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Blackbringer, p.27
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       Blackbringer, p.27

           Laini Taylor
 
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  He paused and held up the circlet, and as they watched, its gleaming gold shone brighter still until it burned white-hot. It warped and melted and trickled down the Djinn’s gauntlet, raining a patter of molten gold onto the tumbled stones below. “This circlet was naught but ornament. But Skuldraig is power, and it has found a new mistress. And I, a new champion.”

  Talon turned to stare at Magpie, and Magpie stared at the Magruwen, eyes wide, her lip clamped between her teeth. The Djinn said, “Magpie Windwitch,” and all eyes swung to her. She flushed. “Come here, little bird,” he said, and she flew to him, feeling tiny before him.

  “Lord,” she whispered, “I thought the Blackbringer . . .” She hesitated, suddenly seeing what folly it had been to think that this great being could fall so easily. “He went down the well,” she said.

  “He hears the whispers of the roots and springs. He knew I had gone and went to see what he could scavenge.”

  Up close Magpie could see the new skin was wrought of many fine scales of gold interlinked in a sinuous mesh not unlike the firedrake tunic. She drank in the sight of him, recalling the wild flame that had swirled in the depths of the well, scorching and blinding her. He reached out his great golden hand. His fingertip, when it touched her forehead, was cool. No sooner did she feel it than a complex glyph sprang whole into her mind.

  “This is the champion’s glyph,” he said. “It was once fused of seven sigils but with the passing of the Vritra, now only six. When you hold it bright in your mind only a Djinn can break through its protection. It will keep you whole in the darkness, but you must not let it slip or you will be lost.”

  As with any new glyph, Magpie set to work memorizing it. The whorls, angles, and patterns were more intricate than any glyph she had ever learned, and it was three-dimensional, an object in space. A glyph like this could never be recorded in a book but only pass from mind to mind. She concentrated fiercely, tracing its glowing lines until she was certain she knew it by heart. With a tremor of anxiety she nodded, and the Magruwen drew away his hand. The glyph faded. Magpie hoped her memory would serve her to call forth so fierce a spell when the time came. “Thank you, Lord,” she said.

  “Give me the dagger,” he commanded her, and she unsheathed Skuldraig and handed it to him. She bowed her head as he touched the blade to her shoulders, saying, “I dub you, Magpie Windwitch, Magruwen’s champion.” Then he took her hand and turned her to face the silent crowd.

  Such a ceremony was a thing of legend, and the faeries gawked, unnerved, until Calypso once again broke the silence with a joyous squawk. “Hail, Magpie Windwitch, Magruwen’s champion!” he cried. The words were taken up by the faeries, but their voices were weak and their faces stunned. Talon’s voice rang out above the rest, and his face was alight with joy. Magpie’s eyes fastened on it in the crowd and their eyes held, shining.

  Turning to the Magruwen, she said solemnly, “It’s my great pride and honor to serve you, Lord.”

  “And you know what your first service must be.”

  “Aye, I know.”

  He held out the firedrake tunic. “Put this on,” he instructed, and with reverence she took it. The scales felt cool, like enamel, and light, and she knew no better protection could be forged on any anvil. She slipped it over her head, easing her wings out through the apertures designed for them. The tunic was large on her, but she cinched her belt around it and looked back up at the Magruwen.

  With a soft sparkle he conjured something in each hand. He presented first a seal bearing his sigil and glinting with dense magicks, and then a bundle wrapped in a familiar tatter. It was a scrap of the Djinn’s burst skin Talon had seen abandoned beneath the smoke of the Magruwen’s cave. Fireproof, as any Djinn’s skin must be, it was rolled tight to contain the precious thing Magpie knew must burn within it, a seed from the mystical pomegranate. A star to light her way through the darkness and, she hoped, to spark the other lights to life.

  “I hope you’re right, little bird,” the Magruwen said gruffly.

  “Me too.”

  “Blessings fly with you, Magpie Windwitch.” The Djinn inclined his golden head and moved away, back toward the hole that would become his new temple. As he disappeared within, Magpie thought of the great place it had once been and would be again, if she succeeded.

  She turned back to the crowd and all those eyes just blinked at her. The faeries gathered here would later recount the Magruwen’s return as a day of exaltation and boast of having witnessed it with their own eyes. They would forget the stunned stupor with which they had regarded their new champion, remembering instead the cheering and celebration that should have occurred.

  At present, celebration was the last thing on Magpie’s mind. She flew back toward the crowd, pausing before Poppy’s father to tell him earnestly, “I’m going to bring her back, sir.”

  Magpie

  He reached out his hands, palms outfaced, and she pressed hers against them. They nodded to each other and Magpie withdrew. To the crows and Talon she said, “At dusk we meet the Blackbringer,” and taking a deep breath, she added, “in the Spiderdowns.”

  THIRTY-NINE

  Magpie stood in the dying light at the edge of the Spiderdowns. Nothing grew in this poisoned place. The trees had long ago choked on the spiders’ venom and warped into the tortured corpses they were now. Their bare branches twisted into a dense canopy from which hung sheets and clots of sticking web, and the earth beneath was split into ragged cracks.

  “The light couldn’t be worse,” Nettle was telling Magpie. “The webs will be nigh invisible. We only ever go in at brightest dawn, when the dew shines and we can see every filament. This is . . .” Her words trailed off.

  “Madness?”

  “Aye, though sure it would be a greater madness to seek him belowground in the spiders’ lair. Listen, you got to be quick. They’ll drop down on you from above and spin you right up, and their venom kills flesh and curdles blood.”

  “The light’s going,” said Magpie. “It’s got to be now.” She glanced over her shoulder to where the full force of Rathersting might was mustered and ready for her signal. The crows clustered together around the Blackbringer’s bottle, as wily and tattered as alley cats.

  “Magpie,” Talon said. “Wait. Last night I made something.” He pulled it out of his pocket and when she saw its shimmer she thought it was a skin, but it wasn’t. It was a single long cord of finely woven spidersilk, coiled like a rope. “It’s a tether,” he told her, “to tie round yourself, so you can find your way back out of the dark.”

  “Lad!” croaked Calypso and smacked him on the back. “Blessings but that’s a fine thing! I’m shivered to think we might’n’t have thought of it at all, and then what? Thanks to ye!”

  “Aye . . .” Magpie spun the end of it between her fingers. It was thin as a whisker. “Will it hold?” she asked.

  “Try to cut it.”

  “Eh?”

  “Go ahead.”

  With a frown of skepticism she unsheathed Skuldraig and touched it to the strand, expecting the blade to slice right through. It did not. She tried again harder but it only glanced off. “Jacksmoke!” she said, slashing at it harder and smiling in wonderment. “How’d you do that?”

  “Knitted it with glyphs for strength,” he told her.

  “You should use those on your next skin too.”

  “For true,” he agreed, “for you never know when a lass may try to slit your throat.”

  “Ach!”

  “Tie it round you. Go on. I’ll be holding the other end, you ken, until you come back out.”

  She bowed her head and tied the cord round her waist over Bellatrix’s tunic, and when she looked back up, her smile was gone. “I’ve never had such a shiver,” she told him quietly.

  “Nor I.”

  They shared a solemn look until Magpie broke it, chasing all anxiety from her eyes and saying abruptly, “Here we go.” She tugged the tether hard to test her knot and said, squaring her
shoulders, “Hang on to me, Talon.”

  “I will. Blessings, Magpie.”

  Then, with the warriors following silently, she turned and walked in among the dead trees. She felt the presence of many spiders lying in lurk. Very many. She hadn’t gone far before one plunged down at her on a silk tether of its own. She dove and had to scramble aside as it nearly landed on top of her. She stabbed at it and it burst like the bagful of venom it was. As its eight spindly legs danced a frenzied death, she stood and prowled on, deeper into the Downs.

  The fissures in the dead earth widened, their edges crusted with congealed poison and the bones and wings of dead things. The Blackbringer was down in one of those cracks while spiders boiled up and out to do his bidding.

  Dark deepened.

  Magpie dodged another spider, and it skittered past her toward the advancing Rathersting. She heard a pop and gush as it was dispatched. Another came and she slew it and watched its fat bag of a body shrivel as its venom drooled out. She shuddered in disgust. It seemed impossible she owed her own wings to these vile things, but so it was, and for that reason the Rathersting suffered them to live, century after century.

  But not this night. Looking back, Magpie saw many dark shapes spring down onto the warriors, and a frenzy of slaying ensued. She killed two more herself, felt the sizzle of their poison on her hands and arms, and whirled back toward the black cracks in the ground, her senses reeling wildly, trying to stay alert to everything, all around, as night fell.

  A warrior screamed somewhere behind her and the hairs pricked up on her neck. More spiders came boiling up out of the ground and shambled forth. So many! She visioned a hasty spell for light as she leapt and dodged them, trying to keep clear of the sly filaments of web stretched from tree to tree. She heard another faerie cry out.

  This would never do! The faeries couldn’t possibly dodge all these spiders and the Blackbringer too once he showed himself, and that was sure to be soon. . . .

  He rose.

  This time he came as no slow fume. He jetted from the earth in a dark spew, churning through the air and sucking his skin into the shape of a horned beast. It was but a mockery of the Magruwen’s form, a pathetic imitation by a creature with no dreams of his own. He landed crouched, his darkness pooling and shifting. Squinting, Magpie could just detect the dense thatch of traceries alive over the skin of him, tightly woven of many, many glyphs. It was a calculus of magic such as she had never dreamed, a prison wrought of the Djinns’ highest craft.

  He turned to Magpie, fixing her with savage eyes. “You,” he purred, “I’ve been hunting for you.”

  “And I for you, Blackbringer,” she returned, then bellowed, “Warriors! Now!” and the Rathersting leapt, whooping their war cries, veering in the air, slashing down spiders and web as they drew round to encircle the Blackbringer.

  He laughed at them. “Do you think you can slay me, faeries? Or have you come to spare me the trouble of hunting this night?”

  “We’ll spare you the trouble of hunting ever again!” spat Magpie.

  He laughed once more, and from within him his ghastly tongue suddenly unspooled and shot at her. She leapt against the side of a tree just as a spider rappelled down it. Its fangs missed her face by a hair’s breadth. She flung it to the ground. The Blackbringer drew his tongue back and hurled it again. An old warrior heaved himself clear of it and fell within reach of a spider. The spider reared and struck, and the warrior screamed.

  Magpie knew it was time to conjure the champion’s glyph and dive into the darkness, but she hesitated. She couldn’t leave the Rathersting like this! She glanced back at Talon, who held a knife in one hand and her tether tight in the other, leaping and slashing as more spiders came at him and more. There were just too many!

  With a great thrust of will, Magpie forced open the inner eyes the Magruwen had revealed to her, and even in the heart of that terrible place the sight of the Tapestry dazzled her. A thread glinted and caught her eye and she recognized it at once. The Magruwen had named it for her; it was the thread for spider. With ferocious concentration she reached for it now. The pulse roiled around her like rapids as she conjured beside it one of the simplest of glyphs, the symbol for sleep. Urgently she intertwined them. It was a desperate move. Fusing glyphs was a precise art, and joining the same symbols into different patterns could result in wildly unpredictable magicks. For all she knew, she could be casting a spell that would make the spiders’ bite induce a deep sleep from which there was no waking.

  But she heard the rain of thick bodies hitting the earth and she knew she had gotten it right. The ground in the Downs, lit intermittently by the spells of the warriors, was littered with heaps of the stunned spiders. Magpie held the new glyph in her mind. She would have to maintain it even as she conjured the champion’s glyph or the spiders would awaken. She didn’t know if she was capable of such a thing.

  She would have to be!

  Gathering all her will, she summoned the champion’s glyph forth in her mind and it bloomed there great and shining and spun beside the smaller spell. She felt the strain of it at once, as if an hourglass had been turned and her strength was beginning to slip away. How long could she hold it? She little knew.

  In her fierce concentration she didn’t see the tongue coming. Straight at her it struck. But before she could even gasp, a flare of light exploded and the slithering grey thing was slapped aside with a sizzle. It fell limp to the ground.

  The champion’s glyph had protected her.

  The Blackbringer reeled his tongue back, dragging it through the strewn spiders. Magpie felt his surprise. He released the absurd shape he had been affecting and became again a loose clot of deepest dark.

  “Who—?” he started to hiss.

  Then Magpie sprang. Holding the two spells side by side in her mind, she dove into the darkness of the Blackbringer and disappeared.

  Talon saw her leap and gave her tether slack. He tried to catch a glimmer of her inside the beast but saw only blackness. He shivered, and hoped. He felt a slow tug at the silk line. Magpie had gone into a deep and endless place, and she was moving away from him. He slowly fed the slack to her, kept his eyes on his foe, and waited.

  The Blackbringer paused in shock. He’d reached for the faerie, tasting her power on the air, eager to unskin her spark and drink her light and surge with stolen strength as she ebbed into the emptiness.

  Instead he was stung, stunned. It had been thousands and thousands of years since last he’d felt it, but instantly he knew the force that thwarted him. The Magruwen. Traitor. And this lass with Skuldraig in her grasp—she was the Djinn King’s champion. A new champion!

  Yanking back his stunned tongue, the Blackbringer remembered the other, the huntress who had undone his armies and finally himself. His bane, Bellatrix. He had believed the world fallen and all such power with it, but he’d been wrong. He experienced a pang of fear as he looked at the small fierce lass.

  And then she stunned him again. She dove into him.

  Her power didn’t surge instantly into his own as with all the other, weaker faeries, but he knew it wouldn’t. She wielded the champion’s glyph, and as long as she could vision it, she would be whole. The Ithuriel’s champion, that Ifrit warrior with coffee-black skin who’d been his final victim in the Dawn Days, had held himself whole far longer than the Blackbringer would have thought possible. Into the bottle and into the ocean, Kipepeo had clung to that glyph inside the Blackbringer, adrift in the emptiness and not knowing he had already gone beyond all rescue. He had held on fiercely to life, some power beyond magic feeding him strength. But it was useless. He was a prisoner within a prisoner within a prison. When he had at last faltered and failed, the Blackbringer had tasted his power and raged inside his bottle, frenzied with strength and unable to spend it.

  This new champion, too, would fail. It was only a matter of when.

  Magpie struggled to hold the glyphs bright in her mind and peered around. Darkness without end. It was like
falling outside of time, outside the world. As in her memory and in her dream, dim lights flickered in the black. She groped for the bundle the Magruwen had given her and with utmost care, unwrapped it. Heat pulsed within and bright traceries spun from its folds. She pulled away the tatter and unveiled it.

  The pomegranate seed. A single star plucked from an ancient sky. Its brilliance pierced the darkness, and Magpie had to shut her eyes. But even behind closed eyelids she saw something was happening. Traceries exploded like fireworks! A feeling swelled in her, not of hollowness or warp or absence but life. And all around her the dying lights began to flicker and flare.

  In her wonder she felt the glyphs begin to slip in her mind and she quickly thrust all her energy back to maintaining them. The effort left her numb, and tendrils of exhaustion began to steal into the core of her being. With great care, and taking comfort in the tug of the tether around her waist, she began to move deeper into the darkness, holding aloft the blazing star.

  In her wake the sparks shifted, and followed.

  In the Spiderdowns a fierce, swooping battle was under way. The spiders still lay scattered but the Blackbringer raged. His essence oozed and pooled from one hideous shape to the next as he chased the whooping warriors. They were fleet and evasive but it didn’t matter. They were tiring and he was not. He grabbed one by the beard and sucked him in. He caught a lad by the ankle, but another, a lass, slashed clean through the end of his tongue, and the lad leapt free while the severed tongue tip twitched and oozed into the black ground.

  Talon’s heart pounded. The Blackbringer had almost had him. Nettle and Hiss had kept close ever since they set foot in the Downs, guarding him and the thread in his hands. He’d been uncoiling the thread steadily since Magpie disappeared, and he had now come to its end. He wrapped it several times around his fist and clenched it tight. He hoped he’d made it long enough. He’d made it as long as one night’s knitting permitted. Magpie could go no farther. He gave it a tug and waited, hoping he would feel it slacken. Hoping she would soon emerge.

 
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