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Cast in ruin, p.34
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       Cast in Ruin, p.34

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “Him, too,” Kaylin replied. “I know there are nine parts of what should have been your name—but for reasons I don’t understand, his is part of that now. He has to do what I’ve been doing with his own rune, just as you must.”

  “And if he succeeds?”

  “I don’t know.” She looked up at the passing shadow that darkened the ground. “Does it matter?”

  Bellusdeo hesitated again, which was one answer. And then she started to force her own rune to move, which was another. Maggaron, to no one’s surprise, had already started to push his toward the odd and unfinished jumble that Kaylin had made of the others. His greater size and strength didn’t seem to make the task any easier for him than it had been for either Kaylin or Bellusdeo; he was straining to cross an inch or two of ground at a time. Severn’s weapon chain was singing at her back; Severn was silent.

  She wanted to ask him what he saw.

  But what she knew prevented it. If the Arkon’s words about Dragon birth were true—and she kind of doubted he could be wrong about something like that, although he wasn’t required to be entirely honest—Bellusdeo could fail here. If she failed, Kaylin wasn’t certain what would happen, because she wasn’t certain what the Outcaste wanted or intended for her. The only possibility—children—she carefully blanked from her thoughts.

  She wanted to know how Makkuron had given Bellusdeo something that could serve almost the same function as a True Name, without quite being one.

  She wanted to know if this—this amalgamation of nine disparate runes, each complicated and each unique—could replace what she had taken in youthful ignorance without somehow rewriting everything that had come before: her history. Maggaron’s. Her role in the life of the Norannir and their war against their encroaching Shadows. She didn’t understand, couldn’t comprehend, what a True Name meant to those who depended on it. What she knew, watching, was this: she couldn’t separate those words again. She couldn’t speak them into their former, disparate shapes. Whatever tale they told, it was almost done, and her part as its teller was over. She could witness now; she couldn’t be transformed.

  They could, if they succeeded, because in the end it was their story.

  As Bellusdeo and Maggaron struggled to find a place in the whole for their individual runes, the shape of the various interlocking pieces expanded slightly—only slightly—to give them entry. What had been a mess of disparate elements began to pulse, like a golden heart. It made the whole look dangerously unstable.

  Kaylin froze. She had seen one name that was as complicated—as large—as this one, and she’d only seen it once. It was the Outcaste’s name. That name and this one weren’t the same, but this one was its equal in complexity and form. It looked like the name—like the story—of a small world. She had a brief flash of insight as she watched: they were meant to be nine. Nine Dragons who were also one Dragon. They were each meant to hold, to capture, to mold one part of this whole until the moment it fused. But…why? How?

  Eight of those women, eight of those parts, were dead. But the name itself that now formed was not: it lived, it waited. It was a type of birth.

  Above Bellusdeo, the Outcaste could now be clearly seen: he was black, but his scales seemed vaguely opalescent through the haze of smoke and burning buildings. He roared in fury; if he was hurt at all, rage suppressed pain.

  The Arkon had landed some distance away, and there was no if about his injuries; she could see the listing wing that couldn’t quite fold up on his back. It was torn; there was blood. The fire, on the other hand, didn’t seem to bother the Arkon. Sanabalis circled above the Outcaste, but couldn’t quite flank him—if that’s what he was even trying to do. Tiamaris, however, faced the Outcaste directly, and if the Outcaste’s voice embodied fury, it was a very different fury from Tiamaris’s. Tiamaris was red. A deep, shining red—the color of new blood or garnets in sunlight. He seemed larger, to Kaylin’s eye, than she’d seen him before, and although he was too far above them for his eyes to be visible, she thought they were probably the same color as the rest of him.

  And this, she understood. He was in the heart of his hoard. Makkuron threatened it, and nothing short of his removal would still the frenzy.

  Kaylin frowned. What she couldn’t see was Tara. She started to scan the sky, and then the streets, when she heard Maggaron’s cry. It was short, sharp, cut off by the Ascendant himself. Kaylin turned, Tara forgotten, to see that Bellusdeo had collapsed face-first into the uneven stones upon which they’d all been standing. Her word had not yet coalesced with the whole; nor had Maggaron’s.

  Kaylin almost closed her eyes. She moved closer to Bellusdeo—but she was slowed, as if she were running through water or a heavier liquid. Maggaron wasn’t encumbered in the same way, but he’d started off much closer. He let go of the word Kaylin had marked as his without any thought or hesitation, and he dropped to the ground, to Bellusdeo’s side.

  The Dragon’s hand still clung to the fading line of the whole rune that had been hers. She lifted her head; her eyes were gold, but they no longer shone, and Kaylin felt utterly certain that when that light guttered completely, she would die.

  By the time she reached Bellusdeo’s side, Bellusdeo was no longer on the ground; she was in Maggaron’s arms, cradled against his chest as if she were a child; given the difference in their sizes, she could have been. Kaylin met the Ascendant’s expression and had to look away at what she saw there. But she looked back almost immediately because Maggaron, carrying Bellusdeo, was also dragging her rune by default. It moved with her, and it moved far more easily than it had when she’d exerted her own strength and will against it.

  “Bellusdeo, can you hear me?” Kaylin said.

  “Yes.” The Dragon’s smile was weak. “You’re shouting in my ear.”

  Kaylin obligingly lowered her voice. “Let Maggaron carry you. But—grab his word the way you’re holding yours.”

  “But, Chosen, you said—”

  “I say a lot of stupid things. I told you—I don’t know what I’m doing; I make it up as I go along; I reach for what feels true, and sometimes, the first time, I miss. It’s like I’m locked out of my own place. I’ve dropped the key down a dark hole. I know the key is in the damn hole, but I’m fumbling around in a space I can’t see in an attempt to pick it up. I’m reaching in the right direction but I miss. I keep trying. I know when I’ve got the key.” She paused, and then added, “It’s like your name. I can see it. I would recognize it if I saw it again—I’m sorry for that—but I can’t wrap my mind around the size of it, the shape of it, the sound. I can’t explain what it is to anyone else—but I know what it’s supposed to be now that I’ve seen it. Grab his word.”

  But Maggaron had already walked to where he had left his standing rune. Of the two, Bellusdeo had made more progress—at least until now, because her rune came with her when he moved. When it did, the whole structure left behind shuddered. Kaylin, in a panic, reached out to hold what was left in place, as if it were physical.

  She almost pulled her hands back in shock: the runes felt like living flesh. Not human flesh, not Leontine flesh, not something immediately familiar—but it pulsed, it was warm, and it had that slightly soft give. What it didn’t have was anything that remotely resembled a body. Or a cohesive, stable shape. She stiffened her arms as the structure began to bear down on her, grateful that the marks she bore weren’t physical shapes like these.

  “Maggaron—I can’t hold this up forever!” It was unfair and she knew it; it was also, however, true. She could feel the gaps between the elements of the compressed shape begin to widen. She swore at them in Leontine. And Aerian, for good measure.

  Maggaron reached the structure before it collapsed around her like an engineer’s worst nightmare. He carried Bellusdeo, and she carried the runes; they were smaller now; denser. They were still, however, the same as they had been when they had been as tall as she was.

  “Chosen,” he said, “what must I do?”

 
What you’ve done all along. Carry her. Be her shield. Protect her while she does what only she can do.”

  “I suppose asking you what I can do,” Bellusdeo said, her voice thinner and reedier, “wouldn’t be helpful.”

  “You know what you have to do.”

  “I really don’t,” the Dragon said, and she laughed. It caused her pain, but it brightened her eyes for a moment. “I’m like you—I’ve always made it up as I went along.” She couldn’t touch Maggaron; both of her hands were full. But her voice was gentle. “Carry me as far into the word as you can.”

  He nodded, tightening his grip briefly. She was, Kaylin could see, exactly what he’d said about her: his life, his reason for living. He didn’t want to let go of her. He carried her toward the whole of the shape Kaylin was struggling so hard to preserve, and the runes—the two—preceded her into the whole.

  As far into the word as you can, she’d said. Kaylin was surprised at how far that was, because it looked as if there was no space. No space for something the size of either Kaylin or Bellusdeo—who was taller—and certainly no space for the Ascendant. Space or no, he carried her, and it seemed to Kaylin that he carried her through the lines, the delicate curves and loops, and the tightly spaced dots. Her word came with her, and when it finally, fully, touched the disparate parts, something snapped into place. No, everything snapped into place.

  If Kaylin thought the words surrounding Bellusdeo and Maggaron had looked like a gilded cage before, she repented. Now she knew they were inescapable, and she held her breath as they began to shrink, to compress. She had never thought of words as dangerous before. Dangerous to know, yes. But in and of themselves? No.

  Yet these words—or this nascent word—was. She could see the bleeding that sharp edges caused across the contours of Bellusdeo’s cheeks. Her arms fared no better; the dress she wore—the same dress as all the others had worn who now lay in the morgue—began to redden as lines, like swords, pierced cloth and skin at the same time. Kaylin cried out, wordless, and then tried to enter the word itself.

  What the Ascendant and the Dragon were allowed, she clearly wasn’t. She began to batter the shape with her fists, and someone grabbed her wrist.

  It wasn’t Severn; Severn’s touch, she knew. Severn would never have dragged her away from the word the way she was now dragged. She turned in fury—and fear—and met the eyes of the Arkon. They were orange. Not red. But their edges were gold. She didn’t understand, and she hurled short words at him as if he were a stupid, raw recruit—and she were Marcus.

  “There is no more you can do, Chosen,” he told her, his voice surprisingly gentle, the words—shockingly—in Elantran.

  “They’ll kill her!”

  “They may. They may well kill her. But even if you desired it, they will not kill you; the name is not, and was never meant, to be yours.”

  “You can see it?”

  “No. I cannot see the shape of it at all. It is unfortunate for you that you can.” He winced. “If you would stop this senseless struggling, I would be happy to release you.”

  She stopped instantly. “You’re injured.”

  He raised a brow. “Let me give you a lesson in etiquette that I doubt very much Lord Diarmat—one of the worthiest members of the Court in my opinion—will see the need to teach you; he does not think highly of mortals, but even he cannot always comprehend the extent to which they lack wisdom. When dealing with Immortals it is unwise in the extreme to allude to injuries or infirmities that they themselves refuse to acknowledge.”

  “I saw your wing!”

  “Obviously. I, however, have chosen to consider the injury minor. If you attempt to heal it,” he added, because she was, in fact, considering it, “I will be forced to discourage you in a more permanent way. Is that understood?”

  She nodded and he released her wrist.

  “Watch,” he told her. “And wait. Waiting is something you will need to learn.”

  CHAPTER 22

  “You can see that she’s bleeding, right?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you don’t think—”

  “No, Private, I do think. If it were not for the fact that your presence might still be required somehow, I would send you to aid the Avatar.” Kaylin froze.

  “She is currently protecting the people who dwelled in the buildings on this street. I think, due to both her presence and her intervention, Tiamaris will lose very few of his citizens to this fight; I cannot be certain.”

  “And Tiamaris?”

  “This is his hoard, as you term it, Private. I do not think he will fall here.” He glanced up, as if the struggle in the air was of vastly less relevance than the one on the ground. Kaylin found it easier to watch, possibly because the Dragons were far enough away that she couldn’t see the blood, and possibly because even if she could, she knew damn well there was nothing—short of avoiding the random flames—she could do for them.

  In spite of the Arkon’s words, she didn’t have that certainty about Bellusdeo.

  “Kaylin.”

  She closed her eyes. She could still see blood. She could still imagine death.

  “We come to our name, or we do not. No one can take our own test of name on our behalf, because the transformation is personal.”

  “But she’s—”

  “Yes. What she attempts now is…ambitious. It will either kill her, or she will succeed; she has long been lost to childhood.”

  “If she dies—”

  “Enough, Private. Enough. You cannot comprehend what her survival would mean—both to the Dragon Court and to the race. You therefore cannot comprehend the tragedy of her failure to either. But let me attempt to explain it to you on a more personal level. No matter how much pity you feel for a man, woman, or child, is your pity alone enough to qualify them to work as a Hawk?”

  She would have answered, but she’d opened her eyes. What she saw robbed her of words: the runes that had started out so golden were now a pale red. She knew why, and she almost hated them. “Maggaron!”

  He knew what she wanted him to do, and shook his head. But mostly? He huddled around Bellusdeo as much as he could, trying to deflect the runes. The runes, Kaylin realized, weren’t cutting him. Just Bellusdeo. Because it was—if she survived—her name.

  The Arkon caught Kaylin by the shoulder; she hadn’t even been aware that she’d started to move.

  “Chosen,” he said, his voice bridging the gap between comfort and command. “None of the wise understand what your marks presage. None. You yourself have little understanding of what they mean or what they can do—but not, as I see, none. What you have done here is what you could do. But even the Chosen are bound by natural law and natural rules. In this, you cannot interfere further.”

  Bellusdeo would die here. She was already injured. She was weakened. This couldn’t be the end of the story—it couldn’t be. “There should have been nine of her,” she told the Arkon. His fingers dug in, and she felt the hint of claw. “There’s only one—”

  “No,” he said, shaking her slightly. “There are two.” He didn’t ask how—or why—Maggaron was with Bellusdeo.

  Kaylin opened her mouth—and felt Severn’s hand on her other shoulder. “He’s right.”

  She knew it. She hated it. Standing and watching felt too damn much like doing nothing. But, anchored by the Arkon on one side and Severn on the other, she didn’t have much choice.

  Maggaron held Bellusdeo’s life in his hands. Watching his face, it was clear that he held his own in them, as well. The whole of his concern was turned toward her; the shape of the word, the shakiness of its structure, was of far less concern to him than the injuries Bellusdeo was even now sustaining. If all Dragons came to their names this way, it was no bloody wonder they were so cranky so much of the time.

  Bellusdeo said something to the Ascendant, because he stiffened, sheltering her—or trying—with the bulk of his shoulders. Her hands were too weak to hold the words she’d dragged in with her, but it
didn’t matter; they were already enmeshed in the whole. No, that wasn’t right. Bellusdeo’s word was. Maggaron’s, Kaylin could still see as a distinct entity.

  He must have seen it, too; he raised his head. Raised it, opened his mouth, shouted something that Kaylin couldn’t understand. It was almost—for a moment—as loud as Dragon words; it was, to Kaylin, vastly more significant.

  His rune—his simple, elegant rune with its too-straight, thick lines—cracked; the cohesion of the whole shattered. Its parts flew outward, passing through the emerging whole of the other nine, and Kaylin held her breath as she watched. She didn’t ask the Arkon or Severn what they could see, but she knew, for just that moment, that they didn’t see what she saw.

  The lines spread outward, distending and flattening; Kaylin thought, at the speed they were traveling, they would disappear from view. But they shuddered to a halt, and when they did, they hovered above—and below—the forming, nascent name. A foundation and a crown, they pressed inward, holding the shape of the word in much the same way that Maggaron held Bellusdeo. Standing at their center, as if he were integral to their structure, stood the Ascendant. The parts of his scattered word still shed golden light, but they had become shiny and hard, like metal. They began to gleam so brightly it was hard to tell what lay within their bounds; Kaylin was squinting to see.

  Severn and the Arkon were not.

  She saw the lines of the new word suddenly shudder; she thought they would collapse; they began to fall. They were dark now, distinct; the golden, ethereal quality that had characterized their spoken appearance was gone. More disturbing, they were the color of blood, and had they not retained the shapes of runic elements, she would have mistaken them for exactly that. It was worse than disturbing. She’d seen Red at work for years, huddling on a stool by his tables, handing him the tools he was willing to let her touch with her self-professed Very Clean hands—and she had the stomach for disturbing.

 
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