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Cast in ruin, p.25
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       Cast in Ruin, p.25

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “Once, when the world was new, there were no Shadows, and the Norannir traversed all the lands in freedom. There, they hunted and gathered without fear. They built cities, in time, and they grew learned, and they spoke with the Ancients.”

  Kaylin lifted one hand. “Wait. You said Ancients?”

  Effaron nodded; Mejrah was less quick to halt her speech. “The Ancients created the world,” he explained. “Did they not create yours?”

  “They did. Or we’re told they did. I just wonder if it was the same Ancients. Sorry. I’ll try not to interrupt.”

  “Among the Ancients were those who were called Shapers. It was the Shapers who came to us with the promise of knowledge.”

  “And power?”

  “Of course. They offered this knowledge to the Norannir, and the Norannir accepted. But not all the races were pleased, and there was conflict. The Immortal ones felt that the knowledge was too dangerous or too costly.”

  So much for not interrupting. “Which Immortal ones?”

  “You have seen them. Here, in your lands, they walk among us.”

  “Dragons?”

  “Dragons,” he whispered. The word itself was reverent. “They were not many, and they were fierce; in their displeasure, they were deadly. But they were the wisest of the Peoples. They were proven wiser, in the end, than even the Ancients, for the Shadows came when the doors were opened.”

  “Wait, which doors?”

  “The doors that lead to enlightenment and knowledge; the doors that lead to languages and lands beyond our ken. The Norannir as they exist now have only words to describe it; there are no images, no paintings, no ruins. To hear of it, it was a marvel, but it was also an impossibility: a place that existed in all places, at once. We do not know how, or why, but that place began to twist and unravel, and if the knowledge was there, the People could not reach it without also becoming twisted and changed, and those people emerged into our world and began the spread of Shadow.

  “We did not recognize it at first; it was new to us. But the Dragons understood what it presaged, and they fought—and fell—while around them the world was unmade.

  “In the end, the Dragons were all but destroyed, and the Shadows held sway over much of our world, in endless night; our people were infected as if Shadow were a disease that did not kill, but defiled. The Dragons taught us what they could, not of the nature of Shadow, for that they did not entirely understand—perhaps deliberately—but rather how to recognize it, how to fight it, where that was possible.

  “Among Dragonkind there was one who was considered the Queen of her race; she was ancient, but when she chose to speak to us, she was beautiful and graceful. We called her Bellusdeo. Her breath was not fire, not ice; it was the storm itself, and where it struck Shadow, Shadow withered for a time. But she could not be everywhere, and she could not see everything, and to her sorrow, those whom she had taught aged and died in her absence, becoming weak, infirm.

  “As the numbers of the Dragons dwindled even further, it was the Dragon Queen who came to the Norannir, and she offered the Norannir this one blessing.

  “‘Choose among your kin the young and the most promising, and send them to me. I will teach them, and I will train them, and I will shape them in such a way that they might know life that is as long as a Dragon’s. Understand that they will not, and cannot, return to you as the children they once were; they will become mine. But they will return to you as shields and swords, and there will be no more effective way of combating the Shadows; they will remember where they were born, and how they were raised, and they will love you as kin. Until they fall, you will not fall.’

  “The People did as she asked; she traveled the lands that had not yet fallen and spoke these words to all the Elders. In villages and in the remaining two cities, the Elders began to test children when they came of age.”

  “But didn’t she ask for children?”

  Effaron frowned. “Indeed.”

  “Then why would you wait to test them until they’d come of age? Wouldn’t that be too old?”

  His brows furrowed and then rose. “When you say ‘of age,’ what do you mean?”

  “When they become adult—or as close to adult as the Laws demand.”

  “Ah! Then we have three ‘ages’ that we mark. The first is the age at which the children are deemed healthy enough that they are unlikely to die unexpectedly. They would have been five years of age.”

  That, to Kaylin’s mind, was too damn young.

  “We did not understand what Bellusdeo was searching for, but we trusted her with our children, and our children were gathered in the fortress at the foot of her Aerie. There, they were trained. They were taught. They learned to speak the languages of man, and to understand some of the language of the Dragons. They learned to wield weapons, and to forge them; they learned many, many things.

  “All the while, the Dragons flew at her command, and they fought, and they fell. The years passed, and when the children reached the age of the sword, one of two things happened: they were sent back to their people—if their people and their villages still survived—as warriors and teachers, or they vanished. They were taken by Bellusdeo and they were transformed and they became the Ascendants; the men and women among us who could transcend our mortality and our limitations.”

  It was pointless to ask how, but Kaylin asked anyway.

  Effaron frowned. “It is not part of our tales, Chosen. We do not know. No more do we know, in truth, how we ourselves were created. We know that the Dragons were born from the bones of the world, or the many worlds, and that they were granted a mortal form so that they might, when they so chose, live among mortals without crushing them in their carelessness.”

  “So…Maggaron was one of those children.”

  “Yes. But he was not one of the first. He was one of the last, perhaps the last. The first ascended when the Dragons still lived; the last did not.”

  “And the weapons?”

  “They are the weapons of the Ascendants. We call them swords, Chosen, but they are much, much more than that; they understand the heart of their wielder, and they become the weapon of their wielder’s choice. They cannot be broken; they cannot be stained.”

  “So the Ascendants always have these weapons?”

  “Yes.”

  Kaylin frowned. “How were the weapons made?”

  “It is not recorded, Chosen.”

  “But the Dragons made them?”

  “The Dragons gifted the Ascendants with the weapons.”

  It wasn’t quite the same thing, but they clearly didn’t have the answer. She glanced at Severn. Severn then asked the next question. “Ask Mejrah if she was trained as a possible Ascendant.”

  Kaylin repeated the question.

  Effaron shook his head. “Bellusdeo trained the Ascendants. When she was lost to us, the Elders attempted to teach what they had been taught. But without Bellusdeo there could be no more Ascendants, just the knowledge passed down from the Elders who had once almost been chosen. Mejrah was schooled in that tradition.”

  “When Mejrah was taught, was she ever shown images of the Dragon Queen? Were there paintings or sculptures or tapestries?” Severn said.

  Kaylin repeated that one, as well, feeling more sympathy for Effaron’s position as translator than she had in the past.

  Mejrah’s frown was more ferocious than Effaron’s.

  “She wants to know why you ask.”

  “Funny,” Kaylin replied, “so do I. Severn?”

  His answer was both unexpected and, in the end, unsurprising. He removed the crystal the Arkon had constructed from its pouch at his side. This, he set between his knees on the carpet. “You might want to warn them,” he told Kaylin.

  Kaylin did as he suggested, watching Mejrah carefully. Mejrah was grumbling at one of the Elders when the crystal’s image emerged and unfolded in front of Severn.

  The old woman’s eyes widened so much they became half white; her mouth opened, and sh
e stared, slack jawed, for one frozen moment.

  “Well,” Kaylin murmured. “I guess that answers that question.”

  Severn nodded.

  CHAPTER 16

  Picking up the crystal again was more difficult than either Severn or Kaylin had considered when Severn had set it down. Mejrah’s voice returned, and it was higher and louder than usual—which said something, because Mejrah had the makings of a Sergeant. It was also much faster. Effaron was shocked enough that he dropped Kaylin’s hand, which meant Mejrah had to repeat it all once he’d recovered his grip on both his composure and said hand.

  What it boiled down to was this: Mejrah wanted to keep it. Emphatically and forcefully.

  In any other circumstance Kaylin would have let her have it, even given the cost of its creation. Unfortunately, the crystal had come from the Arkon, and the Arkon had made it very clear he wanted it back. Effaron understood every word Kaylin said. Mejrah understood every word Effaron said. Something, however, appeared to have been lost in the translation. Mejrah descended into pleading, which was far worse—on Kaylin’s nerves—than threats or demands would have been.

  It was also clearly shocking for most of the Norannir who were anywhere nearby. Given Mejrah’s general mood, the Norannir were better at pretending they weren’t eavesdropping than, say, the Office Barrani, but they were people. The two men that Kaylin also thought of as Elders didn’t bother with the pretense. They joined Mejrah, kneeling to either side of her on the increasingly small rug.

  After some very awkward back-and-forth, Kaylin turned to Severn. “You caught all that?”

  He nodded.

  “Okay. As near as I can tell, they understand that a) this is very important to one of our Dragons and, b) their reverence for their Dragon trumps our desire to save our own necks. Am I missing something?”

  Severn chuckled; it was pained, but he was genuinely amused. Easy for him, on the other hand; the Arkon never raised his voice at Severn. “I think they assume that our reverence for our Dragons is nonexistent in comparison to their reverence for theirs. They don’t hold Sanabalis or Tiamaris in the same reverence—or awe—they clearly feel for Bellusdeo.”

  “Probably because they never met her,” Kaylin muttered. The only Norannir who could understand what she said grimaced. He didn’t, on the other hand, repeat what she’d said so Mejrah could hear it, which meant she owed him one.

  In the end, it was decided that Severn would leave the crystal with Mejrah until Lord Sanabalis—or the Arkon himself—returned, because Kaylin had no doubt whatsoever that one or both of the Dragons would want to speak with Mejrah about Bellusdeo. Kaylin took great pains to make sure Mejrah—and anyone else in hearing range of Effaron—understood that the crystal was on loan; it was not a gift, because neither she nor Severn owned it. The Elders could make their case to the Arkon, a Dragon who did not believe—in any way—that possession was nine-tenths of the Law.

  But watching Mejrah’s face as the old woman gathered the crystal in her shaking hands killed anything as petty as irritation. Her eyes were wide with something too painful to be wonder; they filmed in that particular way that eyes did when a person was determined not to cry and only partly succeeding. The two older men were silent, but one wept openly.

  It was almost worth the Arkon’s ire. She promised herself she’d try to remember this when she was actually exposed to it.

  Tara spoke once they were far enough away from the Norannir border post. “I don’t think the Arkon will approve.”

  “I wouldn’t take that bet,” Kaylin replied. “But…you saw their faces, Tara.”

  “I did. I think we should return to the Tower.”

  “We haven’t even begun. The Arkon thinks we’re missing two bodies.”

  “We didn’t search for the other seven; they came to us.”

  “No. But no one’s mentioned eight or nine; I think the Arkon believes that they either haven’t appeared yet, or they aren’t corpses yet.”

  “You saw the reaction the Norannir had to the crystal.” Kaylin nodded. “If they find her corpse now, I’m not sure what will happen—but they’ll certainly let us know. If they find her alive, somehow, their reaction will be exactly the opposite of most of the rest of the fief. Come on. We have two areas marked in the fief where the probability of storms while the borders were down were highest. Severn and I will head there. Do you want to go back to the Tower?”

  “…No.”

  The fief of Tiamaris was not the fief of Barren. The streets had more or less the same shape—and the same names, although Tara said that was going to change sometime in the near future. The buildings were more or less the same, where they still existed. Here and there, gaps yawned between standing structures. Tara obligingly explained why it had been necessary to demolish the missing buildings; they were infested. Some of the Shadows that had worked their way across the weakened boundaries had nested in those buildings—and often in the people who’d holed up in them.

  “There are still some problems,” she added. “My Lord, with the aid of the Norannir, has hunted down most of the remaining Shadows—but one or two are subtle. I’m not entirely certain they’re still in the fief.”

  Heart sinking, Kaylin said, “You don’t think they’ve returned to the heart of the fiefs, do you?”

  “No. I think it’s possible they’ve crossed the bridge. The only boundaries that cause them difficulty are the boundaries that the Towers make.”

  There were others, as well, but Kaylin didn’t see a reason to quibble. She glanced at Severn and mentally added it to the list of things that had probably already gone wrong when they weren’t looking. She then took a look at a more literal note she’d made. “We want to hit Whetstone and Tanner. The streets,” she added.

  Whetstone and Tanner were on the way to what Tiamaris hoped would eventually be the fief’s market. Three blocks from the heaviest construction in the fief, if you didn’t count the border towers, three buildings had gone missing. “Tara?”

  “We didn’t destroy those,” was the Avatar’s quiet reply. “If you look, you’ll see. There’s no sign of fire, no sign of burning.”

  “There’s no sign of building, either. I only lived here for three months, but I remember at least one of those buildings really well.”

  “It vanished.”

  “Vanished.”

  Tara nodded. “There was a storm here, I think. It would have passed through just before my Lord claimed the fief. The foundations and the basements are still here,” she added.

  Kaylin, who had walked to the edge of the road nearest the missing buildings, could now see that for herself. A small, unpainted fence had been erected along what had once been three buildings’ facades. It looked as if the walls had been sheared off at ground level. “Was there any debris?”

  “No.”

  “Severn, give me a hand.”

  Severn nodded. He shrugged the pack he was wearing off his shoulders, opened it, and took out a very flat rope. “I’ll hold it if you want to climb down.”

  “Thanks.”

  He smiled. “You’ve always been better at climbing than I have.”

  “Better at falling, too,” she murmured. She hopped over the fence with care; it was a very thin fence. Taking the rope, she slipped it around her waist. “This is new.”

  Severn nodded. “A gift from Evanton. It’s strong, but it’s not bulky. It won’t give you rope burns, and with luck, it won’t bisect you if you fall too far.” This was a not-so-subtle criticism of Kaylin’s choice of knot.

  “That’s what I like about Evanton,” she said as she peered down the ten feet or so of wall that led to packed and oiled dirt. “He uses magic for practical things. If all mages were like Evanton, we’d be—”

  “Out of a job?”

  She snorted. “I won’t need the rope,” she told him.

  “It can’t hurt.”

  Easy for Severn to say. Had she not been wearing the damn thing, she could have jumped a
nd rolled if necessary; as it was, she had to half skid down the wall itself. When she did find her footing, she turned and headed away from the street. “Severn?”

  “I’m here. Do you want me to join you?”

  “Not exactly. I think I’ve found body number eight.”

  “You’re certain?”

  “No. But I see a pretty familiar shade of blue in a huddle against the far wall.” She slowed as she approached it, and heard a soft thump at her back. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that Tara had chosen to join her.

  “It’s the same,” the Avatar said, standing beside—and slightly behind—Kaylin.

  The cloth was huddled; the skirts rose and fell in a way that implied knees that were drawn to the chest. Arms were wrapped around those legs, but the fabric completely covered her feet. Strands of gold fell to either side of the dress, as if parted; the top of the woman’s head was dusty but distinct.

  Kaylin’s skin began to tingle. She wondered if that was due to Severn’s rope, but the dagger sheaths that Evanton had crafted for her didn’t cause her magic-sense to start itching; even the sheath she now wore—which had really pissed off or panicked the sword—was comfortable. “Tara, be careful.”

  Tara nodded.

  Kaylin took two steps forward. Both made the tingling slightly worse. She’d seen seven corpses and none of them had had this effect on her. “Severn, I don’t think this is a body.”

  The pile of blue cloth moved; the sleeves fell. As they did, Kaylin saw the movement of hands, the pale color of skin. She froze as the woman lifted her head. Her eyes were a natural hazel with flecks of pure gold; they weren’t the gold that the autopsy scan had revealed. They were also wide and unblinking as they stared at Kaylin.

  Kaylin hesitated and then, guided by instinct, she turned her inner arms toward the woman who sat curled against the remnant of the wall. The marks on her arms began to glow a faint and steady blue, and the woman’s eyes widened further. Her mouth opened in a soundless O.

 
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