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Blackbringer, p.11
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       Blackbringer, p.11

           Laini Taylor
 
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  Magpie spotted the well and they spiraled down to land on its crumbling lip. A draft of deep-buried heat rose from within the earth, cooling as it passed them and merged into the world. “Here we are, feather,” Magpie said with a tremor in her voice. “Onward and downward.” She spelled up a light and dropped down into the pit, Calypso following closely.

  After a long, steady downward drift they reached the bottom. The stones of the shaft flared wide into a cavernous space and Magpie could see a few ill-formed paths snaking off and twisting away where the light couldn’t follow. There was a door and, carved on it, the Magruwen’s sigil intertwined with the glyph for dream. The tree had told true. Magpie trembled. To think the king of Djinn was on the other side of a door . . . It was as unreal as if a statue of Bellatrix were suddenly to flick its wings and fly from its pedestal. It was legend meeting life.

  Standing on the threshold of a being who had wrought the world, Magpie felt very small, very young, and utterly insignificant. Who was she to presume to awaken a Djinn? But she knew the answer to that. As with each devil she captured, she was the only one trying.

  Magpie took a deep breath and walked toward the door.

  In his sleep the Magruwen sensed their coming. He smelled feathers, and an image of vultures came into his mind, planted there by the imp’s riddle. He recalled the distant day his brother Djinn had made them. Some creatures had been made as art; others were pure utility. Vultures had been shaped in haste to clean a field of slaughter when a powerful elemental had first begun to toy with death in the new-made world. The notion of murder had been born that day, and the Djinn had fashioned vultures to spare themselves the sight of it. They’d made them out of shame and had done well to make them; vultures had never fallen out of use since.

  But there was no scuff of death on these feathers that beat heavily down the well shaft; they smelled of rain and fires. And there was another scent: faerie.

  The Magruwen came awake. His sleep had been troubled and he had not sunk far. Flames took the shape of a horned beast rising to its feet. The scent of faerie, pure as dew, was bitter to him. His flame hands clenched with the memory of betrayal, and he waited.

  Magpie leaned on the door with all her might to push it open a crack. It creaked, and a trickle of smoke began to seep out. Magpie pushed harder, cradling the cake to her chest, and stepped into the Magruwen’s cave, heart pounding. “My lord Magruwen . . . ?” she asked tentatively. The lake of smoke before her moved with a sluggish tide, and the scuttle of salamanders up and down the stalactites sounded like a chorus of otherworldly whispers. The source of light seemed to be in the deep reaches of the cave where the ceiling sloped down like rows of teeth in a giant jaw.

  “First an imp and now a faerie,” came a harsh whisper, sending ripples through the smoke and chills down Magpie’s spine. “Get you gone. I don’t deal in treasure anymore.”

  “My lord? I . . . I’ve come for wisdom, not treasure,” she said, her eyes searching wildly for her first glimpse of the Djinn.

  “Wisdom? For whom?”

  “For all my kind. We need your help.”

  “You are past helping . . . ,” the whisper said, growing louder. Magpie watched breathlessly as the glow from the deep of the cave moved closer, flickering in the rough form of legs striding. “Past deserving,” the voice continued. “Faeries have become a second race of butterflies, mere ornaments for the air.”

  The Djinn grew brighter and Magpie had to cast down her eyes, feeling his heat pulsing at her in waves as he drew nearer. Her mind raced. The Djinn wore skins, didn’t they? In the stories they appeared clad in wondrous forms. She had expected some majestic ancient, crowned perhaps, with a beard of fire and sparks for eyes, sitting in state on a hematite throne. Not this wild open flame. She tried to look at him but he was so white-bright she had to snap her eyes closed. Behind her shut lids an afterimage burned of a beast with curved horns of flame. She began to back blindly away.

  “We are more than butterflies, Lord,” she whispered.

  “Aye, you are right. You are more treacherous. More false.”

  “Neh!” Magpie said. “Not that! Careless maybe, not treacherous. Faeries aren’t traitors.”

  “You think you know. Faeries! You are your own undoing. Old treachery comes back to haunt you, but even now you won’t learn, even when the last of you flickers out.”

  “What old treachery?” Magpie cried. “What do you mean, flicker out?”

  “Don’t you like surprises?” he asked. He rushed up close then and Magpie stumbled backward against the door, feeling the intense weight of heat upon her face and smelling scorched hair. For an instant she could find no air to breathe and sank to the floor, realizing for the first time with what simplicity the end could come.

  Then, just as suddenly, the Magruwen drew away.

  “What is that?” he asked in a quick sharp hiss.

  Magpie remembered the cake. “My lord,” she gasped, holding it out. “An offering. Your favorite . . . I hope.”

  “That recipe has long been gone from this world!” But even as he said it, the Magruwen’s voice faltered. Into his sulfurous cavern this small faerie had carried the scent of honey, tears, and lightning, of thirsty roots in future soil, of wind through wings, a fragrance long absent, but well remembered.

  “I found it,” Magpie said in a small voice. “I hope I made it okay.” She continued to hold it out to him, her arms shaking. After a moment she felt the heavy heat again and the weight of the cake was lifted from her arms. The twigs of the starling’s nest crackled like kindling, and she waited.

  The sound he made was something like a sigh. A little of the tension that held Magpie rigid eased from her limbs and she rose again to her feet. “My lord . . . is it . . . all right?”

  “Imperfect,” he said, spitting. The acorn shot from his mouth and pinged into the smoke, setting off a loud cascade of hidden treasures, and Magpie tensed, ready to spring aside should he come at her again. “There’s no thousand years in that nut,” the Magruwen said, flaring high. Then he diminished, thinned, and said quietly, “But it was not . . . badly done.”

  Relief flooded Magpie and she found she could look at him now, if she squinted. He had made himself into a spindle of flame that still bore within it the impression of a figure rising to taper into tremendous curving horns. And there were eyes. Once Magpie found them she felt locked onto them and couldn’t look away. They were vertical, windows through fire into the infinite. They were dizzying.

  “Why have you woken me?” he asked, and Magpie blinked and was able to break her gaze from his.

  “T-there’s . . . ,” she stammered, “there’s a devil, escaped from its bottle. A devil you saw fit once, yourself, to imprison.”

  “And how do you know this?”

  “I found the bottle and your seal. I never knew you snared any devils yourself, so it . . . it flummoxed me.”

  “There is but one bottle that bears my seal.”

  “Not anymore, then, Lord; if there was just the one, then it’s sure. He’s got out.”

  “I know.”

  “Oh.” Magpie hesitated. “Did you also know, Lord, that he’s killed the Vritra?”

  The fire wavered and a hiss issued from him. “Aye, I felt it,” he muttered to himself. “A rending such as this the Tapestry cannot withstand. The threads fall slack and will not sing true.”

  “Tapestry?” Magpie asked.

  At first the Magruwen didn’t answer. Magpie felt he was staring at her, weighing her worth and finding her lacking. “The Tapestry is unknown to you?” he asked.

  Magpie nodded slowly. A dreamlike image floated in her mind, but like the traceries of light it flitted away when she tried to look at it.

  “Get you gone, faerie.” The Magruwen’s voice snapped in mirthless laughter. “Gather up the folk that remain and go you all to the Moonlit Gardens. Feel blessed there’s such a place for you to go . . . for now. Even it won’t hold forever. When the last th
reads snap it too will sink into the darkness, a soft echo of greater doom.”

  “What?” Magpie asked, bewildered. “Darkness? Doom? What do you mean, Lord, please! Sure you can’t be meaning the snag! What is he?”

  “Who are you, that you should peer behind a veil of mysteries that has been in place for years beyond counting?”

  “I’m a hunter. He’s come to Dreamdark! I just want to catch him, before he hurts any more faeries and before he hurts . . . you.”

  Again the Magruwen laughed. It was a terrible sound. “Faerie, this foe won’t be caught, not by you or anyone. He is a contagion of darkness. There’s poetry in his return, though a faerie wouldn’t see it.”

  “Poetry! He said there was poetry in the Vritra’s death. I don’t see poetry in any of it!”

  “He said? How do you know what he said?”

  “I touched the Vritra’s last memory. The devil called him a traitor!”

  “A traitor . . . ,” the Djinn hissed. “Aye. We are all traitors. For what is living but a chain of impossible choices? Every choice casts a shadow, and sometimes those shadows stalk your dreams. But what do faeries know of shame? You’ll be blind to your own until the end!”

  “What? Lord, please. It’s true faeries are less than they were. I know how much has been lost. But the end? It’s just one devil. However bad he is, he can’t be the end of the world!”

  “The world has long been ending. Everything ends. It builds, then it is, then it slides down the far slope of nothing, back into the nothing that was before.”

  “Then we have to stop it!” Magpie cried in desperation.

  “Sure you can’t just see all your beautiful dreams vanish like that!”

  “I’ll dream more dreams.”

  “Oh, aye, will you then? Feed us to the devil then go make yourself another world to play with? Is that what you dream about? How you’ll make it better next time? What about us?”

  “What about you? Live with what you wrought and die from it!”

  “What we’ve wrought? Faeries didn’t make devils!”

  “Nay. And yet the seals are broken.”

  “Humans break the seals!”

  “Aye, so they do.”

  “What have humans to do with us?” Magpie demanded in a fury.

  The Magruwen just looked at her, and then he did the one thing, perhaps, that could have made Magpie’s fury flare beyond the power of her small body to contain it.

  He yawned.

  Magpie sputtered, reddened. A tingling built to bursting in her fingers, then ten whorls of light surged from them and danced in the air, spinning round the Djinn King before exploding like fireworks against his fiery essence. “Wake up!” Magpie cried. “This is the world! This is important!”

  And to her surprise, and his, he did wake up. The sparking of fireworks around him touched off a kindred explosion within, and he was stunned by a surge of vitality. It wavered out of his control and in an instant the spindle of fire standing before Magpie bloomed into a dazzle that knocked her to the ground and blinded her. She slipped beyond her senses and lay still in a world of hot white light and knew no more.

  SIXTEEN

  The Magruwen gradually, with effort, gathered himself back in. He was in shock. He felt new, as when he had first danced off flint to bring light to the beginning. He reared his head, felt power flow through him, and looked down at the smoke where the faerie had stood. She was gone. He waved his hand and chased back the smoke to reveal where she lay senseless on the cavern floor.

  He became aware of a ruckus then, a crow, squawking a riot at him. It landed beside the faerie and the Magruwen waved his hand once more so that the crow fell still, frozen in place with his wings arched protectively over the lass.

  The Djinn needed quiet.

  What he had just seen was impossible. What he now felt was inexplicable. He looked hard at the faerie. Just a lass, and yet, with his sluggishness banished—what had she done to him?—his senses felt cleansed, and there was something familiar in her, some hint, some wisp that sang to him.

  He needed to look at the Tapestry.

  For millennia he had resisted looking at it. His dreams had been haunted by its unweaving and he couldn’t bear to see it in life, its ragged runs and ruined glyphs, its faded threads. Now he wrenched opened his long-blind inner eyes and waited for his mystical vision to clear.

  The Tapestry was the very fabric of existence, woven long ago by seven fire elementals spinning in an eternity of nothing. They spun the threads of living light as a net to catch their dreams and keep them from dissolving into the blackness. Fever-bright they burned, fed unwaveringly by their one ally, the Astaroth, an elemental of the air, the world-shaping wind.

  And the Tapestry grew.

  It was simple in the beginning, a latticework of light, but the dreamers honed their craft, and the dream grew great. When at last it was ready they grasped its edges and shaped it into a sphere, its seams sewn tight, and within it bloomed a world. When they stitched closed the seams they did so from within. They sealed it around themselves and they knew they could never leave, not without letting the blackness in and annihilating everything the Tapestry sheltered.

  They dreamed water and earth and populated them with fanciful creatures. The Magruwen dreamed dragons first and he doted on them, Fade most of all, the truest thing he ever fashioned. The great dragon lay curled round the Djinn while they wove and wove.

  They dreamed faeries later and gave to them, as to dragons and to a lesser extent imps, something other creatures didn’t have, a sensitivity to the Tapestry. They couldn’t see it or alter it. Simply, they felt it. It was the pulse and vibration of their world and, like harpists plucking strings, they could make it sing.

  This was magic.

  What the Magruwen thought he had witnessed when the lass stung him awake—the impossible thing—was a faerie spinning a new glyph into the Tapestry. Not just playing upon it, not plucking a thread, but creating one.

  Weaving.

  The glowing skeins of the Tapestry began to grow clear in his vision, starting out as traceries, curls, ribbons, and streamers of light and settling into their intricate patterns, moving and living and connecting all things. For a long time he held the crow immobile with one small finger of his mind and studied the Tapestry with the rest of it. It was much as he feared from his nightmares. There were ragged shreds and tatters held together by the thinnest of filaments. With the death of the Vritra many threads had dissolved altogether and the fabric was slack as old skin. Blackness peeked through the threadbare patches, taunting. The Tapestry was falling apart.

  And then, among the dimming strings and patterns of the failing weave, the Magruwen’s eyes detected bright points, and he looked closer. He saw new glyphs. From one to the next, skipping over the vast fabric, he followed them. Messy they were and clumsy, brilliant and shining, childlike, impatient, artless, ingenious, and impossible. Some small fingers had been plying new threads through the old. Short and tangled though they were, in places these new stitches were all that held great gaps from yawning open.

  While he slept, someone had been reweaving the Tapestry.

  Magpie awakened with a groan, still blind, seeing only white. She smelled sulfur and knew she was still in the Magruwen’s cave. She smelled stale cigar smoke and knew Calypso was near. “Feather?” she said feebly.

  “I’m here, ’Pie” came his soothing singsong voice, and she felt his feathertips caress her face.

  “What did I do?” she whispered, remembering nothing but the light pouring from her fingertips.

  “I don’t know, ’Pie,” the crow whispered back. She heard fear in his voice and struggled to sit up, tried to blink her vision into focus.

  “Faerie,” hissed the Magruwen’s voice. “Who are you?”

  “Magpie Windwitch, Lord,” she said in a wisp of a voice. She began to see shapes in the whiteness.

  “Windwitch? Elemental?”

  “I am granddaughter o
f the West Wind.”

  To himself the Magruwen muttered, “That explains nothing.”

  “Lord Magruwen,” Magpie said, “I’m sorry I offended you. And I’m sorry faeries have forsaken you. But I beg you, don’t forsake us back. Give us a chance to deserve the world, to become what we can still become.”

  “This is not an age of becoming,” he told her. “It is the age of unweaving.”

  “Unweaving again! What does it mean?”

  “It means the darkness will rush in like a tide and sweep everything back into the endless ocean.”

  “But sure we can stop it! With your help.” Her vision was returning and she squinted to look at him.

  “It is already too late,” said the Djinn.

  Magpie clenched her fists in frustration. “Neh!” she said forcefully, getting to her feet and leaning heavily on Calypso.

  As she did so, a gleam caught the Magruwen’s gaze and drew it to her knife hilt. He hissed, “Skuldraig . . .”

  “What?” Magpie asked with a sharp intake of breath. She remembered the name. The old faerie who had guarded the Vritra had said it. Skuldraig had killed all those faeries. “Who’s Skuldraig?” she asked.

  “Let me see that dagger.”

  Puzzled, Magpie unsheathed it and held it out, remembering now the runes she’d noticed on its blade while holding it to the falcon’s—the lad’s—throat. She hadn’t had a moment to look more closely at them since.

  The Magruwen studied the knife for a long moment before saying, “This blade was lost, and well lost. Where did you find it?”

  “In the Vritra’s dreaming place,” she said. “It was planted in a skeleton’s—”

  “Spine,” he finished for her.

  “Aye. How did you know?”

  “Skuldraig means ‘backbiter.’ That is its way.”

  “But who is he?” Magpie asked. “Sure it can’t be the devil—those skeletons were long dead, and besides, this devil, he leaves nothing behind!”

 
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