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Cast in ruin, p.32
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       Cast in Ruin, p.32

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “It serves as warning,” Tara said calmly. Her feet were now hovering about a yard off the ground, but she made no attempt to join the Dragons.

  “Or challenge,” Kaylin pointed out.

  “Or challenge,” the Arkon agreed.

  “You think he’ll come?”

  “Oh, yes. Guard the ground, Chosen, as you can. I leave you in the care of the Avatar.” He growled and picked a few cobbles out of the street. “If Tiamaris is rebuilding,” he told the Tower, “have him consider wider streets in future.”

  “I will, Arkon,” was the grave—and entirely serious—reply. Tara watched as the Arkon broke free of whatever it was that kept the rest of them bound to ground. The clouds continued to thicken and shrink, and Kaylin’s gaze bounced between them and the Ascendant who had, apparently, forgotten how to breathe.

  Be ready, Chosen, the sword told her.

  Kaylin nodded. She didn’t even ask the sword what she was supposed to be ready for, because Maggaron picked that moment to scream. It was loud, but unlike Dragon roars in close quarters, it didn’t annoy; it alarmed. He fell to his knees so gracelessly, Kaylin almost dropped the sword to help him stand; the sword yanked itself away from the Ascendant, and Kaylin, still gripping the hilt, staggered in that direction by default.

  “Chosen!” Maggaron said, as if he were being throttled. She realized then that he’d thrown himself into as awkward a position as possible, and meant for her to help him maintain it.

  “I guess that answers that,” Kaylin murmured.

  Tara, yards away, replied, “It is not necessary to be in physical proximity to invoke the name.”

  “Tara—”

  “Nonetheless, although your supposition is based on a misunderstanding of the use of the name, I concur. The Outcaste is coming.”

  So, too, was the shape of the storm.

  Kaylin had expected that somehow the ninth form of Bellusdeo would emerge from those silver clouds in much the same way she herself once had. She was wrong. The clouds continued to condense until they looked almost solid. She recognized the shape the clouds had slowly collapsed into: it was hers. Bellusdeo’s. Not for the first time, she wondered what in the hells Dragons actually were. The gray paled as it turned; for a minute the woman it depicted look carved out of smoky alabaster, if that were possible.

  Color began to seep into her skin; her hands became pale and pink, her face pale but sallow; her hair became spun gold. She was not yet wet or covered in ashes or splinters, and as she turned, her skirts still looking like cloud’s edge, Kaylin saw the color of her eyes: they were a brown that seemed, at this distance, to be flecked with gold. Maggaron looked up—well, more accurately, across—at the solidifying form of Bellusdeo. He spoke to her in a language that Kaylin didn’t understand.

  It struck her as strange only a minute later when she realized that Maggaron’s words had always sounded like Elantran to her. Bellusdeo had no difficulty understanding what he said, and she answered in the same tongue, or in what sounded, to Kaylin’s ears, to be the same.

  She saw the Ascendant stiffen. No, she felt him stiffen.

  The woman who looked like Maggaron’s image of Bellusdeo now looked at her. “Chosen,” she said. Kaylin’s arms were still exposed, and the runes that covered them were glowing. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw the sword in Kaylin’s hands, but her expression softened. She stepped forward, and as she did, she seemed to gain the last little bit of solidity. She stumbled. Kaylin caught her; Maggaron was frozen in position.

  Kaylin knew why. She could feel the pressure of what might have been syllables pressing against his thoughts.

  “Maggaron.” Bellusdeo reached out with both hands and gently cupped his cheeks. “It is almost over. You have served me well, and in ways you cannot imagine. It is time now for you to return to your kin.”

  He couldn’t speak while fighting, even if the fight itself involved no physical movement. Kaylin, however, could. “He doesn’t want to go back to his kin.”

  A gold brow rose. The woman straightened. “You carry his sword,” she finally said.

  “I do.”

  “And his name?”

  “…I do.”

  “Do you understand that he will have no other freedom for the rest of his unnatural existence otherwise?”

  Kaylin said nothing for a long moment. She didn’t like where the conversation was going. But the sword was humming in her hand, like a beehive, not a singer.

  Tiamaris roared in the air above and Bellusdeo’s eyes widened in surprise. Her mouth opened in a half O and she looked up, and up again. When she looked down, she closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them, she was calm again. “Chosen,” she said, “I haven’t much time. You carry the Ascendant’s sword. Stab me with it.”

  Kaylin hesitated.

  Sanabalis roared, and this time—this time, fire touched the streets.

  “Chosen—”

  Kaylin looked up. She could see the undersides and wingspans of three familiar dragons—but she could also see a fourth. He was distant, but approaching, and his wingspan seemed larger, the reach of his fire longer, than any of the three. “Maggaron—”

  The Ascendant bit either tongue or lip; blood trickled from the corners of his mouth. His eyes were wide. Kaylin watched him, her arms aching from the sudden weight the sword in her hand had gained.

  Give me to Maggaron, Chosen.

  I—

  Or do what must be done yourself. We cannot wait.

  In the distance, the Outcaste roared; the ground beneath Kaylin’s feet shook at the force of the sound. It seemed impossible to her then that the three Dragons she did know could stand against the one that she desperately wished she didn’t.

  The sword grew heavier and heavier in her hand, its weight pulling her down. I don’t think Maggaron can wield you.

  He can. If you force him, he can.

  I can’t— She stopped. She could. And she felt that it was important, somehow; that’s why she’d wanted him to come here in the first place. Her skin began to burn. Or at least that’s what it felt like; a casual inspection of her forearms showed that she only got the pain of fire, not the damage.

  Maggaron.

  He swiveled his head to look at her.

  Take the sword.

  His hand rose—and fell—at the command. She wasn’t the only one who was trying to take control of him. She was the only one who didn’t want to succeed—and that had to stop. He looked at her, his eyes wide, blood still tracing the lines of his chin. Bellusdeo was standing two feet away, her face pale, circles suddenly darkening the undersides of her eyes. There were so many things Kaylin wanted to ask her.

  Instead, she dragged the sword toward the Ascendant, and laid the hilt in the palm of one stiff, open hand. It was already far too large for Kaylin to wield. Maggaron’s hand spasmed as he sought to close it. Kaylin took a step back as he did. His eyes darkened; they looked disturbingly like Tara’s, but without as good a reason.

  He rose, shedding the rictus of agony that had all but sculpted his living body. Kaylin closed her eyes. She felt, rather than saw, Severn, all but forgotten, step in front of her. She heard the Dragons in the air above and felt a brief burst of heat somewhere to her left. These were now someone else’s problems. She let herself have only one for the moment: Maggaron.

  Even with her eyes closed, she could see his name. It was golden, and larger in all ways than she herself felt at this particular moment. She knew its shape, its form; knew its strength and its weaknesses. She reached out to touch it and felt its warmth, felt its pulse. Everything about Maggaron as she knew him was here.

  He was afraid. His fear didn’t allow for gallows humor; it never had. He had been embarrassingly earnest as a child. She saw it clearly, although she couldn’t say how. The only thing he had ever desired was to become an Ascendant; it was both his hope and his fear. He had loved many, many people; had been loved—she felt this clearly—by many people. It humbled him. But he
had loved no one the way he had loved—did love—Bellusdeo.

  He was afraid now. He was afraid of failing her. No, he was afraid of what his failure had already cost her. He was overjoyed to see her alive—but terrified, as well. He did not want to kill her. He did not believe whatever it was he would do would kill her, but he couldn’t be certain.

  He was also terrified that he couldn’t even do that much, because he could feel his body sliding out of his conscious control. She could feel it sliding out of hers. And she had it. She had it if she was willing to use it. What he wanted, what he was—it didn’t matter; it made no difference to what she could or couldn’t do. The whole of who he was, of who he had ever been, was irrelevant.

  Kaylin hated it.

  But hating it, she accepted it; there was no other way. Because what he was didn’t matter to the Outcaste, either.

  It matters, she heard Maggaron say. It matters, Chosen. To you. You’ll do what’s necessary no matter how much you hate it because it does matter.

  Yes. Yes, Maggaron. Thank you.

  His hand closed around the hilt of the sword with almost no resistance; this meant the Dragon in the skies wanted it, as well. Maggaron turned toward Bellusdeo, and this, too, met with no resistance. But when he lifted the sword he now carried, he suddenly froze.

  He froze because the Outcaste did not intend for Bellusdeo to die here. That was information that she was certain someone would be interested in—providing they survived. The air was thick with smoke; she could taste it. Kaylin didn’t open her eyes because there was nothing she could do about it.

  Maggaron turned like a drunken pillar toward—her. His blade moved—his blade, with glowing runes now edged in black, and he lifted it, struggling against its weight, the imperative of a motion he didn’t want. He moved slowly enough that she could dodge, and she did. Even at the speed of his sword, if it connected, the results wouldn’t be pretty.

  Severn stepped in front of her, his hands around a chain that formed a translucent circle in the air in front of them both. “Don’t,” he told her. “I’ll handle the Ascendant. Do what you have to do—but do it quickly.”

  Fire strafed the ground to one side of where they stood; it was orange and white, and the stones reddened as it passed. But it didn’t come close enough to force either of them to flee because Bellusdeo was in its path, as well. Her eyes looked bruised now. Fear touched her face, and took root. “Chosen,” she said, her voice too thin, too mortal. And then, “Maggaron.”

  He swiveled toward her, and then jerked away; he couldn’t speak. But he wanted to—he wanted to speak so badly the inability came close to breaking something in him. She saw it, felt it, understood it—and understood that it didn’t matter, either. Broken, whole—he would do what she ordered him to do, if she had more force of will than the Outcaste.

  This was how he had lived. He might have ended his life—she saw and felt it clearly in the moment—but even that wasn’t allowed him. He had retreated as far inside himself as a person could go; she was honestly surprised he had emerged at all. But he had—for long enough to expose what he knew, not what he hoped she might see and take: his name.

  Was that all that was left for him? Not freedom, not the ability to think and act on his own recognizance, but rather a transfer to a different master, a different person’s ultimate control? She hated it. Everything she had ever been afraid of when the word Tha’alani had been spoken in her presence Maggaron was living—that, and worse.

  “Kaylin!”

  She leaped forward as fire once again strafed the street, but it wasn’t necessary; Severn’s twisting chain caught it and it dissipated. Her brows rose, and her mouth opened on a question, but closed before the question escaped. He’d told her to do what she had to do, and he was there.

  “Yes,” he said, although he watched the sky. “This much I can do.” For just a minute, she saw Severn in duplicate: Severn now, Severn years ago. She saw his expression shift, the younger man’s more serious, more intent. I need to be able to protect someone. She couldn’t see who he was speaking to, couldn’t hear what that unknown person’s answer was.

  She shook her head, blinking the vision of the younger Severn out of existence.

  Now, in a totally different darkness, she turned and she leaped toward Maggaron, still struggling—and failing—to control the sword of the Ascendant. She wasn’t an Immortal; she had twenty years to his centuries. She had no desire for power except as it came in the form of the Hawk. But when she did desire power, did it matter if she was twenty or two thousand? Her reasons were at least as good as the Outcaste’s—hells, they were better. She grabbed Maggaron’s solid, shaking arm in one hand and almost left the ground.

  She grabbed the pommel of his sword with the other.

  Light enveloped the three of them—sword, Ascendant, and Hawk—as her marks suddenly flared. It was as if a flash of lightning had chosen to respond to the bursts of fire across the streets—except the lightning didn’t fade into thunder and storm. It grew. It spread until it encompassed not only the three, but also two others: Bellusdeo and Severn.

  Bellusdeo was staring at Kaylin. Or at the marks that adorned her exposed arms; Kaylin couldn’t really tell the difference. She spoke, she spoke quickly—but it was a confusion of strange syllables and cadences that Kaylin’s ears couldn’t parse. Maggaron cried out, and Kaylin tightened her grip.

  No, she said. I’m sorry. She slid her consciousness into his limbs, into his chest, his mouth, his lungs. They became, for a moment, extensions of her, and they felt entirely natural, as if she’d been born in two bodies, not one, even though one was eight feet tall. She felt the Outcaste’s presence, as well, but his was shadow and hers? Hers was a light so harsh it burned shadow.

  Mine, she snarled.

  Mine.

  She heard the Outcaste’s roar; felt, for a moment, his fury—and his fear.

  Taking Maggaron’s arms, Maggaron’s hands, she readjusted her grip on a sword that, if his story were true and complete, came from Bellusdeo. She didn’t tell him what to do because it wouldn’t have made a difference: she did it instead, using his hands and not her own. She drove the sword into the standing woman who still stared, wide-eyed, at Kaylin.

  It was slow. Kaylin had killed with daggers before. She’d killed with the inexplicable and terrible power granted her by the marks. But she hadn’t had much training with swords, and using a sword like a dagger wasn’t optimal. Bellusdeo staggered; she would have fallen, but the sword held her up, and as it entered her farther, Bellusdeo reached up and grabbed the blade in both hands. Blood trailed suddenly out of the corner of motionless lips.

  Maggaron was screaming on the inside of his own head.

  But Kaylin was screaming on the inside of hers. She watched as Bellusdeo’s eyes began to slide shut, and she almost let go of Maggaron. But that would have been a simple act of cowardice, and it would have given Maggaron over to the Outcaste who waited.

  “Kaylin,” Severn said, voice low and urgent. “Don’t close your eyes. Watch. Watch the sword. Watch Bellusdeo.”

  She wasn’t even aware that her eyes were closed; she opened them. Opened them to see the runes on the blade itself: they were changing. Dimming, yes, but their shapes were wavering as she watched. She still held the sword’s pommel and she slid her hand down the hilt and toward that blade in a panic, as if by touch she could somehow preserve them.

  But that was impossible.

  Worse, she felt Maggaron begin to slip away. Not by dying—that would have been a blessing for him—but somehow she was losing her grip on his body. His thoughts, which had been so loud with pain and fear and self-loathing, began to quiet until she could no longer hear them.

  “Maggaron!”

  He looked down at the sound of her voice. His eyes were very wide and very blue—but it was a Norannir blue. They were his own. He turned toward Bellusdeo and whispered her name.

  Kaylin did the same. Bellusdeo was smiling—at Maggaro
n. “Thank you,” she said, her voice thin as paper. Kaylin let go of Maggaron—not the sword—and reached for Bellusdeo; it wasn’t hard because Bellusdeo and the sword were practically in the same place now.

  When she touched the woman’s shoulder, she felt the shape of a word, rather than the curve of flesh over joint. She almost yanked her hand free, because she’d felt this once before: in the High Halls of the Barrani, when she had touched the Lake of Life. Of course, at the time it had looked like a desk. Maybe for Dragons it looked like a woman?

  No. No, Bellusdeo was alive. She wouldn’t remain that way for long. Not if Kaylin couldn’t do something. She left her hand where she’d placed it, and closed her eyes. This time, she saw nothing, but the sense, the feel, of a word remained in her palm. Not a long stroke, not the missing element of the High Lord’s name, but rather something more refined, more delicate, and infinitely more complicated. She moved her hand slowly, hoping she wasn’t touching anything embarrassing while she was at it. If she was, Bellusdeo was too absorbed by the sword in her midriff to care.

  Yes, the shape was more complicated. But it wasn’t the shape the runes on the sword’s blade had had—Kaylin would have bet her life on it. Was, she realized, doing exactly that. She could feel the heat of fire and the blackness of rage, but she couldn’t see them on the wing. That worried her, but not as much as what she sensed as her touch ranged farther.

  The shape of this word was wrong.

  Oh, it was written—if true words could be said to be written at all—but it had been written in a hurry, a scrawl; the meaning was sketchy and open to interpretation. She stopped moving. She’d had the thought before actually thinking. How could its meaning be open to interpretation when she didn’t even know what it meant?

  But it was. She looked to Bellusdeo, her eyes widening. “How—no, where, did you find your name?”

  Bellusdeo closed her very mortal eyes. “You understand, Chosen. I…did not, until it was too late.”

  “No, I don’t understand.” Her hands hurt; the lines and the swirls were shifting beneath them, as if they were slightly unstable.

 
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