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Blackbringer, p.13
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       Blackbringer, p.13

           Laini Taylor
 
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  “Don’t touch her name with your foul tongue, irkmeat!” cried the gent.

  Batch laughed and a vicious smile transformed his face. All traces of the woebegone sniveler were gone in an instant and he became, again, the predator that would have torn Poppy’s wings from her back without a thought. “Tell Queen Vesper that Batch Hangnail sends his regards.”

  EIGHTEEN

  Behind a painted screen, Lady Vesper heard the name “Batch Hangnail” and her lips and knuckles went white.

  “Lady?” ventured Kex when she didn’t respond.

  “Aye, Lord Winterkill,” she said, an unaccustomed catch in her musical voice. “An imp . . . is it?”

  “Aye. There’s no question, that lass is in league with him. What company she keeps! Imps and crows! It’s shocking my cousin is consorting with—”

  “Sir,” she cut in impatiently. “What manner of imp is he?”

  “Foulest I’ve ever beheld, Lady. Encrusted with filth! But strange—his whole tail was covered in the finest diamond rings!”

  Kex couldn’t see his lady. Indeed, he hadn’t laid eyes on her since before the play, when she had retired to her chamber and refused to come out. If he could have seen her, he might scarcely have recognized her. The hair was the least of it—it was tight-tied in three layers of silk kerchiefs and further bound in pearl strands, with Bellatrix’s circlet at its crown. She might have gone out in such a headdress and inspired a new fashion, but for the fact that it . . . wriggled. No, it was her face that would have shocked him.

  She had drained of all color. Her lips were smashed together and her eyes wild, and all her beauty was quite lost amid the fury, disbelief, outrage, and fear that moved over it fast as storm winds.

  “Do you know where they have gone?” came her voice from behind the screen, each syllable sharp as a knife.

  “The lass mentioned Issrin Ev, my blossom.”

  “Lord Winterkill, I thank you for this news. Kindly leave me now.” Vesper held one hand out to him from behind the screen and he kissed it hungrily.

  After he left she drew back her hand and wiped the drool from it, her lip curled in disgust, the rest of her face contorted with rage. “The imp is alive?” she seethed, grabbing a gilt hand mirror off her vanity table. “Yet alive?” she demanded, peering into it. Her own face was all that looked out, but she seemed to squint beyond her reflection, searching for something deeper.

  She swept the tabletop with a furious glance and, not finding a sharp instrument, took the soft pad of her fingertip between her teeth and ripped it open. She didn’t even flinch from the pain but only jabbed her finger at the mirror and flung her blood onto it. As soon as it hit the surface her reflection melted away and she saw through the glass to the hideous thing trapped inside it.

  Its mottled brown skin had the texture of dried gut stretched over a skull, and so crude were its features it seemed to have been sculpted in the dark, and with one obvious omission: it had no mouth. Or rather, its mouth was a mass of scar tissue with no opening. It was pulled so tight it was clear there were teeth beneath, many teeth, and that they were well sharp enough to eat through its own puckered flesh and make an opening there, as it had clearly done many times in the past. Abominably, the creature’s mouth was a wound that healed shut when it went too long between feedings.

  “Gutsuck,” Vesper said with icy control, “I have just had an interesting piece of news. Batch Hangnail lives.” She paused. “Is not that odd? I find it so, since you swore to me you had finished him!”

  Its eyes were deep black slits, leering back at her.

  “But that’s not all,” she went on. “He’s here, in Dream-dark!” A trill of laughter came from her lips, high and wild. “So I summon you forth to do what you swore you had already done. Kill the imp!”

  The surface of the mirror distorted as the thing began to push out into the world, but there was a sound like a fizz as its face emerged, and it drew back sharply, welts rising on its skin. Its slit eyes narrowed further as it glared at its mistress.

  “Oh! Irksome protection spells!” cried Vesper, just now remembering them. “Of course you can’t come forth in Never Nigh!” With a groan of exasperation she stood, slid the mirror into a deep pocket of her gown, and fluttered to the window. She looked carefully around, then slid out between the curtains to be lost among the trees.

  Poppy Manygreen had planted many, many things in her hundred years and she never tired of the miracle. Each time a seed or nut or bulb awakened to its own unique life, the awe awakened in her anew. Cradling the scorched acorn in her arms now, she marveled that the dreamer king himself had touched it. It seemed to thrum with mystery, and she felt sure the pulse—as Magpie had called it—quickened around it.

  By holding out a hand over the soil, a Manygreen could probe for a “sweet spot,” a nurturing nook of rich earth among the roots and rocks of the ancient forest where a new life could take hold. She found such a spot on a little ridge overlooking Misky Creek, and she was just tucking the nut into its bed when she felt a murmur on the move. A whisper of news flitted from fern to ivy to ash and when she heard what it was she sank quietly out of sight among the leaves.

  Only a moment later Lady Vesper landed downcreek. She drew something out of her pocket and spoke and Poppy could just barely hear her words over the sluice of the creek. “To Issrin Ev,” Vesper said. “Kill Batch Hangnail!” Poppy’s eyes widened. What business, she wondered, had the queen with that scavenger? Then her eyes widened further as a misshapen creature squirmed out of the mirror and unpeeled great membranous bat wings that were wrapped tightly round its body.

  “Poor starved Gutsuck,” cooed Vesper to it. “Who knows when you’ll eat again. Best you finish off the feathered faerie too. And the crows, if you can stomach the taste of ashtray.”

  Gutsuck hunched and went to work on his face, gobbling at his scars from within. With a horrible sound of gnashing and slurping he gnawed opened a ragged, fang-filled maw and hissed with a spray of blood, “Your wish, mistress,” and launched himself into the sky.

  NINETEEN

  Across the forest, the hungry one was restless in his crevice in the rock awaiting the onslaught of night. He didn’t sleep and didn’t dream and never had. If he had dreamed in the Dawn Days, perhaps things would have been different. It was dreams that, like threads, had embroidered the others to this world, while he had roamed and ranged, always restless, bound to nothing.

  Such were the humble beginnings of the end of the world: the absence of dreams.

  Later, in his prison, in the endless tossing ocean, dreams might have been a companion. Instead, every moment of every millennia had passed waking and dreamless in the company of two entities: his hunger and his vengeance. And, having nothing else to play with, he had nurtured them with singular devotion.

  When the seal on his bottle had unexpectedly fallen open it was his hunger that had first burst forth. But those creatures on the boat, they were like water from a wine bottle, an unsettling gulp of nothing. He knew now that they were called humans, a new thing, and they interested him not at all. His hunger and his vengeance had led him like a pair of leashed tigers: sometimes pulling in opposite directions, sometimes prowling for the same doomed prey. In Rome his hunger had led him to the devil-ripe catacombs beneath the city to feed; his vengeance had guided him to the Vritra.

  The Vritra had always been the weakest of the Djinn, but it was still a shock seeing him fallen to such a state. How simple it had been to command a wind to extinguish him for good! The wind had tried valiantly to resist, but in the end it was a slave to its secret name, and the hungry one knew all the secret names. And now he knew more secrets. For the delirious Vritra had babbled in his dreams and told him what he needed to know to unlock the world.

  How wonderful.

  A pomegranate! How long had he searched before the faeries had at last caught him in their bottle? He would have gone on searching too and would never have guessed that what he sought was a
pomegranate. A fruit! Truly, without the fire and color of dreams of his own he was ill-equipped to imagine the whims of Djinn. But now he didn’t have to imagine. He knew.

  The world hinged upon a single pomegranate.

  The world, such as it was. The Tapestry was threadbare, the Djinn were guttering out, Fade and the other dragons were dead, the champions were long gone, and the faeries that remained, while not as flavorless as that pest species, humans, were a far cry from the faeries of the Dawn Days. Once, a single faerie would have sated him for days, but now he couldn’t fill his bottomless hunger no matter how many of them he had.

  It riled him. The gnawing hunger distracted him from vengeance. It was primal, inconvenient, an unexpected consequence of his . . . evolution. He had been a very different sort of creature once. The Magruwen might have imprisoned him, but this thing he had become, it was his own creation. Through sheer force of will, through vengeance, bitterness, and rage, he had warped himself into what he was now.

  He was the Blackbringer.

  TWENTY

  Magpie lay outstretched on her belly on a pine bough above Issrin Ev. It chilled her to see the temple in such a state, its eight great columns leaning like old bones, its entrance obliterated. For the first time she considered the possibility that it might just be her own dark luck to live to witness the end of things. The bitter scorch in the bottom of the well was never coming out again. The old legends were gone, and there would be no new ones.

  This was what remained: headless statues, their long shadows, and vultures.

  Five vultures perched near the ruined temple facade. There, staring back from the stone, was the symbol for infinity that graced all the temples and that had become such a bitter irony now, four thousand years later. Infinity! Or not. Magpie watched the foul birds. The crows and imp were waiting near the mouth of the Deeps where she’d promised Calypso she would join them as soon as she’d gotten a glimpse of the devil. She shivered. Just a glimpse. Soon she would see it. Soon she would know what had laughed as it killed a Djinn.

  The sun was all but gone.

  Just as the last orange tinge of it drained away behind the hills, a fume issued from a crack in the facade of the temple below. It neither rose to disperse like smoke nor drifted to settle like fog. It pulsed and constricted into a tight clot of shadow far deeper than the dimming night around it.

  Magpie blinked. She squinted at it. She could see the vultures’ every feather and even make out the veins in their bloodshot eyes, but of this thing that poured from the shadows she could see nothing but a darkness so profound it stole even the memory of light. And the way it moved . . . It didn’t float but seemed to siphon itself through the air with a steady, hunting will.

  She lay very, very still.

  Its eyes . . . Though Magpie made no sound, its eyes swiveled straight to her, finding her instantly across the distance and the darkness. A shiver thrilled through her blood. Its eyes were vertical slits like the Magruwen’s—she’d never seen eyes like that on a devil! Its gaze burned her mind. And its hunger . . . She felt it like the tug of a tide. It was tasting her on the air.

  When it spoke, its disembodied voice seemed to come from within her own head, invading her mind, filling it. “What’s this? Ah, a draught of the old wine,” it rasped, and came toward her.

  Magpie gathered herself into a crouch on the branch and though she was loathe to invite that voice into her head again, she cried out, “What are you?”

  “I am the heavens with the stars ripped out” came its whispered reply. “I am the Blackbringer.” Magpie shook her head to clear the voice from it but it went on, “But who are you, faerie? The first taste in this pale place of the old vintage . . . A feast. Be still!”

  The voice compelled her to be still. The fume rose slowly off the ground and she found herself frozen, watching it come. Closer. Closer.

  “Magpie!” a voice screamed from the sky, scouring the terrible whisper from her mind. Her head jerked up and she saw a figure glide overhead.

  “Poppy!” Magpie gasped, then looked quickly back down at the darkness sweeping toward her. Gathering herself up, she leapt skyward, twisting to see that the darkness didn’t follow. She raced to Poppy. “Come on!” She grabbed her friend’s hand. “We got to get out of here!”

  “Aye,” Poppy gasped, winded and drinking in great gulps of breath. “Devil . . . coming!”

  Magpie swung around to see the thing melting back into the deep shadows below. “I know,” she said. “He’s down there—”

  “Neh! Another—” Poppy cried, just as a winged thing came wheeling over Issrin and let out a piercing cry.

  It was one of the ugliest snags Magpie had ever seen. Its mouth was a bloody tatter full of teeth, and its skin was drawn so tight over its sharp skeleton that its bones seemed ready to pierce right through. “Now that’s a devil,” she said.

  “Vesper set him on you!” Poppy told her, backing away from the thing in horror.

  “Eh? That priss has a snag slave?” Magpie asked, dumbfounded.

  The hideous thing whirled in the air on its jagged wings and caught sight of Magpie. It hissed, “Feathered faerie . . . ,” and licked the bloody edges of its maw.

  As it started forward, Poppy cried, “Magpie! What do we do?”

  Magpie shoved Poppy aside as the snag came, and on her sleek wings she darted into its path. It hurtled at her, shrieking, and reached for her. In one fluid motion Magpie spun and grasped the hooked claw at the crook of its wing and whipped round, straining against it with all her weight. Tilting off balance, the devil went scudding into a tree trunk.

  Magpie glanced at the darkness below as the snag spun and came at her again. This was a dance she knew well, this devil waltz. Many times had she danced it, coaxing the eejits to hurl themselves at her, maneuvering easily out of their way as they thudded again and again into ground or cliff or whatever solid surface was at hand, until they grew dizzy, or tired, or crazed, and then she captured them. She had no time for that now.

  She saw the vultures shake open their wings and lurch from their perches. She still felt the hunger of the dark thing lurking in the courtyard below.

  She had to get away from here. To get Poppy away.

  The snag pulled itself from the tangle of tree branches and leapt for her. If she dodged, it would be headed straight at Poppy. She hovered and let it come. It reached out its clawed hands. It was on her, its breath on her face, hot and reeking, spraying blood with each earsplitting screech. As it reached out with its claws, Magpie’s own hands darted toward it, faster, one on each of its wrists. Then her wings swept in a powerful backbeat and she dropped, tugging the devil’s arms down so that in its momentum its bony legs spun wildly over its head. She let go and it somersaulted into a pillar with a thud.

  Below, the darkness was moving.

  Barely fazed by his collision, the snag sprang again.

  Skuldraig, Magpie thought, drawing it from its scabbard. “Many devils has it subdued,” the Magruwen had said. He had also said, “It is cursed to slay any who wield it.” Her hand quavered a little and she glanced at the knife, but its weight felt right. The shine of it in the gloom gave her a bloom of strength, and she felt the pulse gather round her and urge her forward.

  This time when the snag came at her she spun aside, grabbed its wing, and jumped on its back as if she were mounting a bird mid-flight. Then she whipped Skuldraig around and pressed the flat of the blade against its foul throat. The crystal keening of the knife’s song rang out through the ruins at once and the devil went limp and began to plummet from the sky. Magpie braced her feet against it, and as she jumped free, she kicked out as hard as she could, sending it spiraling toward the clot of shadow below. Wings twitching, it slid into the Blackbringer like a hand into a pocket, and disappeared.

  Silence fell over Issrin. The darkness had swallowed the snag whole, and its caterwauling with it. Magpie looked frantically around for some sign of it but all she heard was her own br
eath and the wing beats of the vultures. Then the squawking of crows filled the air and the birds, alerted by the snag’s shrieks, came winging out of the trees, fast and loud. The vultures were there rising to meet them and there was a hideous screech of birds in the night.

  What had the Blackbringer done to that devil?

  “Magpie!” cried Poppy, and Magpie turned to her, torn, wanting to go help her crows but needing to get Poppy to safety.

  She flew to her friend and grabbed her hand. “Poppy, get away from here, now!” she was saying when suddenly Poppy’s eyes widened in shock. Then her hands were wrenched from Magpie’s grasp and she was snatched away so fast Magpie went into a spin. In her surprise she dropped Skuldraig and heard it clatter to the ground far below.

  Vultures and crows wheeled and clashed, and Magpie halted her spin to find herself alone in the sky. Poppy was gone.

  Magpie looked wildly around but saw no sign of her friend. “Poppy!” she screamed.

  The beast—the Blackbringer—was pooling in the courtyard below. Magpie saw a white arm reach out of the dark fume of him. A faerie’s arm. The fingers grasped and clawed at nothing, then the arm disappeared back into the darkness. “Poppy!” gasped Magpie. The devil had her. How? It took a split second for Magpie’s body to respond to the sight of that reaching arm and then she found herself in motion, streaking toward the beast. “Blackbringer!” she screamed.

  It came at her then—the tongue—and she saw how the devil had plucked Poppy from the sky. Fury flared in her; the imp might have mentioned this! Huge and livid, the Blackbringer’s tongue came at her fast as a hurled harpoon. Even in her surprise she dodged it easily, and before she could really think what she was doing, she was diving into the void of the Blackbringer, arms outstretched, hoping to find Poppy within, hoping to come out on the other side.

  Thinking about it later, over and over, Magpie would know she couldn’t have been inside that darkness more than a second. Her speed must have carried her through him in an instant. But that instant would always after live in her mind as a journey.

 
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