners.
“No, it was Niccles,” objected Bellir. “Makin’ the ore turn tough so’s it won’t smelt.”
“No, it was Kobolts,” Darbin argued.
“Enough.” Pen shook his head. “In the morning we hunt for a killer mage. Make sure your weapons are sharp and our best horses are ready. We’ll take one remount each, leave our weakest mounts here. Then get some sleep.”
The guesthouse room assigned to me was tucked up under the eaves, facing west. The Moon of Madness bathed the high spine of the Bright Mountains in silver light that set ice and snow to glowing.
*Brother,* I called across the miles, curled on a hard guest bed with two thick blankets to keep the cold night at bay. *Are you there?*
*Always,* Terrell answered. Cinnamon and silk – he was in his own bed in the Palace. I felt the sultry Valley air on his skin, the hot exhalation of the heart of Silbar through his high windows, the humid scents of growing things twined around and through a breath of desert dust. In the Arisen City the spring rains were past and summer begun, but up here winter hadn’t quite released its grip. *I knew you must be close to your target, I’ve been hoping you’d reach out to me tonight.*
*We’re almost there. Tomorrow morning we’ll be at the Pass.* I brooded. I wasn’t afraid, exactly – I walked with danger every day, I didn’t fear it – but something gnawed at me like a rat undermining a foundation.
*What’s wrong, Kirin?* His mind-voice whispered.
*I don’t know; but something is. We’ve missed something, me and Pen both; maybe you too.* I told him Pen’s question and we chewed it over to no better result. *Have you Seen any more?*
*It’s not like a book I can open to read another passage.* I could feel him shrug in the darkness. *I shared the whole vision with you, and described it to Pen in all the detail I could manage.*
*Share it with me again.*
He opened that memory-place inside his skull to me, unhesitating – by the One God, I felt like a plunderer for asking. The wings, the scales, the fear, the fire; the deep bass voice laughing in joy at the slaughter, echoing the terrible word MINE! Then pain and tears, broken men in flight, and fire.
So short, so little to go on! If I were watching it in truth my unique senses could maybe wring out more knowledge. But I was confined to what Terrell had been able to sense and remember, and my Talents weren’t his. I balled my hands into fists beneath the blankets.
*I wish I could see this damn mage,* I grumbled. *See how he’s conjuring that dragon. See what he plans to do! Damnit, I don’t even know where he’s standing!*
*I’ve thought about that. It can’t be anywhere close to the caravan. My men would have had a chance to see him, and at least a few of my archers would have made the connection when the dragon appeared, and then they’d have shot the man. But he can’t be completely out of sight either. A conjuration can’t have enough free will to choose its own targets the way the dragon did, he has to be actively guiding it. At a guess, he’s overlooking the battlefield somehow, concealed enough to see without being seen and no more. I wonder if he’s also using an actual concealment spell?*
*I hope he is. It’d be like a beacon to me.* I remembered the Abbess’s sketch; at least a dozen of the rock towers in it were visible in Terrell’s vision, hazy and indistinct but indisputably there, and empty. That left dozens more that he could be perched atop. Some were too sheer to climb quickly, but then, I didn’t necessarily have to climb them to reach the tops.
He followed my thoughts. *How far can you throw your Shadows?*
*I don’t know – seventy, eighty feet? I’ve never tried for serious distance.*
*Tomorrow you may have to.*
*Urk.* A little voice down inside me was screeching panic. *I’m going into a fight half-blind!*
*It’s not that bad. I questioned my mages here. To animate a construct the size of his dragon would take two full ingots of silver or more, at least forty pounds. The instant he starts burning that off, you’ll see him.*
*There’s that.* I was cheered. Power-manipulation on this scale couldn’t exactly be hidden under a bushel. Not from my eyes.
*I’m sure you’ll find him, Kirin, and when you do, point Pen at him. No spells will take Pen down, not while he’s holding Irreneetha. If you can keep the mage distracted long enough for Pen to get near him, it’ll all be over but the funeral.*
That was an even more heartening thought. Pen, actually being good for something besides aggravation.
*Get some sleep, brother.*
His ghost voice faded. I pulled the blankets closer and let the night lull me to sleep. If there were dreams, I didn’t remember them.
Next morning I irritated Pen by delaying us until I could get a nice long piece of rope and a couple hooks. Fortunately the Abbey stables had the perfect thing at hand and let me take it. We rode hard in pre-dawn mists to make up the lost minutes, climbing up the winding road through never-cut forests while our horseshoes rang on the rocks. Deodars gave way to pines that gave way to firs. Patches of old snow lurked on north-facing slopes, our breath smoked in dawn’s fire. The air held a clarity I’d never seen in Silbar’s dusty Valley.
The mountainside suddenly opened out into a big bowl. Waterfalls cascaded off snowfields topping the peaks that cupped it. Little lakes scattered jewel-like, feeding streamlets that merged as they neared us and finally roared over a huge waterfall into a canyon at our feet. On the far side the thin thread of the road appeared between two immense fangs of rock. It arced down into the basin to follow the largest stream towards us, passing along the feet of gray monoliths.
The Spires filled better than half the bowl. Naked rock sparsely flecked with life, ringed by lush meadows and a few stunted patches of forest; red-bud willows fringed the creek. Though the chill morning air was loud with the sounds of water, I heard no birds.
Pen looked at me. He knew what I could do. As if the words hurt him, he ground out “What do you see?”
I let my Shadow rise into my eyes, and I looked.
The Bones of the World are close to the surface in the Bright Mountains and the World-Skin is stretched tight. There is little Power in the landscape, but what there is runs right across the surface in tiny naked veins. In my gaze the Spires faded to dirty glass, and I found a hot glow inside them.
“He’s already started casting,” I said and pointed. “Fourth or fifth canyon, I can’t tell from here. We have to get closer. There’s a spell building in there now.”
If building was the right word. It had an oddly dreamy feel to it, that glow, like nothing I’d ever seen before. Not building, exactly, but more like . . . breathing.
“Find us a way in,” Pen ordered.
I heeled Handsome gently. I’d learned not to use spurs on him, he was cantankerous enough by nature. We rode forward, cautious; the road was patched with grit and mud left by the winter and laced by stringers of grass bursting out of thicker windrows of old manure and black soil. Once we passed a rusty horseshoe, later a bit of shaped wood and desiccated leather. No old campfires; the cold breath exhaled by the Spires warned against staying.
Our road followed the stream in a vast arc across the face of the pinnacles. Many reared up from the very edge of the water. Side-streams trickled or gushed out between them, some had dumped so many rocks in the main stream that it ponded up behind shallow dams.
A crow croaked. Rushing water ruled the air.
Fourth canyon. “In there,” I said, and pointed. “A ways back.” I bit my lip, vexed. “It curves too much to tell how far.”
We waded the main stream, stirring up silt fine as flour. The canyon was broad enough for us to ride two abreast with a little stream zigging crazily across the nearly-flat floor. Darbin had a bow at the ready, arrow nocked while he scanned the cliffs and let his horse find its own way. The walls towered forty to sixty feet above our heads. They were cracked and pierced by side-canyons, most little more than slots. The main canyon bent sharply back and forth, often at near-right angles.
At one of these a huge slab of rock twenty or more feet thick had fallen across, turning canyon into a cave more than a hundred feet long and as much as twenty feet high inside. The far end was partly blocked with broken rock, the near end half-obscured by a grove of trees. There were patches of ice inside.
“The horses stay here,” Pen ordered. There was a steady trickle of water, and grass along the verge where a few shafts of sunlight reached in from places where the rocks didn’t match up. “Cantin, Bellir, tend them.”
I didn’t care for leaving Handsome behind, but Pen was right. A battle-steed couldn’t do much in this narrow warren. I dismounted and loosened his girth a couple notches so he’d be more comfortable in my absence. He nuzzled me, questioning. I stroked his ugly face.
“Stay, boy. See you later.”
Then I slid my sword up the baldric and clipped it behind my shoulder so it wouldn’t bang against anything. Pen and Gerdon did the same. I slung the bundle of rope that I’d borrowed over my head and other shoulder, taking care that it didn’t foul the draw of my blade. If the mage really was hiding atop a pinnacle then I might have a way to get to him. My Shadow can hide more than just me.
Darbin had a quiver on his back and a recurved bow, Pen bore Irreneetha and his main gauche, and we all wore belt knives. We four pushed forward on foot, scrambling through the upper end of the cave. Pen scowled at the canyon floor, looked from side to side and then at me.
“There’s no sign of anyone passing through here recently,” he whispered accusingly.
“You didn’t ask me to find the path the mage used,” I snapped back. “Just a way in. This is a way in.”
“Keep your voice down.”
I glared at him, my Shadow leaking out my pores. I could feel the glow of the magic ahead of us, a pulsing energy that sawed at my nerves like a drumbeat. It wasn’t growing, exactly, more like . . . waiting. My Shadow churned in my gut, aroused and disturbed by the nearness of so much Power. I let the Shadow fill my skin but held it there, hungry and waiting.
Gerdon glanced at my eyes and flinched away from me.
We crept closer, through patches of trees and rock-falls that sometimes choked the passage – and then the canyon bent sharply away from our target. I stopped at the bend and stared at the wall in frustration, pressed my face against it and let my Shadow into the rock. If I could just see through it without alerting the mage that someone was here!
I strained, the rock before me flickering in and out of my sight, like trying to see through very dirty glass. My Shadow surged in and pulled back, surly from my conflicting commands and frenzied by the pulsing Power so near. But the wall was too thick and I didn’t dare push too hard.
“A way in?” Pen asked in a sardonic whisper.
“He has to be on the other side of this wall, maybe not even fifty feet away,” I growled back quietly. Softly I pounded my fists on the stone; we were so close!
I looked up. The fin of rock stood sixty feet high and near-vertical here. The sharp bend of the canyon met it at a right angle, and erosion had left bits of time-smoothed stone in the corner. There wasn’t much to hang on to, but with a little luck I could do it.
I tapped my chest, pointed up, mimed climbing and then lowering the rope.
Pen’s hand tightened on Irreneetha’s hilt but he nodded grudgingly. “Agreed; go ahead.”
I gritted my teeth; I hadn’t been asking his permission. I scrambled up the first easy steps, where packed rubble gave mostly-solid footing. Then I was facing a sheer wall still over forty feet high. There were cracks, if not many, so I tugged off my boots and tossed them down to the others. Then I went up it like the acrobat I am, fingers and toes finding just enough purchase to cling on. Coming back down would be a nightmare, but I had the rope.
I wrapped my Shadow completely over me and inch by inch dragged myself up by my fingertips. The top was ragged as a saw blade. There was a big cleft between two spikes of rock. I clambered into it and found a chute tilting down into the next canyon. The steep-sloping floor was carpeted in rubble and treacherous under my bare feet.
An odd stench rode the air, like the world’s biggest stables crossed with a slaughterhouse. Maybe the enemy really was a blood-mage – it could explain the erratic reactions of my Shadow. My stomach churned as I tried not to imagine what lay below me. A breeze made a slow moan. I leaned into the chute to look down, and carefully let my Shadow dissolve the Skin of the World. The stone ridge beneath me turned to ghost-gray glass.
The fifth canyon was deeper and wider than the one we’d come up, the bottom at least seventy feet below. Shining scales came into view, rows upon rows covering great coils and loops lit by internal fire. There was something wrong about them, more solid-looking than the ghost-glass look of the canyon walls themselves. I’d never seen such a major work of live magic up close before.
My heart sank in my gut. He’d already conjured his dragon-construct, and it looked frighteningly real and ready to launch at a moment’s notice. We might already be out of time to stop him.
I uncoiled the rope, threw a loop around a stone spur and hooked it to itself. Then I paid out the slack as I leaned forward recklessly to search for the mage. Where was he? The floor of this canyon remained frustratingly hidden, too much rock between me and it. If I thinned the Skin of the World any farther I risked falling through it myself. I took a few loops of slack rope, stepped deeper into the chute and leaned out. I was looking straight down now to the shaded canyon floor. Still nothing looked like a man, sleeping or awake. But there were bones, plenty of them, and odd lumps too small to be human.
I’d have to switch strategies. The dragon was a big target, I could hit it easily from here, hopefully disrupt his control over his conjuration and maybe even collapse it to silver dust. That ought to startle him into revealing himself. I gathered Shadow in my free hand, it came reluctantly. My eyes swept the canyon for any movement. He couldn’t be far from his creation –
CREATION? WHAT AN AMUSING CONCEIT.
The bass voice rang inside my skull. My hand slipped on the rope, a rock turned under my bare foot, and suddenly I was falling as the chute dumped all its accumulated debris into the canyon at once – me included.
I hit the wall hard, slipped down the rope once, twice, and then again, slammed against the cliff-face as the hemp burned my palm and small rocks rained down on me. Then a larger rock sent shooting pains up my right side, my hand spasmed open and I lost my grip completely.
I fell only twice my height before something caught my baldric. The strap burst, flipped me sideways and I fell again. A ledge brought me up short, bounced me outward. A few feet more and I hit talus, rolling wildly down slope to fetch up in weeds. Thyme, grass, dung and dust. I’d lost my Shadow in the fall when it fled within me. I was wrenched, bruised, scraped, but miraculously unbroken. I levered my face out of the dirt and looked up.
And up. And up.
Scales slid, rocks crashed, and a head bigger than a wagon raised above the coils, swinging against the sky. A pair of forelegs, ridiculously short in comparison to the long snake-body, and one-two-three-four bat-wings followed by two more short legs. Two eyes large as platters gazed down on me from a reptile face a dozen feet wide and ten yards above me. My mouth fell open. The dragon was denser than the World. Shadow laired beneath its scales, Shadow and a hot Fire. My own Shadow shrank small within me, cowed by the awakening of a greater Power.
M-mage? My mind stuttered.
Laughter boomed inside my head, threatening to burst my brain.
THERE IS NO HUMAN MAGE HERE, LITTLE SHADOW. YOUR EYES BEHOLD ME, NEW COME TO THIS FAT LAND.
“No mage?” I mumbled weakly, staring up at the living, breathing dragon that reared above me. Its huge faceted eyes pierced me without effort; I saw myself reflected a hundred times over. I had never felt smaller.
DID YOU IMAGINE MERE CLEVER MONKEYS COULD BRING INTO BEING ANYTHING HALF AS MAGNIFICENT AS ME?
That voice rang through my mind, not my ears. The monster posed against the sky, a broad golden wedge of a face wreathed in teal tendrils below two twisted black horns longer than I am tall. Scales of ruby, gold and jet braided a snake-torso thicker than a barrel. Coils threshed against the rocks as it stretched out, sixty, eighty, maybe a hundred feet long from nose to tail-tip. Its movements churned up bones and dung and scraps of fleece and cloth and mule-hide from the canyon floor. The missing caravan and shepherd would never return home.
YES, YOU SEE I HAVE BROKEN MY FAST RECENTLY, AND WELCOME IT WAS AFTER SUCH A LONG FLIGHT. THE OCEAN IS EXHAUSTING TO CROSS, PERHAPS THAT IS WHY SO FEW OF US EVER HAVE. BUT I DID IT!
I struggled to my knees, bruised and scratched but nothing broken. The rest would heal – if I lived that long. I had lost my sword but still had my belt knife. Unluckily the rope remained caught on the cliffs above me and my boots were hopelessly out of reach. My feet were no soft gentleman’s feet, I was used to performing on plank floors and scratchy straw mats, but they weren’t hardened to dirt and rocks.
PERFORMING? AH, YOU ARE AN ARTIST OF MOVEMENT. HOW DROLL – YOUR INTRODUCTION LACKED SOMETHING IN GRACE! BUT PERHAPS YOU CAN DO BETTER WITH A LITTLE PREPARATION.
Bewildered, I asked the first question that popped into my rattled mind. “Who are you?”
YOUR TINY MIND COULD NOT CONTAIN MY NAME. CALL ME WHAT YOU WILL. I SHALL CALL YOU LITTLE SHADOW, WHICH IS WHAT THE NAME ‘DIUMBRA’ MEANS.
I jerked in betraying surprise and the monster chuckled like rolling boulders.
AMUSING – AND REMARKABLE HOW EASY IT WAS TO TAKE THAT FROM YOUR MIND. YOUR THOUGHTS FLOW UNGUARDED AS A RIVER. YET SHALLOW TOO, AND THERE IS STRANGELY LITTLE POWER IN YOUR NAME. PERHAPS THAT IS WHY YOU DEFENDED IT SO LIGHTLY? YOU ARE ODDLY LACKING FOR ONE WHO DARES A DRAGON’S LAIR. NOT GROUNDED IN THIS SOIL AS I WOULD EXPECT A CHAMPION TO BE. DO YOU NOT BELONG TO THIS LAND?
That taunt angered me enough to snap back. “Silbar is my home! What in the Nine Hells are you doing here?”
YOU KNOW THE ANSWER TO THAT ALREADY. I WAIT FOR THE GOLD AND SILVER THAT EVEN NOW APPROACH BEYOND THIS PASS. I CAN SMELL THEM FROM HERE, A TREASURE WORTHY OF ME.
“Why?! What use is wealth to something like you?”
ARE YOU SO IGNORANT OF MY KIND?
It tilted its head slightly, studying me like I might study a fly on a table.
INDEED YOU ARE! THEN IT HAS BEEN FAR TOO LONG SINCE ONE OF US VISITED HERE. CLEAN GOLD FOR MY BED – ROCKS HAVE LITTLE TO RECOMMEND THEM WHERE COMFORT IS CONCERNED. THE FUEL OF SILVER TO STOKE MY FIRES AND SHINE MY SCALES. I AM PARCHED AND HUNGRY FROM MY LONG JOURNEY, BUT BEFORE THIS DAY IS OUT I WILL FEAST WELL.
On silver and Silbari soldiers. I remembered the sick horror of the vision, men and beasts crisping in fire, and felt again Terrell’s grief as my own.
HOW YOU SUFFER FOR OTHERS! FOOLISH LITTLE SHADOW. WHAT ARE THEY TO YOU? A LIST OF NAMES, OR EVEN LESS. YOU KNOW ONLY A SINGLE FACE AMONG THEM. AND THEY DISDAIN YOU, DON’T THEY, MONGREL THAT YOU ARE? YOU ARE BARELY AN EDDY IN THEIR RIVER, A CAST-ASIDE BY-BLOW OF FATE WHO CANNOT EVER TRULY BE ONE OF THEM. WHY DO YOU CARE IF I EAT THEM? FOR I WILL, IN TIME I WILL EAT ALL OF THEM! I WILL PLUNDER THIS FAT LAND, PILLAGE ITS HIVES AND LAY WASTE ITS WORKS. THEY CANNOT EVEN HOPE TO RESIST ME!
I fumbled for words. “They’re mine – my people, my family, my blood and my tomorrows. They’re my Why. I swore an oath to protect them from, from the likes of you.”
YOU DECEIVE YOURSELF, AS SO MANY CHAMPIONS DO. YOU ARE NOTHING TO THEM AND lITTLE MORE TO THE ONE WHO SENT YOU. A TOOL TO BE USED AND DISCARDED WHEN YOU BREAK, AS IN TIME YOU MUST.
And at that I forced myself to my feet, bruises forgotten. “Now I know that you lie, worm.”
YOU HAVE ENTERTAINED ME WHILE I WAIT FOR MY APPROACHING TRIBUTE, LITTLE SHADOW. ALMOST ENOUGH THAT I COULD FORGIVE YOUR IMPERTINENCE.
Leather wings beat the air, showered me with dust and rank stench.
BUT NOT QUITE. BEGIN YOUR PERFORMANCE. THE LONGER YOU ENTERTAIN ME, THE LONGER YOU WILL LIVE.
The jaws opened on a black mouth big enough to swallow a pig whole – and lunged at me.
I dived forward beneath the strike, rolled to my feet and leaped again. Coils threshed as they unwound, and a clawed foot as long as I am tall slammed the dirt bare yards away. I leaped again, using its foot as a step to vault the barrel body as it swept towards me crushing. I hit the far side running and ducked the spike of its long tail as it whipped at my head. This canyon was wider and deeper than the other and had a bigger stream, but was no less convoluted. In ten bounds I was around a corner.
A CHASE! DELIGHTFUL!
Bass laughter slammed my ears. Rocks cascaded off the walls as the coiled body straightened and bounded forward. Forelegs seized a stone spire behind me. The monster leaped to the canyon wall, covering in one step what took me ten. Hind legs scaled the first ridge and let the sinuous forebody loop up into the sky. Painted by the morning suns, scales glittered ruby and gold. Stones crushed beneath its claws.
RUN, LITTLE RAT! RUN!
Fangs parted again and the terrible head lunged down.
I ran, dodging falling rocks as it leaped from side to side right over the canyon. I ducked under a hoary tree and fearsome teeth bit the whole top off. While the dragon spat splinters I ran again, leaping boulder to boulder. The canyon jinked and a fissure opened in the sheer cliff on my right. I ducked inside gasping for breath.
It laughed and dropped to the canyon floor, closing in. I searched wildly. The fissure went deep but narrowed fast, I couldn’t get more than a few feet from the entrance. But the crack reached far above me into the heart of the ridge, and a dim light filtered down – there was an opening above. I began to climb.
Jaws probed the entrance.
I KNOW YOU ARE IN THERE.
I climbed higher, as quietly as I could manage.
I SMELL YOU.
A huge purple tongue licked the crevice, probed its depth, withdrew.
I TASTE YOU ON THE ROCKS.
I climbed higher still, light growing above – the fissure was a natural chimney piercing the ridge.
The tongue returned, this time probing upward. The very tip just brushed my bare sole. I jerked my foot higher and nearly fell.
AH! YOU SEEK TO BECOME A BAT RATHER THAN A RAT! LAUGHTER AGAIN. THINK YOU CAN CLING TO THE CEILING LONG ENOUGH TO EVADE ME?
I climbed while it settled in the canyon, jaws blocking the entrance and parted in anticipation. Foul breath pumped into the fissure, streamed up past me. I tried to think of nothing but the stone encasing me like a womb, and I climbed.
YOU STRUGGLE. I TASTE YOUR SWEAT. I SMELL YOUR FEAR.
I clung and climbed, muscles strained while bruises throbbed. Rock banged my head painfully, the shaft was uneven. The fall below me grew longer as my arms trembled and my abused toes scrambled for purchase.
YOUR CARAVAN IS HOURS AWAY; YOUR STRENGTH WILL NOT LAST. I CAN WAIT UNTIL YOU DROP LIKE A RIPE FRUIT.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
The shaft widened suddenly, a series of ledges gave new purchase for my feet. Pebbles showered downward as I pushed myself up toward the brightening light. And abruptly I was out, atop the ridge, scraped knees and elbows oozing as I crawled over to the shelter of a spire. The suns were so bright they hurt.
LIGHT? OH, OF COURSE.
Rocks clattered and crashed in the canyon below me, claws rasped the cliff. The monstrous head rose into view balanced atop an elongated column of body, and I realized the dragon must be nearly standing on its tail with all four feet gripping the cliff-face.
EASILY DONE. IT SOUNDED SMUG.
I squeezed myself back under a flare of my rock spire as fetid breath washed over me – the terrible mouth was scant feet away.
CLEVERLY PLAYED, LITTLE SHADOW. A NIMBLE PERFORMANCE!
“The show must go on,” I answered, suppressing a hiss as my raw skin scraped anew. Defiantly I snarled “I’m not done yet!”
BUT YOU ARE, AND THE ENDING WAS NEVER IN DOUBT. COME TO ME AND I WILL MAKE YOUR DEATH QUICK.
“You want me? Come and get me!” I bellowed, making the canyon echo.
Its jaws parted and the purple tongue swept forward. I sank my knife in deeply, black blood spurted over me like fire. It jerked back in surprise, dragging me out of my crevice and almost pulling the blade from my hands. I staggered to my feet as its chin rose and the monster bellowed surprise at heaven. Its throat was exposed, I’d have no better chance. I raised the knife in both hands, ran and leaped.
The hide was scaly even here on the throat, but the scales were small and my knife found a way through. I slammed the blade in to the hilt with the full weight of my body, and the monster twitched again. But my steel tooth was a mere pinprick embedded in its thick skin. I barely drew blood.
Then something more made it shudder from hidden tail to the tip of its lashing tongue. Its claws lost their grip, rocks tore loose, and the dragon toppled backwards into the canyon, taking me along.
The snake-body collapsed into coils to break its fall. I clung to my knife and rode the beast all the way down. I expected to be crushed but instead was bounced free when it hit. I landed in thorn bushes that broke my fall just enough.
It roared flame into the sky, a mind-bending flare of rage and embarrassment that half-blinded me. White Light flared on the canyon floor and black blood flew. Pen had arrived and he and Irreneetha had cut off the end of the dragon’s tail while it reached for me.
SHADOW! Thundered the furious voice. YOU TRICKED ME! THERE ARE TWO CHAMPIONS!
Damn right I did, I sent back as thorns jabbed me. Damn right we are.
DISHONORABLE! I SHALL EAT YOU BOTH AND FORGET YOUR NAMES.
The dragon twisted to regain its feet and a foot almost trampled Pen before he hewed at it and severed a claw. Huge jaws snapped inches away from him and then flamed again, Pen should have been roasted but Irreneetha shielded him in a frail bubble of cool air. Pen ran to the left and sliced a yard-long cut into the monster’s side.
The huge head came for Pen again as he dodged and slashed. Black blood sprayed from the dragon’s cleft eye and it flung its head up. But then a red glitter appeared at the edges of its wounds, they began to close, blood stopped flowing. The monster had healing power like a Priestess.
YOUR STING IS SHARP, KNIGHT, SHARPER THAN ANY I HAVE MET BEFORE. BUT NOT SHARP ENOUGH. I CAN ABSORB A THOUSAND CUTS. I NEED CATCH YOU ONLY ONCE.
It groped for Pen with crushing feet. A swing and Irreneetha sent another claw bouncing away. But that snake-body still had terrible speed and strength, a thrashing coil knocked Pen sprawling at the cost of a new slice in the glossy scales. Pen rolled between two big rocks as the dragon raised a coil and slammed it down to crush him. The beast jerked back and revealed another bloody slash in its side. Pen scrambled to his feet and raised Irreneetha again, but now he was limping a little. He barely dodged the next lunge, only cutting a long gash this time that bled weakly. The red healing-magic immediately began to close the shallow wound.
YOU TIRE, CHAMPION, IT GLOATED. YOU MAY CUT ME A HUNDRED TIMES MORE, AND I WILL STILL RECOVER. CAN YOU?
I still had my knife. Thorns ripped my ears as I tore myself free and staggered to my feet. Coils twisted and heaved before me. My little blade couldn’t pierce those thick scales the way Irreneetha could. But one of Pen’s cuts was right in front of me, slowly closing as the Dragon’s magic wove the edges shut far faster than a human Priestess could Heal. I took five steps and jammed my knife into the wound until hot blood jetted out. I turned the blade to wedge it inside the cut and then thrust my Shadow in too. The red glitter shrank as my Shadow set its own black teeth into the monster’s inner flesh like a leech, sucking life and vitality.
Time almost stopped as Power roared into me. I was not much more than a mosquito to a bull, but for a long instant my Shadow drank a river of Power from the monster’s veins and swelled a hundred-fold. Ruby scales faded to dirty glass around my grip as my gorging Shadow bit deeper and deeper beneath the armored shell. The red glitter expired as the creature’s healing magic died.
I knew then what the beast had forgotten.
Even a Dragon is mortal.
It went into a thrashing spasm. A blow from the coiling torso knocked all the air from my lungs and nearly broke my ribs as it threw me back into the bushes. Though my knife was still stuck deep inside its body I was not weaponless. My Shadow trailed from the knife back to me, a cable of storm-shot smoke through which poured Power unimaginable. Power to burn me to ash from inside out if I didn’t do something with it fast.
I shaped Shadow in my hands into a lance twenty feet long and insubstantial as mist. I got my feet under me and stabbed the lance forward and up until the point met the dragon’s waving neck – and bore in. I drove the monster’s own Power against it, ten times, a hundred times stronger than my own. My shadow-lance sliced deep and released a flood of black blood that smoked where it splashed rocks, thorns, and me. The whole thick center of its body began to turn to glass as my Shadow burrowed in and fed, and fed, and fed.
AAUUUGGH! The bellow of shock and pain nearly burst my ears from within, half-blinded me and drove me to my knees. My Shadow-lance shattered but the wound remained. And at that moment Pen slashed the beast once more.
The dragon’s head rose against the sky again, it scorched the canyon in a titanic sweep. Again Irreneetha shed the flame and Pen was not burned, though he staggered and his next stroke went awry. I shaped another Shadow lance, crawled forward and jammed it into the dragon’s hindquarters; that ought to slow it down. Before I could shape a third one the stump of tail came around and bowled me over. This time my ribs did crack and I lost my grip on my Shadow completely.
It did not drain away when parted from me, not when there was so much Power to eat. Scales faded to glass in a wave that rippled down the long spine. Without me to receive the Power my Shadow grew into a monstrous leech, a swelling black bubble on the monster’s side. The dragon’s hind legs kicked feebly and went still.
Now an arrow appeared in one jeweled eye. Dargin and his bow must be near. Rough hands grabbed me and dragged me away from the titanic struggle. Gerdon had found me.
“Pen!” I gasped, tried to pull away.
“He was born for this!” the old Guard snapped. “Look!”
Irreneetha was still a white spike in Pen’s hands, wheeling and slashing, his legs limping but never still. My crystal wound in the monster’s middle spread for yards up and down the torso. The jaws, drooling blood, snapped almost on Pen and he swung again. This time a row of blue tendrils fringing its chin flew free. The head swung like a battering ram to knock Pen sprawling and jaws opened to gobble him whole, but he rolled to his feet and jumped over its nose. Irreneetha’s point pierced the other faceted eye. Jaws snapped blindly, trying to catch what the eyes could no longer see.
Scales started to crumble into shards around the growing wound where I’d planted my knife. The middle of its body was translucent now. The monster slammed its upper body down, trying to crush Pen with its blinded mass. Pen dodged death, slashed again, and the beast went into a frenzy of thrashing that knocked him twenty feet.
There came a crack like the biggest crystal goblet in the world breaking, and the glass wound I’d made in its middle snapped clear across. The dragon’s hindquarters slumped away but the snaking front writhed on. The head turned toward me, sightless and dripping, and the jaws gaped.
I DO NOT NEED EYES TO FIND YOU, SHADOW!
I shoved Gerdon aside and raised my right hand, all my last scraps of Shadow summoned into one tight ball. I hurled it down the monster’s looming throat even as flame boiled at me and Pen stabbed Irreneetha deep into the monster’s side.
Darkness exploded. Its head turned to glass and its fire to mist – I was finally stronger. But it was still far larger than me, and in motion. That head shattered against me, crystal daggers cut me, I was thrown and didn’t feel myself land.
*Kirin? Kirin!* Terrell’s voice called me in the warm dark. *I know you’re there. Kirin!*
I was so tired, but I couldn’t deny him. *Just let me sleep for a little longer,* I begged.
But with ruthless compassion he answered *No. Time to wake up, brother.*
I shuddered and gasped and the world was around me again. Gerdon held a canteen to my lips. I drank, coughed and spewed half the water back up. But no blood; every inch of me hurt, but no bones were broken, quite, though my ribs argued otherwise. I smelled cinnamon and felt Terrell shudder as he took some of my hurt on himself. Shared minds, shared pain. And shared relief.
“Can you sit up, my lord?” the old Guard asked, alert eyes checking me over.
Ribs cried out when I tried, but not so bad that I couldn’t do it. I’d need the Narvi hospital and about a week in their hot pools.
“Don’t try to stand,” Gerdon added unnecessarily.
If he hadn’t caught my shoulders I’d have fallen flat. “Not yet,” I panted agreement. “Maybe next year.”
Gerdon braced a saddle against my back. “I’ll bring you some willow-bark tea, my lord.”
He hurried off past the wreckage of the dragon. I blinked at it; I was parked on a patch of grass only a few yards away. The monster looked smaller as lumps of dead meat than it had when alive. The head lay nearest to me, shattered and broken but returned to flesh when my Shadow was sated. For once that darkness nestled calmly inside me, curled under my heart and sleeping like a babe.
*You did it,* Terrell whispered inside my head, grimacing a little at the agony he was siphoning away from me but bearing it. *You killed it, you and Pen.*
*Damn your visions,* I groaned back. *And I ought to damn you too, twice, for being wrong and right. It really was a dragon, and neither Pen nor I could have killed it alone.*
He chuckled a little. *Does it help if I tell you that I’m sorry about that? Misunderstanding the vision, I mean. I’m not sorry I got you to work with Pen, and he with you. And by the way, you should talk to him. You might find it easier now.*
I just groaned out loud at that.
“Pain tells you you’re alive,” a familiar voice said. “Which is prize enough when your opponent isn’t.”
I looked the other way and sure enough, there was Pen, sitting on another saddle with his legs stretched before him and his hands busy cleaning Irreneetha’s sheath. He had her blade across his lap, clean as ever even though he was splashed chin to toe in dried black blood. I realized I was too; we both reeked like a charnel-house. His face had been washed and he’d set aside his helmet, chestnut hair tied back in a severely simple knot. He gave me a stern look.
“Why didn’t you lower the rope for us?”
I blinked. “Ridge top wasn’t stable. Rocks slid and I fell off the other side.” After a moment I added “Stupid mistake.”
His look turned sour. “Of course. So then you thought you’d fight a dragon alone, just to cover up any embarrassment.”
“Umm. No, that just sort of happened. Not my choice!” Curiosity finally awoke and I asked “So how did you get over the ridge?”
“I used Irreneetha to cut foot-and-toeholds. We climbed up, found the rope and let ourselves down while the monster was chasing you around the canyon. I got there when it had you treed. I think it was about to eat you when I cut off the end of its tail.”
“Umm. Yeah, it was.” I blinked at him again. Now my curiosity battled my pride.
*Go ahead and ask him,* Terrell urged silently. *It’s the only way you’ll find out.*
“So why didn’t you let it eat me?”
Pen gave me the mother of all annoyed glowers. “Do you really have to ask, you idiot? Why did you jump in with the critical blow when I needed you to? If you hadn’t done that blood-magic trick-”
I shuddered, awakening fresh pain that made Terrell and I both clench our teeth. “Never that. I wouldn’t, won’t, eat someone’s life, not ever again. It was its Power I drank through my Shadow, that’s all. Its life was for you to take. Its soul went – wherever dragon souls go.” Leaving a black scar across mine that would be a long time healing. Terrell shared the pain, halved it, and I panted in relief.
Pen stared at me while I got my breathing back under control. Presently he asked “Did you know how close to the edge it had me?”
“Umm. Not exactly. Were you? Close to the edge, I mean.”
“Yes. One, maybe two more cuts before it got me.” He indicated his left leg and I realized he had the boot off and his ankle wrapped in a bandage. “I twisted it during the fight.”
*You’re using that word a lot,* Terrell observed.
*You’re the educated poetic one,* I growled back. *Cut me some slack!* To Pen: “Bad luck?”
“It happens, especially on bad footing.” He glanced away, paused for a while, and then said “You saved my life.”
There was a long pause while I thought that one over. Terrell finally gave me a wordless prod a lot like a knuckle in the ribs.
“You’re welcome. Thanks for saving mine.” The words didn’t taste nearly as bad as I thought they would.
Pen looked at me again, the corner of his mouth twitching up just a bit. “Are you ever going to learn to follow orders?”
“I told you, I follow orders just fine, as long as they aren’t stupid.” Terrell smirked inside my head and I added righteously “Sometimes even when they are.”
“Of course,” Pen answered sardonically, fighting down a grin. He finished cleaning Irreneetha’s sheath, started to put her blade back into it and then stopped. The angel had appeared again.
She turned her face to me and smiled. A cool silvery music submerged my pain and sent shivers to the tips of my toes.
She was rippling water and adamant and drifting flower petals on a spring breeze. I stared back at those bottomless eyes, tongue-tied as a blushing peasant boy meeting a princess for the first time and knowing her hopelessly far above him. But her ghostly hand reached out, touched me on the forehead and traced the Sign of the One in ice and fire. I felt it sink within my skin, holding mundane pain at bay, and I sagged back against the saddle in relief.
Then she was just a sword once more. Pen looked at me after he sheathed her, studying my skin, my ears, my hair and finally my eyes. I stared back defiantly.
“If Irreneetha thinks well of you,” he said thoughtfully, “Then maybe you’re not a demon after all.”
I groped for something sarcastic to say. It says something about how rattled I was that I finally settled on, “Took you long enough to figure that out.”
He grinned openly then and I remembered that he was only one day older than me. “Had to be sure.” He picked up the cloth and started cleaning dirt and gore off himself. That rag wasn’t near big enough.
*You’re going to be fine,* Terrell whispered inside my head. *We’ll talk more tonight and you can give me the whole story. Meantime you and Pen both need rest and healing.*
*Seraphs help me, I’ll be stuck with him for weeks more, won’t I?* I growled. *The Abbess will probably put us in the same room in her hospital. I’ll have to be nice!*
*It’ll be good for you; you’ve both got lots to talk about. Who knows? Irreneetha might even join the conversation.* He smiled as his mental ‘voice’ faded away.
My pain came back to me, muted now, and I sighed. I still had no idea what to say to an angel.