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Blackbringer, p.4
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       Blackbringer, p.4

           Laini Taylor
 

  The fireworks subsided. He wanted only to fall back to sleep. “Choose a treasure, imp, and be on your way,” he said wearily.

  Batch’s eyes lit up. He’d won. He’d won! “Ha ha HA!” he cackled. He capered about. The Magruwen didn’t even ask the riddle’s answer but simply cleared the smoke from the floor with a languid sweep of his arm. Batch stopped when he saw what lay beneath it. It was too much, too much for a scavenger to bear.

  “You may choose one thing,” said the Magruwen.

  Batch swallowed hard. He’d been in treasure chambers before—he was a scavenger imp, after all. He’d wallowed in gold ingots and pried gems from the eyes of icons with a shrimp fork. He’d plundered robbers’ caves rigged with booby traps and pyramids riddled with curses. He’d even napped in a mummy’s armpit! But nothing had prepared him for this.

  The cavern floor glimmered as opals, amethysts, and moonstones caught the glow of the Magruwen’s flame and held it burning in their bellies. There were chalices and lyres and mirrors framed in pearls, broadswords and tiaras and bolts of wondrous cloth. Quite forgetting the reason he’d been sent here, Batch flexed his toes and waded in.

  He caressed a clockwork hummingbird that could be wound up to collect nectar in a teacup in its belly. He trailed his fingers over a cauldron of sapphires and paused at a ruby-crusted scimitar. The Magruwen watched. That blade had a nasty habit of turning to smoke at the moment of need. Such dark treasures lay among the bright, and one could not always tell from looking which was which. That paring knife lying there so plain beside the scimitar, for example, could cut through any metal ever forged.

  Batch moved on, a pendulum of drool swinging from his lower lip. He didn’t know what he wanted until he saw it, but as soon as he did, desire gripped him by the guts and a new obsession began to take root in his soul. There upon stacks of folded lace lay a little pair of silver bat wings just his size. Of all the absurd dreams an imp can harbor in his secret soul, Batch’s was the silliest. He had always longed to fly! To twirl like a faerie in the shimmering forest light. To swoop. To soar! He had a vision of himself fluttering back up the deep shaft of the well and gliding over the world. His fingers reached trembling for the wings.

  But he jerked his hand back and wailed. The terrible voice had surfaced inside his head. “The pomegranate,” it had said, and he remembered why he had come. Snuffling, he turned from the wings and faced the Magruwen. “My lord,” he said, “the treasure I desire is not here.”

  “What is your desire?” the Magruwen asked.

  “Your pomegranate, my lord, is my desire.”

  The Magruwen’s flames quieted, clenching into a white-hot ball at his very core. “What did you just say?” he asked in a low, dangerous tone.

  “The pomegranate,” cried Batch. “The pomegranate!”

  Belatedly the Magruwen hissed, “What was the answer to your riddle?”

  “The answer is my master! Escorted through the sky by vultures! He said you must give me what I want if you don’t guess it!”

  “I must? Your master seeks to bind me to the Djinn’s honor?”

  Batch nodded uncertainly.

  The Magruwen laughed. It started low as a cat’s yowl but grew to raging and the old skin burst open and fell away in tatters. Uncloaked, he stood before Batch as a tornado of fire, frenzied and churning, and the imp cringed away from the dazzle. Smoke crept back in like a tide to swallow the treasures.

  At last the Magruwen’s awful laughter subsided. “Very well,” he said, “since honor requires it.” And while Batch crouched with his face in his hands, the Magruwen stretched out long arms of smoke. They grew longer and longer until they disappeared through the ceiling of the cave. Up they reached, across strata of earth and rock and root, through the bleached ribs of a dragon and a dark spring swum by water elementals and their imps, through layers of rabbit warrens and forgotten plague cemeteries, finally reaching the school vegetable garden. Smoke fingers plundered among the roots until they found what they were looking for.

  In the garden a human lass sat back with a gasp as a turnip top was tugged right out of her hand to disappear in the soil. Gophers, she thought, and moved down the row with a nervous glance at the smoke curling up from the hole.

  “Here’s your pomegranate,” said the Magruwen, tossing Batch the scorched turnip. “Send your master my regards.” Preoccupied by the activities of his tail, Batch missed and the vegetable skittered into the smoke. He fumbled for it and shoved it into his satchel without a glance. He succeeded in hooking the bat wings and drew them to him beneath the smoke, but just as he made to shove them into his satchel he saw a salamander clinging to them. It grinned at him before sinking its teeth into his fingers. “Aiii!” he shrieked, dropping the wings.

  “So you’d like to fly, would you?” asked the Magruwen.

  Batch brightened. But before he could answer, the Magruwen sucked all the encircling smoke into himself and blew.

  A fiery gust somersaulted Batch backward and right out the door. Up, up, and up the well he rocketed until he flew out into the world and landed in the branches of a tree. He lay there, skin singed bald and whiskers sizzled to bristles, unconscious and twitching, for quite some time.

  It had not been the kind of flight he’d had in mind.

  Down in his cave, the Magruwen paced and muttered. He held a withered, ancient thing, a pomegranate so old the skin was no longer red, but brown and brittle as parchment. As delicate as it looked, however, it was unharmed by the Djinn’s fiery grip.

  “I’ve drifted in the ocean’s womb . . . ,” the riddle had said. He should have guessed then, but the other clues hadn’t matched. The vultures, that was clever, weaving them into the riddle to seem like one creature. It was so clear now. “Fires put out . . .” The Magruwen wondered which one it had been, which Djinn, where. This was the world to which he had awakened, a world diminished by one Djinn, a tremendous absence that he should have recognized instantly. One of his six brethren had been extinguished, and more had gone out of the world than that one smoldering fire. And something else . . . something else had come back in.

  “So,” he whispered. “Ocean spit you out? Have this world, then. I don’t use it anymore.”

  He was so weary. He retreated into the depths of his cave and sank back into oblivion, subsiding once again to a smolder, the pomegranate still tight in his grasp. He dreamed that an immense tapestry was hanging from the eaves of the world. He’d dreamed of it many times, but this time the tapestry shivered and fell to dust and all that remained was the deep black of space with no world spinning in it, graceful and green. No world at all.

  FIVE

  Magpie and the crows flew by night, high enough above the human lands that the jumble of gypsy caravans they towed wouldn’t attract attention. They didn’t worry about meeting anyone up here. The pathways of the skies were traveled by winds and white geese, wheeling bats and butterflies, but they never encountered other faeries here, and it had been decades since they had seen a witch silhouetted against the moon.

  “Take ’em down, my lovelies!” Calypso croaked, sweeping along the line of airborne caravans. “The sun, she stirs! Time to fill our bellies and shut our eyes!”

  There was a bloom of light on the horizon. Day was coming on. They bade the wind goodbye and dropped down toward the forest far below. This stretch of Iskeri was the last place of safety before the channel they would cross the next night on the way to Dreamdark. They eased through the treetops and set their five caravans down gently in a nook between roots.

  The gypsy wagons were a marvel of color in the shady woods. They were carved with sunbursts and stars and painted in jewel tones, with real gems glimmering like mosaic tiles in the designs. The big spoked wheels were radiant red, the roofs were vaulted and the windows round, and each had a bright copper chimney and weather vane, one a dragon, one a whale, a tiger, a phoenix, and a heron with its wings spread wide.

  The crows bustled in and out the doors as th
ey set about making camp, and before a half hour had passed they had a fire snapping in a freshly dug pit and were toasting cubes of cheese on the ends of twigs.

  Pup caught his cheese on fire at once and took to waving it like a firebrand, while Mingus quietly handed Magpie a chunk that was toasted to perfection. “Thanks, feather,” she said affectionately, and he just nodded and smiled.

  “How ye planning to find where the Magruwen’s hid, darlin’?” asked Bertram, dipping his cheese in his brandy and taking a wet bite.

  Magpie admitted, “I don’t quite know. It’s just a guess and a hope he’s stayed in Dreamdark, but if he is, he’ll be someplace deep. We’ll ask the burrowers and scamperers. Badgers. Hedge imps.”

  “Like that old hedgie who took care of ye when ye were wee?” asked Swig.

  “Snoshti?” Magpie’s face lit up. “My bossy old nurse! Aye, I’d like to find her, sure, she’s a dear soul—but not likely to know much of Djinn.”

  “But who is, though?” asked Calypso. “Not even faeries. Remember them faerie sprouts in the marshland had never even heard of Djinn?”

  “Aye. That was wretched. Papa says the things faeries have forgotten would fill up a library the size of Dreamdark.”

  “If yer father ever found a library like that we’d never drag him out of it!”

  Magpie laughed. “Aye, for true!”

  “All I’m saying, ’Pie,” Calypso went on, “is don’t get yer hopes up.”

  “You want me to fly around hopeless?” she asked. “That what you’re saying?”

  “Ach,” he sighed. “Neh. Hope away! And may we be blessed with the luck to find creatures in Dreamdark as nosy as ourselves.”

  “Cheers to that,” said Bertram, raising his glass. “To nosiness.”

  “To nosiness!” they all chimed in.

  “When we get there,” asked Pup through a beakful of charred cheese, “we goin’ to do the play?”

  Magpie groaned. “Neh, not the play!”

  “Course we are,” said Calypso. “Ye know it’s the best way to wriggle into faerie society. They do love a play—next best thing to dancing. And sure ye loved it too, first time ye saw us.”

  “Sure I like to watch a play,” she said. “Just don’t put me in one.”

  “Someone’s got to be Bellatrix. You want Maniac playing her?”

  “Fine by me!”

  “Un-skiving-likely,” Maniac snapped.

  “I’ll be Bellatrix!” crowed Pup eagerly. “Let me, let me!”

  “Pipe down, runtfellow,” said Calypso. “’Pie’ll play Bellatrix.”

  “Jacksmoke,” she grumbled under her breath.

  Before the crows had been hunters they had been roving actors. That was how Magpie’s family had fallen in with them in Dreamdark and flown away to see the world. It was true there was no better pretext for dropping in on a faeriehold than to pose as players, but that didn’t make Magpie like it any better.

  “Fearless Magpie Windwitch,” Swig teased. “Give her devils, give her witches, nary a shiver! But push her out onstage and she shakes like a twig.”

  “A twig!” agreed Pup. “Just like a scrawny little twig.”

  “Ach, would you stop with the twig?” Magpie muttered. Having the crows for companions was a lot like having seven older brothers, the good parts and the bad. So she was a bit of a twig, still a lass at a hundred years. She supposed them calling her a twig was better than what was bound to come later, when she began to . . . no longer be a twig. How would they act when she started to get curves and that? Ach. Not that she’d ever turn into some priss. There were other ways to grow up. Like her mother. Or like Bellatrix. In statues the champion was always wearing a tunic of shed firedrake scales with daggers strapped to both her thighs and her simple gold circlet on her hair. That was the kind of lady Magpie planned to be when the time came: the kind who sharpened her knives beside the fire in a hunting camp filled with crows.

  “Never mind them, darlin’,” said gentle Bertram, wrapping his wing round her and handing her another wedge of the cheese Swig had swiped off a human’s donkey cart. “Here. Say what you will about mannies,” he declared. “They have a genius for cheese.”

  “For true, my feather,” she agreed, taking a big bite.

  When the crows lit up their stinky cheroots, Magpie hugged them each and took herself to bed. It was full daylight now but she would have no trouble falling asleep. Her muscles were tired and her belly was full. She entered the gilded door of the stage caravan and squeezed past racks of velvety costumes and prop trunks full of swords and crowns, and past the empty devil’s bottle, to her little bunk tucked high in the back. She boosted herself up with her wings and drew closed her patchwork curtain, spelling up a light that would flicker out as soon as her mind relaxed in sleep.

  She nestled in under the quilt her grandmother had made for her and pulled a big book into her lap, unspelling the protective magicks she kept on it and hefting it open to a page marked with a green quill. On the page she had written the cryptic words of the devil who had killed the Vritra: The fire that burns its bellows can only fall to ash. What poetry in a traitor’s death! She uncorked her ink and wrote below it:

  Tomorrow we’ll arrive in Dreamdark to search

  for the Magruwen. The crows are mad shivered

  by the thought of him but my shivers are busy

  elsewhere, worrying about that snag, wondering

  where in the world he is and doing what. And

  there’s something else. Like ever, I can’t fumble

  up words to describe it, but the pulse—it’s been as

  strong as I ever felt it, all around me like I could

  reach my hands into it, and I’ve even fancied I

  could see it. Sure, it’s just when I’m waking so

  anyone would say it was the tail of a dream,

  but I could swear. It’s like curls of light at the

  edges of my vision that fade away when I try

  to see them, like fireworks into ghosts of smoke.

  How I wish there was someone I could talk to

  about it!

  The book was her journal and almanac. It was crammed with maps so old their creases had worn white, with brittle leaves and colored feathers and twine-tied packets labeled in strange alphabets, with threads from magic carpets and beaded dreadlocks clipped from the beards of hobgoblins. She flipped to the first page and traced the slanted writing inscribed there.

  Our Magpie,

  There is a hole in the pocket of the world and the magic is slipping through it. So much has gone beyond retrieval. Memories have gone slack. Young minstrels disdain to learn the old songs and the notes pass away with the last old ears to hear them. So much has been forgotten.

  Faeries are living upon threadbare magic and they scarcely know it. It falls to us to preserve what remains in this fading age. May this book come to teem with the spells and songs you will collect in it. The first volume of many. Good luck and happy hunting!

  Your loving parents,

  Kite & Robin

  When they’d written that, Magpie thought, they’d probably envisioned their little daughter jotting down the tea potions and dust magic of old faerie biddies before they passed to the Moonlit Gardens. At most maybe spying on Ifrit witch doctors and rescuing artifacts from the plunder monkeys of Serendip. And Magpie had gathered tea potions and such. In her book were no fewer than nineteen dust spells, including one that made its victims ravenously hungry for goat’s milk.

  But whatever else her parents might have imagined, Magpie knew it hadn’t been their only sprout stalking devils across human-infested lands. Not that it should have come as a surprise. Ever since she was wee she’d clamored to hear the legends of Bellatrix, the huntress-princess of Dreamdark. She’d loved to play at tracking and had been surprisingly good at it. Eight years ago, when she came upon her first rooster tracks on a moon-silvered beach, it had seemed like the most natural thing in the world to follow them.
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  She’d caught that first devil by trapping it in sunlight with only its bottle to escape into or perish in the light. It had been thrilling and even a little easy. Snags were dumb as weevils—no match for a faerie! Not until now had she guessed there could be another sort out there, an unimaginable devil to whom, she had a grim suspicion, the magic of this fallen age would seem but sprout’s play.

  Weary and worried, she lay down her head and fell asleep with her cheek upon her parents’ words. She’d thought she would dream of devils, of darkness and greedy, sucking hunger, and she did, but not right away. First she dreamed of a tapestry, once glorious but now moth-eaten and faded. She’d dreamed of it before and never remembered with waking, but in her dream she somehow knew that, threadbare though it was, it was the only thing holding the darkness at bay, the best and only thing.

  Outside, Calypso perched atop a caravan, keeping the watch after the other crows had shuffled off to bed. He puffed smoke rings and turned slowly, surveying the array of shining eyes that peered out at him from the encircling woods. Imps, nightjars, weasels, dryads, toads, all staring in awed silence at the spectacle of the caravans. Calypso noticed a raven who lingered longer than most, and after glancing over his shoulders furtively, he glided down to where the larger bird stood withdrawn in shadows.

  “That Algorab?” Calypso croaked in a hoarse whisper.

  “Aye, blackbird. Heard ye lot were moving north and had to see for myself. Reckoned it might mean something.”

  “Well, it don’t. Least, not what ye’d like to think. There’s years yet till . . . that.”

  The raven grunted and scratched his head with his foot. “Are ye for Dreamdark or neh?”

  Calypso nodded. “We are. Can ye carry a message ahead of us?” he asked.

  “I’d be blessed to bring the news.”

  “It en’t news! She comes to Dreamdark on her own business. It’s nothing to do with nothing, got it?”

 
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