Cast in Ruin, p.6Michelle Sagara
Tiamaris parted the crowd of armed strangers by turning. They didn’t rush to get out of his way; they moved. For all their apparent bulk, they moved quickly. As they cleared enough street for a Dragon with folded wings, Kaylin saw Tara. Tara was, in fact, wearing her gardening clothes, and Morse was walking by her side, looking about as happy at this new set of guards as Kaylin felt.
Morse had been a lieutenant of the previous fieflord, but she’d made the transition to Tiamaris without much trouble. Beside Tara, she looked like a thug in the true sense of the word; her hair was still a very short, shorn crop, and her face still bore scars from earlier fights. When she smiled at all, it was a grim, black smile, and it usually meant someone was about to die. Or it had meant that. She did smile at Tara, but usually only when she thought no one else was watching.
Tara broke into a wide grin as Kaylin met her eyes. Kaylin knew that Tara could be aware of her presence the instant she set foot on the right side of the Ablayne, but she often seemed so surprised and delighted, the thought held no weight. She broke into a run, which ended with her arms around Kaylin, and Kaylin’s arms around her.
“Lord Sanabalis said you would come,” Tara said when she at last stepped back. “Hello, Corporal Handred.”
Severn also smiled, and it was an unguarded smile. “Lady,” he said, bowing to the fief’s title, and not the name Kaylin had given her.
“Did he explain the difficulty?” Tara asked.
“No. Now that the fief is Tiamaris’s, he feels any information has to come from Tiamaris.”
“Don’t ask me. I’m not a Dragon.” She did add when she heard Sanabalis’s snort, “I think it’s something to do with the etiquette of hoard law. Dragons are, by simple human standards, insanely unreasonable about their hoards.”
“Ah. It’s possible that he is entirely correct then.” She turned and smiled at Sanabalis, who appeared unimpressed with Kaylin’s description. “Thank you.”
He bowed to her. He bowed damn low.
Kaylin raised a brow at Morse, and Morse responded with a pure fief shrug. “What’s happening?” Kaylin asked Morse, stepping to the side to add a little distance between them and anyone who might be listening.
“We have three thousand eight-foot-tall people who can’t speak Elantran and have no place to live. They also have no sense of humor.”
“Neither do you.”
“Exactly. Consider the source of the comment.”
Kaylin chuckled—but she also winced. “Sanabalis implied there were other difficulties.”
“That’s how he worded it? ‘Other difficulties’?” Morse spit to one side.
Kaylin frowned. “How bad is it?”
“There are two problems. One, we’re trying to track down, but even the Lady is having some trouble; we’re not sure why.”
“That would be the subtle Shadow that Sanabalis also mentioned?”
“That’s not what we call it, but yeah. You’re here to help with that?”
Kaylin frowned, and then nodded. “That’s my guess. What’s the other problem?”
“The border boundary,” Morse said, voice flat. There were four possible borders that defined the fief of Tiamaris—but only one was a threat to the fief’s existence: the one that faced into the unclaimed shadow that lay in the center of the fiefs.
Kaylin almost froze. “The border’s supposed to be stable.”
“Oh, it’s holding. If it weren’t, we’d all—all—be dead by now. But the freaking Shadow across the fucking border is puking out whatever it can. Nothing small and easily killed, either; apparently the bigger one-offs can survive the ‘transition’ with some of their power intact.”
Kaylin sucked in air. “When the hells did this start happening?”
“Pretty much the same day they did,” Morse replied, jerking her thumb in the direction of the strangers.
“Believe,” Kaylin said after an uncomfortably sharp silence, “that they didn’t bring the Shadows with them.”
“If I understood what was said correctly, they were fleeing from them.”
“And being followed.”
“I was there, Morse. If great chunks of Shadowy one-offs had followed them into Elani, believe I would have noticed.” But she hesitated. Morse, no fool, noticed. “What?”
“When they arrived, they did this funny thing with a bunch of drums and a lot of loud chanting. It was supposed to be some sort of purification ritual, but the end result? The Dragons—all four of them—took flight over the city while they did it.” Kaylin shook her head, glancing briefly at two of those four: Tiamaris, in full scales and wings, and Sanabalis, in slightly drab but official clothing. “And…the chanting was magical, somehow.”
This admission of the use of magic by obviously dangerous giants did nothing positive for Morse’s mood.
“But…something answered them. Something in the fiefs. If I had to guess,” she added quietly, “something from the heart of the fiefs.”
“What, it was some kind of fucking challenge?” Morse’s brows rose toward the nearly shaved dome of her head. “Are they insane?”
From a fief perspective, there could only be one answer to that question. But…this fief had become, almost overnight, an exception to the rules that generally governed the fiefs. Kaylin glanced at the large huddle of strangers—she’d have to ask Sanabalis what their own name for their race was because “strangers” wasn’t going to cut it—and said, “Not insane. I think they’re used to fighting a war with the Shadows, rather than locking the doors and praying a bunch.”
“Great.” Morse glanced at Tara, who seemed to be involved in a serious discussion with Sanabalis, while Tiamaris, over her shoulder—well, part of his jaw, at any rate—looked on. Severn was beside the older Dragon, listening intently.
“What?” Morse said sharply.
“There’s something I don’t understand.”
She was rewarded by something that was halfway between snort and grunt; the sarcastic comment that would have usually followed failed to emerge. For Morse, this was a big improvement. “What?”
“Tiamaris is fieflord in a way that Barren wasn’t.”
“You can say that again.”
Fair enough. “Barren didn’t hold the Tower. Tiamaris does.”
“Holding the Tower at all should prevent your one-offs from getting through.”
Morse shrugged. “The Ferals get through.”
“I know; they get through everywhere. I’m not sure why.”
“Time to find out?”
“Well past.” Kaylin turned toward the discussion that was even now taking place without them, and as she did, Tara froze. It was a very particular stillness, and it reminded anyone who happened to be standing close by that Tara’s physical form, the form of her birth, was made of stone.
It was warning enough for Kaylin, but if it hadn’t been, there was another one that followed less than thirty seconds later: the strangers began to shout, and weapons began to catch sunlight and reflect it in a way that spoke of movement.
Morse swore. Loudly. But her brief word wasn’t equal to the task of carrying over the cries and shouts—directed, not panicked—of the strangers. “Kaylin!” she shouted.
Sanabalis’s eyes turned instantly orange as Tiamaris swiveled his head and roared. Kaylin’s ears were still ringing when the fieflord spread wings, bunched legs, and pushed himself off the ground; it was a miracle of grace and movement that prevented those wings from knocking anyone else flying. Tiamaris roared again as he rose above the heights of the standing structures erected along the border—they were few, and they were clearly meant as lookouts and not living quarters.
Severn had already unwound his weapon chain; Morse had a sword in hand. But Morse remained close by Tara, rather than running to join the giants. After a brief glan
What kind of people carried drums into a war zone anyway?
Kaylin noticed, as she approached the main body of the strangers, that there were no children here. There were men—and women—who looked as if they’d left youth behind, but they carried their weapons with the same grim determination that the younger men and women did. If any of them had ever survived to be elderly, they were also nowhere in sight.
They noticed her, but they were accustomed to a lack of clear communication from the humans and made no attempt to question her; they did, however, let her pass into their midst. She briefly regretted her armor; it was hard to shove it out of the way, and as she couldn’t, she couldn’t expose the marks on her arms with any ease. Those marks, the strangers did recognize in some fashion.
But Severn spoke a single curt word. “Bracer.”
Her reply was less civil. She shed splints, exposing the heavy golden manacle, and she crushed gems in sequence to open the damn thing. It clicked, she removed it and tossed it over her shoulder, remembering after it had left her hand that there were enough people behind her that it might actually hit someone. No one, however, shouted in outrage, and better yet, no one attempted to remove her head from her shoulders, so she moved in the direction of the drumming itself.
The drummers were standing behind a line of men and women who faced the interior of the fiefs; there were four drums in total that Kaylin could count. The men who beat them had weapons at their feet, but they were otherwise intent on stretched skin, not incoming danger. The four drums circled three people, however, and Kaylin recognized one of them: Mejrah. She was the oldest stranger present, she was about a foot shorter than the People standing beside her, and her eyes were all whites.
Mejrah was not a door ward, but the hair on the back of Kaylin’s neck began to rise, and the marks on her skin began to ache in their usual protest at the presence of magic. Her exposed arm was also, damn it, glowing softly; the runes were a pale blue. At the moment, however, the visible marks gave her one solid advantage: no one stood in her way, and anyone who happened to be there moved.
Severn crowded her back to take advantage of the brief openings; he moved, as he often did, like a cat.
“Kaylin, twelve o’clock.”
Twelve o’clock, like positions ten to one, was occupied by large, weapon-wielding men; it was also briefly illuminated by bursts of angry, orange flames. The flames were close enough that Kaylin could feel their instant heat, and far enough away that she didn’t burn. But in the wake of fire, she could see the shape of something dark and ungainly rising above a horizon composed of tall warriors. Whatever the creature was, it was not small.
Size, in Shadows, wasn’t necessarily directly proportional to their power. But appearance was often an indicator. The creature was not being helpful in this regard: it didn’t seem to have a form. Instead, Shadow rose and fell, like black snowdrifts in a very bad storm. Like snow, the blackness accreted. Dragonfire seemed to cause it some damage—but not enough to stop it or destroy it.
The men spoke in short, sharp bursts; they were clearly giving orders in harsh, guttural syllables. Mejrah’s voice soared above them, twining as it did with the two voices of the men who stood on either side of her, as sightless as she. Their voices formed words, and these words were tantalizingly familiar to Kaylin; she couldn’t understand them, but she felt as if she should. She glanced at Mejrah, and from her to the air just above the old woman’s hands; it was wavering, as if it had substance and texture.
Kaylin expected to see words form in that air: ancient words. True words. Instead, light grew, curling in on itself as if it was a trapped, compressed cloud.
The creature drew closer and closer to the boundaries, and as it did, it opened what might—might—have been a mouth, and it began to speak. To Kaylin’s surprise, she recognized some of the language. Not enough to understand it, of course—that would have been too easy. It wasn’t the ancient tongue, though—it was the tongue that the strangers spoke, and were speaking even now.
They were shouting at the creature, and from their stances, it appeared that they were taunting it. Had she not been so much on edge, her jaw would have hit the ground and bounced. Every instinctive reaction she’d developed over the course of her life screamed in protest: this was suicide. Then again, so was standing still, which they were notably all doing.
Had they been anyone else—in particular, people who would understand a word she shouted—she would have started to shout orders of her own. As it was, she reminded herself, firmly, that they had spent most of their lives fighting Shadows in one way or another. If they were standing there while Mejrah was doing a complicated form of magic that would have had the Imperial mages looking down their noses in contempt, they had to have a reason for it.
Tiamaris roared and the men on the ground took up his cry; she thought they were attempting to repeat what he’d said. The timbre of their voices suited their size; it wasn’t Dragon, but it had enough strength behind it not to make a mockery of the word itself. The drumbeats began to pick up speed until all sound was a collision: Mejrah, Tiamaris, the warriors on the ground, and the pounding beat of the skins themselves.
And then, suddenly, there was silence. Light leaped from sky to ground, passing through the raised weapons of the strangers. The blades absorbed light instead of reflecting it, as if they were being anointed.
The Shadow roared; it was not a dragon roar—but it was as loud, as intense, as Tiamaris at his peak. It was also cold and dark enough to devour light and the things that came with it. Kaylin took a step back, although she wasn’t in the front line; the warriors, however, didn’t.
The Shadow continued to roar, and as it did, the ground around it began to heave. That ground, the surface of the street, and the hint of the buildings that had once occupied it, were black and white, leeched of color. They were soon leeched of their form, as well; they shimmered and began to fold in on themselves, condensing as they did into vastly less-stationary shapes. She’d seen something similar once before, on the very edge of the fief of Nightshade. Where the moving, shambling mass of attenuated Shadow had been, more grew, separate and distinct from it.
She now understood why the front was so heavily occupied; in less than five minutes the whole of the ground on the other side of a border that suddenly felt amorphous and theoretical had literally risen in fury. The newer shapes took on a solidity of form that the central Shadow hadn’t: they stretched to eight feet in height, growing limbs as they did. For the most part they had two of each—arms and legs—although the little details wobbled if Kaylin examined them for long. They were disturbing because they didn’t so much walk as glide, and they were utterly silent.
Then again, the mass at their center was doing enough shouting for a small army, which was convenient for it, as that’s what it appeared to be raising. It began to move through the rain of Tiamaris’s fire, and Tiamaris, wings spread, flew once over it. The creature threw some part of itself, as if a tendril, at the moving Dragon.
He dodged, but Kaylin could see he’d been hit; he didn’t bleed, but the Shadow darkened one wing and began to spread. She drew one sharp breath, but before she could shout, the strangers did. Tiamaris banked, breathing fire as he made his way toward the earth on his own side of the border; he landed behind the front line, behind where Kaylin now stood. She glanced over her shoulder to see Tara moving down the street. Given her height, it would have been impossible to see her if she’d actually been walking; she wasn’t.
She was flying; her back had sprouted familiar Aerian wings. She headed directly for Tiamaris, and as Kaylin turned back to face the border, the Shadows arrived.
Shadows could, in theory, be stopped by the usual things: swords, clubs, crossbows. The Ferals that had terrori
But the Shadows she’d encountered in the High Halls or in Barren, just before Tiamaris’s reign, had been different. They were visually distinct, for one; they were often larger than a good-size horse; they had an indeterminate number of limbs, heads, or jaws, and the jaws could frequently open up at the end of anything: tail. Forearm. Stomach. Some had no eyes; some had eyes where every other part of a body would otherwise be. Some could fly, some could float, some seeped like the spread of thick liquid; some could speak.
The speech was always disturbing.
It was disturbing now. It wasn’t the tenor of the voice, it wasn’t the words—because at the moment, the words were unintelligible to Kaylin. It was the fact that they could speak, think, and communicate at all. Ravenous, efficient Ferals felt almost natural. Moving, dense mist shouldn’t have been able to keep up a steady stream of continuous speech, continuous command.
But the words came out of the darkness. It drew closer, and as it finally reached the edge of the border—a border defined entirely by eight-foot-tall warriors—black mist cracked and shattered. It had shattered because what it contained was too large: the thing at its center—still speaking—began to unfold, gaining height and width as it did.
It was tall: half again the height of the warriors it now faced. But unlike many of the one-offs, as Morse called them, this one had two arms, two legs; it had, more or less, one head. The head was massive, and it was nauseatingly unstable, the line of mouth and nose and what might have been eyes wavered like a heat mirage. That wasn’t what was remarkable about it, though.
It wore armor.
And it was recognizably armor. It was chitinous, but so was Dragon armor when worn in human form; it was sleek, and it covered the whole of the body, except of course the face. It shone, reflecting light rather than absorbing it. The Shadow had continued to speak as it unfolded, revealing itself to the men and women who now waited in grim silence. But when at last it drew its weapon, it, too, fell silent, signaling an end to speech.
Cast in Ruin by Michelle Sagara / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes