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Cast in ruin, p.33
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       Cast in Ruin, p.33

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “He found us. He found us, and he showed us the way.” She glanced skyward, although the sky was no longer visible to Kaylin’s eyes. She knew that Bellusdeo referred to the Outcaste, and felt cold although she could hear the sharp crackle of flames to either side. “We went to where the words were, at his guidance, and we found our names. We found,” she added with a bitter grimace, “our adult forms. We were young, then—and proud, so proud.”

  “Where—where did he lead you?”

  “Through the darkness. Through the heart of the shadow that lies in all worlds.”

  “And you followed him?”

  “He was an Elder, and he was strong; we were not yet adult, and we were lost. He was not unkind. He led us to our names. They are True Names. But they are not true words.”

  “And if you lose them?”

  Bellusdeo did not answer the question, although she continued to speak. “We discovered his treachery, in time; he could see the shape and the form of the names we had chosen for ourselves. It was not simple; it took him time and effort—but he could see. We despaired.” Her voice was soft and even, but thinning as the syllables passed. “But we discovered that even his treachery was flawed; the words themselves were mutable and they were not entirely contained.” She glanced at Maggaron, and her expression softened.

  Kaylin’s hardened. She was, for just a moment, furious—with the Arkon, with Sanabalis. Tiamaris escaped her rage because Tiamaris was young and quite possibly ignorant. Then again, maybe not, because he had a name. She needed to know to what lake—metaphorically speaking—Dragon children approached to achieve the fusion of form that was their version of adulthood. And she needed to know it now, or yesterday.

  She couldn’t, of course. The Dragons were fighting, quite possibly for their lives, in the skies above. The struggle on the ground might also define and save lives—or conversely, lose them—but they had no time for it. “What’s happening to Maggaron?”

  “The name is leaving him,” Bellusdeo replied. “It is leaving the sword; it returns, at last, to me, where it will be made whole.”

  “But you said he can—”

  “Yes.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I am doomed, regardless, Chosen. And Maggaron is not. He has lived as less than slave for far too long. I knew where he had traveled. I knew what he had found. I had hoped—” She opened her eyes. Whatever hope she had had, it was gone.

  CHAPTER 21

  “You wanted to free him.”

  Bellusdeo nodded. She lifted a hand to his face, and Kaylin saw that his face was wet. She understood why she could no longer control him. But neither could the Outcaste. The sword beneath Kaylin’s hand began to dwindle in size, the runes running down the blade as if they’d been written in liquid that hadn’t had time to dry.

  “Chosen,” Bellusdeo said quietly.

  Kaylin had often felt like a fraud in her life—as a Hawk, as an adult—but never more than she did now. “I’m Chosen,” she said bitterly. “But I’ve no idea what that means, or what it’s supposed to mean.”

  Bellusdeo nodded, as if she’d heard it before. Maybe she had. “I have only met one other who bore marks similar to the ones you now bear. They were not the same marks,” she added. “Were it not for his intervention, we would have fallen to Makkuron long ago. The Chosen helped us to understand what we might achieve, and he told us that it wouldn’t last.

  “But he told me that I might find another of his kind. I searched,” she added. The sword was now the size and shape of a dagger—or a letter opener. It was also translucent. “We all searched while we could. He searched, as well—for us. But the Norannir found you. And when they did, we gambled. We, who no longer had the power of flight, or the freedom of it.”

  “Why—why did they all look like you?”

  “Because we are one. We have always been one. Even our names were interconnected in ways that the enemy could not fully perceive, and this bought us much time. He is coming,” she added, lifting her face again, her hands still cupped around Maggaron’s.

  “He can’t have you.”

  “I fail to see what will stop him if they cannot.”

  Kaylin said, sharply, “I can.”

  Hope was cruel. It could be an act of torture far more profound than despair. It could cut, and cut, and cut—no one knew this better than Kaylin. She’d tried, in the dark months of Barren, to divest herself of hope entirely, because hope led to pain so directly there were grooves in the path between them.

  This, she now inflicted on Bellusdeo.

  Kaylin’s arms were white. The light shed by the marks on them was now so brilliant she couldn’t see skin; she had to squint to make out the individual forms themselves. She swallowed; the sphere that had grown up around them shuddered, and dents appeared in its rounded height, the shape and size of very large claws.

  Bellusdeo flinched at the sight of them. Then she grimaced and drew the very small dagger from the wound in her chest—a wound that was still bleeding. The dagger became a sword—a sword made of glass, or something just as transparent.

  “Lady,” Maggaron said, his voice breaking between the two syllables. “Let me.”

  “I cannot anymore, and you know it. Maggaron, you have served me well. You have always served me well. But it is time.” He took the sword anyway and set it down on the ground.

  What the hells was good about being Chosen, anyway? Kaylin had demanded that Maggaron be allowed to accompany them, and for what reason? Instinct? Fine. But he was here, Bellusdeo had taken a mortal wound, and she had somehow freed him from the curse of a name. The Dragon carried a sword that no longer looked like the sword of an Ascendant, and it was clear to both Kaylin and Maggaron that she meant to use it.

  It was clear to both of them that she wouldn’t last long. Oh, she’d survive. The Outcaste didn’t want her dead. But would her life be any better, in the end, than Maggaron’s had been?

  Kaylin looked at her exposed arms in an almost helpless frenzy.

  Kaylin.

  Severn, I don’t know what to do.

  Don’t panic.

  She laughed. It was not a happy laugh. The claw-shaped indentations had grown in number, and there were a few new ones that looked as though they might be teeth. But bigger. She felt the ground shake as she heard the Outcaste’s roar, and then the sudden incursions stopped.

  “Bellusdeo, can you—can you transform now?”

  “Transform?”

  “Into your Dragon form.”

  “Not yet, Chosen—but soon.”

  “No!”

  They both glanced at Maggaron.

  “Tell her, Lady.”

  “Enough, Maggaron.”

  He fell silent. Into his silence came words, and to her surprise, Kaylin was speaking them. She was speaking them just as Sanabalis had once done when he had told the Leontines the ancient story of their birth. There were two words, she thought as she watched them form; she felt their weight in the back of her throat as she struggled to vocalize them. Human throats had clearly not been designed with this in mind.

  The words pulled themselves out of the air, gaining shape and size by feeding on the light that Kaylin shed. She’d seen something similar before; she recognized the parts of the runes: the vertical strokes, the horizontal strokes, the dots that crowned them, the squiggles that seemed to flutter at the edges. What she hadn’t seen before, however, was their placement: they formed around the Ascendant and the Dragon—if either one of them truly fit the descriptions by which they’d lived anymore—like the pristine bars of a golden cage; a songbird’s cage in a rich man’s house.

  Kaylin frowned because she understood that this was an answer, and she couldn’t make sense of it.

  No, wait… It wasn’t an answer.

  It was a story. It was a smaller story than the one that had given birth to the Leontine race, but it was a story nonetheless. It wasn’t her story; it was defined by Bellusdeo and Maggaron. No, she thought as more words
began to form around them, it was defined by more than just those two. But they were here now. The other runes floated in the air, rotating and gleaming as they touched one another. They could clearly see them as well as Kaylin could—which the Arkon had implied wasn’t possible unless Kaylin touched them. Then again, the last time she had touched the words she’d seen, they’d been his words. He’d spoken them.

  Here, they were hers.

  Bellusdeo lifted a hand and touched one of the interwoven runes. As if she were a glass vessel, the light from the rune began to fill her, or perhaps to drain into her. She turned in wonder to Kaylin, Dragons fighting and roaring above their heads, and said nothing, but her eyes were pure gold. Kaylin was aware that gold was the happy color for Dragon eyes—or for anyone who happened to be in the company of said Dragons—but she’d never seen a gold like this.

  Bellusdeo reached out with the hand that wasn’t touching the word and Maggaron clasped that hand, dwarfing it in his own. Kaylin wasn’t surprised to see that same golden light touch him—but it didn’t fill his eyes; it didn’t change his skin color; it surrounded him like a halo. Without thinking, Kaylin said, “No, Maggaron. That one’s not yours.”

  She cursed as she realized that without their bond, her words would sound like a crash and clatter of syllables and nonsense. Except they didn’t. Come to think, Bellusdeo had understood every word she’d spoken. She’d understood, in turn, every word the Dragon had spoken, as well. Maggaron turned to her, unaware that he shouldn’t understand what she’d just said. “Mine?” he said, looking mostly confused.

  Kaylin nodded. “It’s that one. No, the one to the right, the one that’s large and very bold.” But also spare and simple.

  He hesitated, and then turned to Bellusdeo. Bellusdeo smiled for him. At him. Kaylin felt a pang of inexplicable envy at the sight of it.

  “You’ve been part of each other for a very long time,” she told them both quietly. Not even the renewed roar of Dragons could drown out the words. “I don’t know how it’s changed you. I don’t even know if it has. But that rune—that one’s Maggaron’s. Touch it.” When he hesitated, she added, “Just touch the damn thing. I know you’re humble and you’re modest—but we honestly don’t have time for either right now.”

  Maggaron still hesitated. Bellusdeo reached up and smacked him. The gesture was so at odds with her expression Kaylin was almost shocked. She started to say something and the words bottomed out as she felt Severn’s sudden pain. She wheeled and saw that he was standing far, far too close to a melting patch of ground. His weapon’s spin wobbled before he gritted teeth and righted it.

  Without thought, she reached for him, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him back—and into the light of the words she’d spoken. He tensed as she wrapped her arms around his chest; she could feel his heart beating beneath her glowing arms; could feel his chest rise and fall. “Stay here,” she told him. “Just stay here. Stay with me. It’s—it’s sort of safe.”

  His weapon slowed; he must have been injured, because it also clattered.

  “It’s proof against the fire,” he told her.

  “You’re not.”

  “No.”

  She closed her eyes. She could smell fire and sweat and, of all things, soap. But she could hear words. Feel them. She opened her mouth and began to speak again, and this time, the words were visible; a thing above and beyond her, but rooted in her, as well, as if they were the crowning branches of a very tall, very ancient tree, and she was, well, dirt.

  She opened her eyes and slowly released Severn. Turning to Maggaron, she saw that he had one hand on the thickest and brightest of the vertical strokes of the rune Kaylin had called his. His other hand was still wrapped around the hand of the woman—or Dragon—that he’d served all his life. Kaylin had no idea how long that life had been.

  But his eyes began to shift color as he held both the woman and the word. They became gold, as well; gold, however, wasn’t the Norannir happy color. Brown was. “Lady,” he whispered.

  “Chosen,” Bellusdeo also whispered.

  “It’s a story. No, it’s the story,” Kaylin told them both.

  “And you are the teller of the tale?”

  “Yes.”

  “Then tell us its ending, who was there at the beginning.”

  “I can’t tell you how it ends, not really; I think…I—I think I can tell you how it finally begins.”

  She didn’t know what she was doing. She knew she was making it up as she went along. She wasn’t Rennick, the Imperial Playwright; she couldn’t throw out the bits that didn’t work—in an ever-increasing pile—and start it again. But she knew, watching the two, Ascendant and Dragon, that they were linked, and she knew, as well, that every single rune she had spoken was part of Bellusdeo.

  She counted them.

  There were ten.

  She really didn’t understand how words and names worked; she realized that. She had a name and she didn’t understand what that meant for her, either. Then again, she didn’t understand bureaucracy, and she theoretically worked at the behest of the most powerful bureaucrat in the Empire: the Emperor himself.

  “You said that you were always one. The nine of you.”

  “Yes.”

  Kaylin took a deep breath. “Then I understand, Bellusdeo, what the rest of the words say.”

  Bellusdeo wasn’t stupid. Her eyes rounded as she, too, counted words that were jostled up against each other in their confined—and comforting—circle. “Chosen—this isn’t possible. There is now only one of me.”

  “Yes. But there were nine, and each and every one of those words is yours.”

  “How can you know this?”

  “I don’t know. How can you know how to transform? I know it. It’s here,” she added, lifting her arms and exposing the runes. “Will you trust me?”

  “I already have—with my life. With his. But I do not know how I can do what you ask. I am one; they are nine.”

  “The others—”

  “Are dead. You cannot wake them; they do not sleep.”

  “It doesn’t matter. You were nine, Bellusdeo—and you must be nine again.” Kaylin wanted to smack herself to stop the flow of words, because even if she was the one who’d said them, they made no sense if she thought about them for two seconds. Which was about all the time she had.

  She cursed—in Leontine, which apparently didn’t get translated into ancient and eternal words—and approached the circling runes. She grabbed the ones she could reach and began to push them together, as if the spaces between the individual elements that comprised them were spaces that could be filled by elements that had never been part of their original form at all. As if they were cards and she was shuffling them back into a single deck again before she started to deal them.

  She could feel Severn wince at the analogy, and it made her laugh.

  Bellusdeo was watching her with eyes that were widening as Kaylin worked. She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and then pulled herself closer to Maggaron. That might not have been what she intended, but in her current form—and at her current weight—that was what happened. She held the rune she had first touched, and she told Maggaron not to let go of his.

  Kaylin found that the runes did collapse into each other—but not easily, and not without strain. It was like moving furniture into an apartment that started out empty; it got progressively harder to work with as it filled. Hard wasn’t the same as impossible; she reminded herself of this as her arms began to tire; reminded herself again as they started to tremble with exertion. The runes, however, hadn’t collapsed into a messy pile of random scribbles, as she’d half feared they might. They had a different shape, a different form, a different density. Some of the lines thinned, some shrunk, some bent—but always in a way that suggested a pattern, an emerging whole.

  She wished writing reports worked the same way.

  The light had drained out of the marks on her arms as she’d worked; she knew this only beca
use she’d paused for a moment to massage them. The marks were still glowing—but only very faintly. She wouldn’t honestly have been surprised had the marks simply vanished with their light, but for perhaps the very first time she would have felt a twinge of regret at the loss.

  Sadly, they weren’t the only thing the light left; the barrier that had stood as a slender but absolute wall against fire, smoke, and rock that was close to melting had also dimmed. Frustrated, frightened, she cursed herself, wondering if it was somehow her power, in the marks, that had maintained that shield—and if it was something she could have learned to do consciously if she’d been a better student.

  It didn’t matter. If she was to have any hope of saving Bellusdeo and Maggaron now, she needed to finish what she’d started; the anger and the self-recrimination would just have to wait. She’d no doubt she’d return to it later; unlike laundry, she’d never left self-recrimination undone. She took a deep breath, felt its sting in her lungs and at the back of her throat, and struggled.

  There were only two runes left standing in their original expressed shape: the ones held by Bellusdeo and Maggaron. The sphere that had been formed of words and light was so thin now Kaylin could see the sky above them; it was red and black. The air sizzled and crackled; liquid was hitting the stones that surrounded them. She wondered if it was rain or blood; the smoke was thick enough she couldn’t tell the difference.

  She started to push, and this time it wasn’t hard—it was impossible. Nothing moved. Nothing so much as shivered. Whatever she’d managed to cobble together was incomplete—but her work, the whole of the work she could do, had been done.

  “Bellusdeo,” she said, voice low and rough, “the rest is up to you. Whatever you took, whatever you absorbed when the Outcaste offered to aid you, it wasn’t real. This—this could be.”

  Bellusdeo’s eyes were still a bright and shining gold; her expression, however, grew grim. “Understood, Chosen.” She hesitated for the first time and then looked at Maggaron. The question was clear in the glance.

 
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