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Blackbringer, p.28
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       Blackbringer, p.28

           Laini Taylor
 
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  A very long time seemed to pass.

  His old uncle Caelum, who’d drawn his tattoos, was seized, and Hesperus, whose first babe had been born this year. The warriors were falling.

  The darkness was winning.

  The Blackbringer bucked and bellowed. Talon felt the tether pull taut and tug him forward. He planted his feet and strained against it, feeling his heels skid over the dead ground. He strained with all his strength and the tether cinched tight around his fist, biting into his flesh and drawing blood. Slowly, grimacing, Talon was drawn toward the beast.

  “Nettle!” he hollered, trying to dig in his heels.

  His sister dashed to his side, sheathing her knives so she could grip the silk string with both hands. Side by side they struggled against the pull of Magpie’s tether but the Blackbringer seemed to have gone wild, swirling like storm clouds, morphing into crazed shapes, spinning, hissing. The silk bit through Talon’s palm. He’d spelled the thing himself and knew it was strong enough to slice right through his hand.

  His blood was making it slick and hard to hold.

  Nettle stumbled and dropped the cord, and without her added strength resisting its pull, Talon was yanked right off his feet. He fell to his chest and was dragged through fetid spider bodies as the tether bit tighter and deeper into his hand.

  The Blackbringer was only a few yards away.

  “Talon!” Nettle screamed, lunging to grab his feet and trying to wrestle him back from that yawning darkness. “Let go of it!” He knew if he did, Magpie would be lost, but if he didn’t, he’d be lost with her.

  He didn’t let go.

  He thought of the surge of strength that had flowed through him as he coursed over Dreamdark on wings he had conjured with his own hands, and a bellow rose from his throat as he twisted his legs around in front of him to find some lip in the ragged ground to brace himself against, even for a moment. His heels met rock and, gritting his teeth, he took his throbbing, bleeding hand and pulled away from the darkness with all his might.

  A scream choked from his throat. The bones of his hand constricted and blood pulsed from his wound. He strained against the darkness but it was no use. The pull was too strong. The Blackbringer contorted and spun, and Talon felt himself lifted into the air, tumbling toward it. He gritted his teeth and held on, thinking of the courage it had taken Magpie to dive into that nothingness. He wrenched open his eyes and stared into it. This was his last chance to save himself.

  He tightened his grip.

  He was drawn through the air in a kind of effortless flight, and the darkness was rushing to meet him. Then, suddenly, it cleaved open and Magpie tumbled out, falling to her knees.

  “Magpie!” Talon screamed as the inexorable pull released him. He fell back to the ground as, with infinite weariness, Magpie trembled and rose slowly to her feet.

  Desperate with exhaustion, she turned to the Blackbringer, raised Skuldraig with a heavy arm, and brought it down against his skin of night. As the blade met the black, a pure chime rang out through the Spiderdowns and the beast froze, his tongue dropping like a dead snake to the ground. And as Magpie held her enemy thus immobile, she saw lights begin to sparkle forth from within him like fireflies dancing out of a dark wood. The beauty of it gave her a small swell of strength and she straightened her weary arm and held Skuldraig proud.

  As the lights emerged, shadows seemed to peel away from the Blackbringer in long strips. The sparks leapt to fill them, each to each, and figures bloomed within. In every shadow burst a blinding dazzle. Pale forms moved and turned, stretched wings and arms, opened long-closed eyes, awakened. On unsteady legs they staggered forth, blinking like sleepwalkers who had awakened in a foreign land. There came faeries and imps, many, many, but Magpie kept her eyes fixed on the Blackbringer, afraid if she were to turn and watch the miracle she was working, her concentration might give way to wonder. It was a sight for others to marvel at, and they did. The Rathersting stared, panting, bleeding, broken, and awestruck, as souls emerged to reclaim their beautiful skins from shadow.

  Of course, not all the skins were beautiful. The Blackbringer had feasted on his share of devils, and they too stepped out of the darkness. Ignoble things, wheezing, slope-shouldered, and foul, on tentacles, on cloven hooves, with suckers for mouths, with double and triple mouths. One dismal creature possessed a mouth like a wound, and as it dragged its limp wings through the throng, its mistress’s last command slowly rose to the surface of its muddled mind.

  And there were humans! The first ever to stand so deep in Dreamdark, four hulking, barefoot mannies swayed among the rest of the creatures. There were so many souls. Hundreds! They were like a river of light pouring from the void. Magpie glimpsed a flash of copper hair and turned her head just long enough to see that it was Poppy. Relieved, she refocused her energy on her glyphs but kept watch out for one shape, one she knew well for she had seen it silhouetted in flight a thousand times at least: Maniac. But he was nowhere to be seen, so even as the flow of souls slowed and gradually stopped, she kept her trembling arm outstretched, and waited.

  “Magpie.” She heard Talon’s voice through the hypnotic ringing of the blade. She wanted to look at him, to focus on his clear, steady eyes as the world lurched around her, but she didn’t dare turn. She was certain Maniac had still not come forth, and it was all she could do to keep the glyphs burning in her mind, second after endless second. She was utterly depleted, hanging on to consciousness by the thinnest of threads, and when one last shadow finally peeled away from the blackness—a crow!—she let her arm fall with a bone-weary shudder, dropping Skuldraig and the veiled pomegranate seed both upon the ground.

  Maniac wobbled and careened to earth as a trio of warriors rushed to steady his landing and Magpie gasped, “Crows, now!” The other birds, circling in the sky, beat down to her through the branches, bearing the Blackbringer’s bottle with them.

  She didn’t know how she could possibly find within herself the strength to cast one last spell. She would have to let the champion’s glyph go and the Djinn’s protection with it. No sooner did she realize this than the glyph was snuffed from her mind, leaving a ghost image where it had so long burned. As that too faded, she breathed deep, dug into her mind for her last reserve of power, and visioned a new glyph in its place.

  At once a vortex whirled to life in the neck of the silver bottle, and the Blackbringer, weakened and shrunken, was powerless against it. The whipping air grasped the edge of his skin and the king of devils lost his hold on the world. With a roaring of wind he was seized and sucked back toward his ancient prison. As if the skin of night were truly a fabric, its edges flapped and swirled and he whirled slowly out of sight, his terrible rasp of a voice filling everyone’s minds with his fury.

  Magpie collapsed to her knees and frantically fumbled the seal out of her pocket. She held it out to the vortex and it began to spiral through the air toward the bottle’s narrow throat.

  So transfixed were the crows and warriors by this remarkable sight that none noticed the devil with the bloody fang-filled maw fix its black slit eyes on Magpie. None saw it slowly gather itself into a predator’s crouch and flare its membranous wings. Gutsuck pounced like a wolf, and its hideous mouth closed over Magpie’s shoulder with a gnashing sound.

  She cried out and fell forward, her concentration broken.

  Talon rushed to wrench the devil away but in that instant, with impossible speed, the Blackbringer’s tongue lashed out from within the silver bottle, whipped around Magpie and Gutsuck together, and sucked them both back into his prison. They disappeared just before the Djinn’s seal settled firmly, irreversibly, in place. The vortex abruptly ceased, and all fell still.

  Everyone stared. For long seconds they couldn’t even gasp. Then Calypso shrieked and flew at the seal, desperately trying to gouge it off. Stunned, Talon reeled in the tether with his good hand. It had been severed clean by the Magruwen’s sealing spell. His mind screamed and resisted believing what he’d just se
en.

  And then, in the dense mass of dazed faeries and creatures who’d stumbled back into the world after so long adrift, the spiders, released from Magpie’s spell, reawakened.

  FORTY

  If any soul that night was pulled down into the dark cracks in the earth and devoured by spiders, none ever knew of it after. When the foul creatures revived, the Rathersting shook off their shock and sprang to life, relishing enemies their blades could bite, thrilling in rescue on so grand a scale. If anyone could have counted in the chaos, they would have discovered some thousand souls newly returned to the world. But it was a time for action, not counting, and by the time the Rathersting had coaxed and dragged every imp and faerie free of the Spiderdowns, most of the snags had slipped away into the forest and the mannies were wandering lost and afraid.

  Those who’d been bitten by spiders were Orchidspike’s first patients when she conducted a hasty triage later in the Great Hall at Rathersting Castle. She administered a potion to subdue the poison that was burning in their veins and turned to see to other injuries.

  There were many. Dozens of torn wings—those could wait—and wounds of such variety the healer knew they could not have happened this night. Bite wounds with jagged snag teeth embedded in them, clean slashes from sharp weapons, contusions, lashes, burns. Kneeling over a Sayash faerie with long spines from a devil’s barbed tail protruding from her leg, Orchidspike realized these wounds were casualties of the devil wars and were tens of thousands of years old, as were the faeries who suffered them.

  As flummoxed as she’d ever been in her life, she had to press her hand to her heart to steady herself. However much she’d hoped Magpie would succeed in her bold plan, it had never occurred to her there might be souls from the Dawn Days still alive within the Blackbringer! Orchidspike could have used Talon at such a time, but she wouldn’t call for him. Not now. She’d had but a moment with him when she bandaged his hand, before the needs of the injured claimed her attention, and now her thoughts kept returning to his shocked face, and to Magpie.

  “Lady, might I be of help to you?” asked a red-haired lass the healer didn’t know. About to ask her if she could manage a spell to boil water, Orchidspike paused and took a closer look at her. Her beautiful face wore the same pale, haunted look as all these others, as if she’d just awakened from a nightmare. She too had come out of the darkness.

  “Lass, what’s your name?” Orchidspike asked her.

  “Poppy Manygreen, Lady.”

  Orchidspike, old eyes glistening, said a silent blessing and set Poppy to work mixing purifying balm for the many wounds that surrounded them.

  Calypso and Mingus dragged the Blackbringer’s bottle into the ragged hole in the mountain that had once been the face of Issrin Ev. The other crows followed, with Talon astride Bertram. All dread the Djinn King had once inspired in them was forgotten as they cried out for him.

  “Lord Magruwen!” they cawed, their voices muffled by the dust of four thousand years that blanketed the ancient corridors.

  They emerged into a great chamber, where Talon’s light spell glittered over a trove of treasure. They swooped around the room, distraught and shrieking for the Djinn.

  “Is it done?” he demanded, emerging from a doorway.

  “Where is the lass?”

  Calypso and Mingus beat down to him, lowering the bottle. “Lord!” cried Calypso. “Ye got to unseal it!”

  “What?” he hissed.

  Talon leapt off Bertram’s back to the ground. He held Skuldraig in one hand and the shrouded star in the other. He laid them both before the Magruwen and said, “Just before the seal settled on, a devil attacked Magpie, and the Blackbringer reached out and sucked them both in with him! You got to get her out!”

  The Magruwen looked at the bottle, and the blade, and the bundle of old skin pulsing with starlight. No expression played over the sculpted planes of his mask, but flames spewed from his eyes and horns. “Nay!” he choked, and seized the bottle, his golden gloves clashing against its silver. But he didn’t pry off the seal that bore his sigil. He only said, “The seal is fixed. The faerie is lost.”

  Until he heard the Magruwen’s words, Talon had not for a moment considered that Magpie might be lost. The absurdity of it! That single second when this thing had happened—it was barely as long as the blink of an eye, and he just couldn’t believe that so small a moment could wreak so terrible a change. A sense of crazed outrage welled up in him, as if a mistake had been made in the arrangement of the moments and he should be able to reach back in time and correct it. It would take so little, just seeing the devil in time or skewering the tongue on his knife as he’d done once before.

  But there was not now and never had been magic for reaching back in time. Past moments lay as they fell and nothing would stir them.

  Talon collapsed to his knees as his stubborn disbelief was stripped away and with it vanished a feeling he hadn’t even known was growing in him, a new sense that the world was wild with possibility, that the whole of life was not a castle rampart or a single forest, but a mesh of pathways waiting to be forged.

  Magpie . . .

  The crows were sobbing themselves hoarse and it was the most desolate sound Talon had ever heard.

  “What’s all this noise?” he heard someone ask, and looked up into the imp marm’s black eyes as she suddenly appeared.

  “Good-imp Snoshti . . . ,” he said, his heart clenching at the thought of giving her the news.

  “I had a time finding ye lot, what with the crush out there. All them souls. Blessings! She did it, neh? My lass!” Her furry little creature face was bright with joy that hurt Talon’s heart to see.

  “Good-imp—” he started to say, but she cut him off.

  “But what’s all this snoolery? Feather!” She tugged at Calypso’s wing. “What’s happened to ye?”

  Calypso couldn’t even answer. He pressed his head against the silver bottle and wept.

  “It’s Magpie . . . ,” Talon said quietly.

  “Eh?” Snoshti’s whiskers twitched. “What of her?”

  “The Blackbringer . . . ,” he told her. “He . . . he got her, mistress. She’s in there.”

  Snoshti looked at the bottle, then at Talon, then back at the bottle, puzzled. “Lad,” she growled, her face ferocious. Then she chuffed and snorted. It sounded almost like a laugh. “What blither!” she declared. “Magpie’s not in there!”

  “Aye, for I saw it myself.”

  “Neh, lad! Foolish faerie! And ye birds, who should know her better! Magpie’s not in there!”

  Talon looked at her, wide-eyed and confused.

  “She’s in the Moonlit Gardens!”

  Magpie was dreaming of the Tapestry. She lay on a soft white cushion in a little room in the peak of an impossibly tall spindle of rock. It rose from the floor of the dragon’s canyon like a needle standing on end, and at its very tip Fade had hollowed out this little room just for her. A dreaming place of her own. In it were many high windows—a panorama of moon—and the single deep cushion on which she slept.

  She had never known such exhaustion.

  When she’d found herself yanked suddenly back into the dark, she’d been too weak to think and far too weak to summon the devilishly complex champion’s glyph. It had failed her utterly. But as she felt her edges begin to melt, another, simpler glyph flickered in her mind. Threshold, moonlight, garden, just like Snoshti had taught her. With an effort that felt like an explosion behind her eyes, she’d visioned it, and everything went black as the moth wings took her.

  When she arrived on the riverbank she was already unconscious. She’d sunk to her knees and slumped to the grass and she hadn’t opened her eyes since, not when Fade gathered her up in his paw and carried her through the sky, not when Bellatrix treated the wound on her shoulder, visioning healing glyphs, cleaning off the spatter of spider venom and plucking Gutsuck’s teeth out of her torn flesh. And not now, with Bellatrix by her side singing a ballad in Old Tongue an
d feeding teaspoons of cool water between her lips.

  She was deep in dreams, her inner eyes open and tracing the miraculous patterns of the Tapestry’s weave. Her mind found rest as her body healed. It would be days or weeks before she’d wake.

  Hungry for news that Magpie couldn’t give her, Bellatrix had sent Snoshti to Dreamdark to learn what had happened. The lady’s voice sounded peaceful as she sang, but her eyes darted anxiously to the windows, watching the sky shapes for one that might be Fade ferrying the hedge imp back across the canyon to her. But Fade didn’t come, and Bellatrix began to think that in all the desperately slow years she’d passed in this timeless place, these moments were the longest.

  Her head was throbbing with anxiety when suddenly Snoshti bustled through the door.

  “Good-imp,” said Bellatrix, surprised. “I didn’t see Fade coming. Did he carry you?”

  “Neh, Lady, I’ve had a lift from another,” said Snoshti, and Bellatrix saw that her black eyes were sparkling.

  “What is it, Snoshti? Have you brought news?”

  “Aye. The Blackbringer is captured.”

  “Blessings be!”

  “And the Magruwen has returned to Issrin Ev.”

  Bellatrix fell silent, eyes gleaming as a rush of emotion swept over her face. “He has?” she whispered, and when the imp nodded, she clenched closed her eyes to hold back tears. A single shining drop escaped and slid down her cheek. “Then there is hope,” she said quietly.

  “And Lady Bellatrix?” said Snoshti.

  Bellatrix opened her eyes. Snoshti stepped aside and through the door came a faerie. The spoon in Bellatrix’s hand clattered to the floor.

  The Ithuriel’s champion was an Ifrit prince, tall and beautiful and dark as ebony, with immense white moth wings and black braids crowned with a circlet of silver. In the doorway he stood absolutely still and stared at his bride.

 
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