The gauntlet, p.7
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       The Gauntlet, p.7

           Karen Chance
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Chapter Seven

  Gillian didn’t have a reply, but she couldn’t have made one anyway. Because the next moment, the assault on the door resumed. Only this time, it sounded like a battering ram had been brought up. The door shuddered under massive blows, the ward around it sparking and spitting.

  The vampire swore. “I didn’t think they would find a wardsmith so quickly.”

  “They didn’t, or they wouldn’t be trying to batter their way in! They were probably lying before, hoping you’d hear.”

  “Then we’re safe for the moment?”

  “No,” she admitted. “Wards like this are tied to the integrity of an item. Just as a shattered charm loses its magic, the ward will fail as soon as the door suffers enough damage.”

  “And when will that be?”

  She stared at the tiny fractures already visible in the wood and swallowed. “Not long.”

  “It doesn’t make sense,” he said angrily. “If you were going to use the sigil, you would have done so before now. They must know that you can’t. Yet half the war mages in the prison are here, instead of at the gates!”

  Gillian shook her head. She’d had the same question, and he was right, it didn’t make sense. She couldn’t direct the fight from here, not that anyone was likely to listen to her anyway. The witches had fled before the eldest died; they hadn’t seen what had happened.

  She was, she realized with sudden clarity, about to die for a position nobody even knew she had.

  “You’ve already sent most of the weapons that were here to the battle and the Circle has men watching the window in any case,” the vampire fretted. “They can’t be concerned about you sending more. Why waste this many men on a single woman who isn’t even a threat?”

  Gillian started to shake her head again, but then she stopped, staring down at her wrist. And just like that, she understood. “They’re not,” she said blankly.

  “They’re not what?”

  Her hand closed over the ward, but she could still feel it, carved into her flesh like a brand. “They’re not aiming for one witch,” she said, looking up at him as it all came together in a rush, like a riddle that had needed but one final clue. “This is about destroying all of us!”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “There is no such thing as a one-way street in magic. Anything that can give power can also be used to take it!”

  “You’re talking about the triskelion.”

  She nodded frantically. “It links all the witches under the eldest’s control. If the Circle gets their hands on it, they can use it to bleed each and every one of them dry! It doesn’t matter if they run, if they hide--” she broke off abruptly, thinking of Winnie. Gillian had given her the staff, hoping its power would allow her to hide herself and Elinor. But if the Circle obtained the ward, it wouldn’t matter how well they were hidden.

  They could be killed just the same.

  Gillian felt her blood run cold.

  “But the ward isn’t complete,” the vampire protested. “If you cannot use it, how can they?”

  “By putting me under a compulsion, by forcing me to call the last sigil—and then using me to drain every last person here!”

  “But surely, not everyone here was a member of the same coven.”

  “It doesn’t matter! Magical objects follow simpler rules than humans do. And a coven, in the loosest sense, is a group of magic workers under the leadership of an elder. And she was the most senior witch here.”

  “You’re saying that the ward thinks the whole prison was her coven?” he asked doubtfully.

  “Which she passed on to me,” Gillian said numbly, staring at the window. The setting sun was shining through drifting clouds of smoke, casting a reddish light into the room. She couldn’t see the battlefield from where she stood, but it didn’t matter. The real battle wasn’t going to be fought down there.

  It seemed hopeless. The Circle held all the cards; they had from the start. There were too many of them and too few coven witches, and unlike the Great Mothers, they had no sense of community, no reverence for ancient ways, no respect for a magic so different from their own. They had never meant to work with anyone. From the beginning, their strategy had been subjugation or destruction.

  It was their game, and they had already won.

  But they wouldn’t win completely.

  “Kill me,” Gillian said harshly, as the pounding on the door took on a strange kind of rhythm, like the furious drumming in her chest.

  “What?” The vampire had been staring at the window, too, as if in thought. But at that, his eyes swiveled back to her.

  “I won’t let them do it,” she told him flatly. “I won’t let them use me to destroy everyone else. I can’t save myself, but I’ll die on my own terms, as the old Mother did. A free coven witch and damn them all!”

  “And yet you’ll still be dead,” he said sharply.

  “Nothing can stop that now.”

  “Perhaps, perhaps not. If you will give me but a moment to think—”

  “We don’t have a moment,” she said, grabbing his arms. “Do as I ask or it will be too late!”

  “You don’t understand,” he told her, and for the first time since they’d met, he looked unsure of himself. “The thought occurred to me, as well, but it isn’t that simple.”

  “Your kind does it all the time!”

  “We do no such thing!” His dark eyes flashed. “Those who join us are chosen very carefully. Not everyone is fit for this life, and it does little good to go to the trouble of Changing someone merely to have them—”

  “Changing?” It took her a moment to realize what he meant, and then her fingers dug into his arms. “You’re saying that—you mean can—” she broke off, the implications staggering her.

  He was talking about making her into one of them, about turning her into a monster. She shuddered in instinctive revulsion, her skin going clammy at the very thought. Walking undead, drinkers of blood, merciless killers—every horror story about the breed she’d ever heard rang in her mind like the clanging of a bell. She couldn’t--

  But it would work. Coven magic was living magic, based on the deep old secrets of the earth. And its creations were living things, tied to the life of the one who bore them. If she died, the ward died with her. It was why they had to be passed from elder to elder before death, or new ones had to be created.

  And it didn’t get much deader than a vampire.

  It was the only way to survive this. The only way to see Elinor again, to be there as she grew up, to protect her. It wouldn’t be anything like the life she’d hoped to have, the one she’d dreamed of for them. But it would be something.

  And that was more than her own kind were willing to offer.

  “Do it,” she told him. “Make me one of you.”

  The vampire scowled. “As I informed you, it is not that easy. And there is a chance that it could make things even worse.”

  Gillian severely doubted that. “The Circle promised you safe passage if you ceased to protect me,” she reminded him. “If they find me dead, there’s a good chance they’ll leave you alone rather than risk making an enemy of your mistress. They have enough of those as it is!”

  “That isn’t the point--”

  “Then what is?” she demanded desperately. The wood of the door was starting to splinter. They had minutes, maybe less, and she wasn’t sure how long the process took.

  “The point is that I am not sure how,” he admitted, with faint spots of color blooming high on his cheeks.

  “But…but you’re a master,” she said, bewildered. “You have to be! You’ve been running about in broad daylight for the last hour!”

  “Yes, but…” he sighed and ran a hand through his curls. “It is too complex to explain fully, but essentially…my Lady Pushed me.”

  “Pushed? What--”

  “It is done when a master wishes to elevate a servant’s rank quickly. A g
reat deal of power is…is shoved through a subject all at once,” he told her, swallowing. “It is rarely done, because many times, the subject involved does not survive. But the threats against her Majesty were grave enough to make my Lady decide that she needed someone on the inside, and no one in her stable was qualified. But a newly-made vampire has many weaknesses that—”

  “Newly-made?” Gillian grasped onto the one thing in all that which made sense. “How new?”

  He licked his lips. “A few years.”

  “A few years?”

  “If you round up.”

  Gillian felt her stomach plummeting. “You’re telling me you’ve never Changed anyone before?”

  “I never had cause,” he said, looking defensive.

  “Didn’t they train you?” she demanded, suddenly furious. She had found a way out of this, against all the odds, she had found a way. And he didn’t know how?

  “It is rather like sex,” he snapped. “The theory and the practice being somewhat different!”

  “You have to try!”

  “You don’t understand. It is a little-known fact that newly-minted masters, even those who took centuries to reach that mark, often have…mishaps…before they succeed in making their first Child. If I do this incorrectly—”

  “Then I’ll be dead,” she said harshly. “Which is what I will be when the Circle finishes with me in any case.” She took off her kerchief, baring her neck before she could talk herself out of this. “Do it.”

  For a moment, she was certain he would refuse. And why shouldn’t he, she thought bitterly. It sounded like masters changed only those who could be helpful to them in some way, and she’d been little enough use to anyone alive. Why should dead be any different?

  But then he swallowed and stepped closer, his hands coming up to rest on her shoulders. There was fear in his eyes, and it looked odd on that previously self-assured face. Like the bruises purpling along his jaw and cheek, wounds his kind weren’t supposed to get. Her hand instinctively lifted to touch them, and found his skin smooth and blood warm, nothing like the stories said.

  She stared at him, wondering if his kind felt pain, if they felt love, if they felt. She didn’t know. She didn’t know anything about them but rumors and stories, most of which, she was beginning to realize, had likely been fabricated by people who knew even less than she.

  “Try to relax,” he murmured, and she wasn’t sure whether he was talking to her or himself. But then his eyes lightened to a rich, honey-gold, as if a candle had been lit behind them. The pounding on the door receded, fading into nothingness, and the cool breeze flowing through the window turned warm. Incredibly, she felt some of the stiffness leave her shoulders.

  For a moment—until his lips found her neck and she faltered in cold panic, the soft touch causing her heart to kick violently against her ribs. Her hands tightened on his sleeves, instinct warring with instinct—to push him away, to pull him closer, the will to live fighting with the need to die.

  “I’m not doing this correctly,” he said, feeling her tremble. “You should not feel fear.”

  “Everyone fears death, unless they have nothing to live for.”

  “And you have much.”

  She nodded, mutely. She hadn’t realized until that moment how focused she’d been on all that she’d lost, instead of on what remained. She didn’t want to die. She wasn’t supposed to die, not here, not now. She knew it with a certainty at war with all reason.

  “I cannot do this if you fight me,” he told her simply. “Humans tell stories of us forcibly Changing them against their will, but that rarely happens. It is difficult enough when the subjects are willing, when they want what we have to offer.”

  “And what is that?” she asked, trying for calm despite the panic ringing in her bones.

  “For most? Power, or the possibility of it. Wealth—few masters are poor, and their servants want for nothing. And, of course, the chance to cheat death. Quite a few transition in middle age, when their bodies begin to show wear, when they realize how short a mortal life really is.”

  Gillian shook her head in amazement, that anyone would throw away something so precious for such scant reward. “But few become masters, isn’t that right?” He nodded. “So the power is in another’s hands, as is the wealth, to give or withhold as he chooses. And as for death—” This didn’t feel like a cheat to her. It felt like giving up. It felt like the end.

  The vampire smiled, softly, sadly. “You are a poor subject, Mistress Urswick. You are not grasping enough. What you want, you already have; you merely wish to keep it.”

  “But I’m not going to keep it, am I?” The terror faded as that certainty settled into her bones. She had one chance, here and now, and it would never come again. She could let fear rob her of it and die, or she could master herself and live. A strange life, to be sure, but life, nonetheless.

  “Do you wish to proceed?” he asked her, watching her face.

  Gillian took a deep breath, and then she nodded.

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