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Cast in ruin, p.7
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       Cast in Ruin, p.7

           Michelle Sagara

  An end, Kaylin thought, drawing her daggers to life. She watched the giant raise his sword in two hands, lifting it over his head and exposing the whole of his chest to do so.

  And she watched the bolts that flew—from where, she wasn’t certain—to strike that chest and that armor. All but one bounced; one snapped. The sword plunged toward the earth, and the men who stood beneath it; they had raised their own weapons, but they weren’t fools; they moved. The sword crashed into the ground, literally breaking it.

  Kaylin leaped to one side of the fissure that was opening beneath her feet, cursing in full Leontine. Nothing she had seen when Barren had ruled this fief and the borders had gone down had been as bad as this.

  Mejrah shouted; her voice was higher and rougher than the voices of the men, and it carried. The warriors regrouped a few yards away from the armored giant, standing their ground as the Shadows that he had summoned poured toward them.

  This shouldn’t be happening. Kaylin knew it. The Tower was active, and it had a Lord; that had been the whole damn point. She backed up—it was that or be trampled—and she saw that the Shadows had changed their formation: they were flowing into the fissure the sword had made, following the damage done.

  Fully half the warriors on either side of the gap in the ground now turned their weapons upon the invaders, and those weapons—lit, still, by the brilliance of the odd light Mejrah and her two companions had chanted into existence—cut through Shadow as if it were insubstantial mist. But insubstantial or no, the Shadow burned.

  It also attacked. This army of summoned Shadow was in no way as impressive as the summoner, but it didn’t have to be: it was still chaotic, amorphous, unpredictable. The uniformity of form that had existed before the lesser Shadows had attempted to cross the border through the breach melted away, and the Shadowy forms that had echoed the warriors were lost. The separation between the forms was lost, as well, as the warriors struck; the Shadows began to bleed into one another, combining and congealing into something vastly less human in appearance.

  It was almost a relief. She lifted a dagger, reversed her grip on it, and threw it cleanly toward an emerging eye; Shadow eyes, in her experience, generally did more than just see things. The throw was mediocre; the dagger embedded itself into the iris, not the pupil. In a normal creature, this would have been fine, but the Shadow had pupils the size of Kaylin’s fist. It couldn’t see her from that eye, but it turned the bulk of its moving form—which was legless—in her direction, while the warriors hacked bits and pieces off its body.

  Those pieces dissolved, seeping into the crevice itself; the Shadow continued to move toward Kaylin. Her dagger slowly disappeared into the damaged eye, as the eye transformed itself into a bleeding mouth. Damn it. She leaped back as another eye began to emerge; this time, it was lidded, and this time, her dagger bounced. As it did, the lid snapped open.

  Damn it! Eyebeams lanced the ground. Clods of dirt and broken stone rose in chunks, and a shout went up from the warriors, one of whom hadn’t been lucky enough to dodge in time. He went down; the rest of his companions, instead of running for cover—which was admittedly a lost cause this close to the border—formed up. They parried the damn beams.

  No fool she, she threw herself forward, rolled between two of them, and came to her feet. Or tried.

  The ground shook, causing her to stumble; the armored giant had once again brought his sword crashing into the packed dirt and cracked stonework on the edge of the border itself; the rupture traveled across the boundary. The giant, however, did not. No, Kaylin thought, watching him. He couldn’t. And the only purchase his Shadows had were in the crevices themselves, at least until the barrier was breached.

  She turned to look for Tara and found her easily. The Avatar was glowing. She still had wings, but her face looked like alabaster: white, cold, and hard. Gone were the dirt-stained, slightly oversize clothes of a fledgling gardener; the Avatar’s clothing, it appeared, was whatever she desired it to be. At her side, but grounded, stood Tiamaris, and at his side, still encumbered by the frailer human form, stood Sanabalis. Severn was on the other side of the first crevice, and he was working his chain and its terminating blades.

  Tiamaris left the warriors as they hacked away at both eyebeams and the physical body that was shooting them so chaotically. He turned his attention to one of the three new breaks that straddled the edge of his fief; Tara flew to a different one. Sanabalis grimaced, and then walked—quickly for a man who affected age—toward the last. He still hadn’t bothered to shed the human form, but he didn’t need to be in Dragon form to breathe fire.

  Clearly age made some difference; the fire was white, and it was hot enough to cause the ground to glow red. The small amount of Shadow that had leaked into the crevice over which Sanabalis kept watch began to smolder, and black smoke rose as it screamed. For a puddle, it made a lot of noise. Morse joined Sanabalis; she had a long sword, but she stayed behind the Dragon Lord, watching the ground intently. When tendrils rose up the sides and tried to find purchase in the ground above, she cut them down without blinking.

  Kaylin cursed as the earth shook again. This was getting them nowhere; the giant could make cracks in the ground all damn day and he didn’t seem to be running out of Shadow to fill them. He couldn’t cross the border; that much was clear. He tried; she could see him straining to move, and she could see the sudden stillness that made his failure clear.

  Her arms and legs were aching now, which she expected, given the magic. What she didn’t expect, as she turned her full attention to the armored giant, was the way her vision began to blur. This was not the time to pass out, and as she’d had some experience with that on her drinking binges with Teela and Tain, she recognized some of the signs.

  But she hadn’t been drinking with the two Barrani Hawks in months; she certainly hadn’t been drinking today. She forced herself to focus, and as she did, the whole of the armored giant snapped into place with a sharp clarity that was so sudden it made her teeth rattle. It wasn’t his size or his shape or the way his blade—which she doubted she could even lift—was drinking in both Shadow and light; it wasn’t the way his armor glowed, or even the way his eyes did—because he had eyes and she could suddenly see them.

  It wasn’t even the movement of his mouth, the way his lips formed a continuing chain of syllables that she couldn’t quite force into words. It was his name. She could see it as clearly as she had ever seen a name before, but for the first time, she actually understood what it was she was seeing. The border that he struggled against was also completely visible to Kaylin as she watched him. It, like his name, had form and shape in a way that it had never had before.

  It was hard to look away, and she could only manage it for a few seconds. But the brief glance the effort afforded made at least one thing clear: the Shadows that crossed the border had no similar words at their heart; they had no substance. Which was a stupid thing to think of creatures that could destroy anything standing in their way.

  Then again, so could tidal waves and earthquakes, and no one tried to reason with them.

  She turned back to the giant, and to the word that was at his heart. The rune itself wasn’t dark, and it wasn’t ugly; it was, just as any other ancient word she’d glimpsed, composed of familiar broad strokes, fine lines, dots, and hatches. Its meaning wasn’t reflected in its visible shape. It wasn’t necessary. She could read it. What she couldn’t easily do was tease meaning out of it, which was what reading was supposed to be about.

  “Kaylin!” Severn shouted. Something was wrong with his voice, although it took her a minute to figure out what it was: it was the only shout she could hear; all the rest of the noise had vanished. The movement of blades, the shouting of indecipherable orders, the crackling of Dragon breath, had suddenly gone mute. She turned—tried to turn—in Severn’s direction, but her legs had locked in place. She couldn’t take her eyes off the rune. Even the form that enclosed it on all sides was now a translucent black with shiny
bits. The weapon that extended from both of the giant’s long arms was the only other part of it that was as solid as the word—but the two weren’t connected.

  She squinted, looking at the sword, in part because she could. There, along the flat of the blade she could see carved—and glowing—runes. They were, like the giant’s name, ancient words. She cursed in Leontine, but the words apparently failed to leave her mouth, because she couldn’t hear them, either.

  What could she hear?

  The movement of a giant. The whistling fall of his sword. The muted movement of Shadow, which sounded like the rustle and gather of fallen, dead leaves in a dry wind. The earth, in the universe her ears now inhabited, was not being broken; the Shadows, in the same universe, weren’t speaking.

  She was still frozen in place, although time hadn’t stopped. She tried to step back, tried—again—to turn, with no effect. Taking a deep breath, she accepted the inevitable and took a step forward. Forward worked. Of course, forward led her to, and not away from, the giant; forward led her to, and not away from, the border. She was momentarily glad that she couldn’t hear anyone else because she was fairly certain at least a handful of people were now shouting choice phrases at her in their native tongues.

  But the border yielded to her in a way that it didn’t yield to the would-be invaders: with ease, and without the necessity of a lot of collateral destruction. The landscape didn’t magically change with the crossing; the colors didn’t return; neither did sound. But the runes developed a texture and a dimension as she approached them, which made the sword look decidedly more unwieldy.

  The giant noticed her only when she was five yards away. His eyes widened slightly, and his sword arm—well, arms, given the overhand swing—stilled. He then turned toward her; the word at his core didn’t shift at all.

  But it wasn’t a complicated word. It wasn’t like the name of the Outcaste Dragon; it wasn’t as immense as the name of a world. Kaylin began, as the giant slowly ambled toward her, to speak it. To speak his name, even though she couldn’t understand what she was saying.

  Speech was now an act of instinct. She wasn’t speaking to make herself heard or to be understood; she wasn’t speaking to communicate. She was buying time, because she had no doubt at all that if the giant reached her, speech would be impossible. Breathing might also be an issue.

  Names in the old tongue had syllables that, in any other language, would compose an entire paragraph’s worth of words. Or a page. Or a book. They couldn’t be spoken quickly in a breathless rush; enunciating them at all was like trying to speak with a mouth full of molasses. It was messy, it took effort, and it was probably unpleasant to watch.

  But as the syllables came, the giant’s steps slowed and faltered, as if he was keeping time to her awkward struggle to speak. To speak, she realized, to him. The giant was, or had once been, a man. Not a human; humans didn’t have names like this at their core. But inasmuch as Dragons and Barrani were alive, he had once been alive.

  His sword was no longer raised above his head; he lowered it, letting one hand fall away. The free hand, he raised in her direction, where it tapered from fist to point. She continued to speak, but as she did, he began to speak, as well. His voice was the low rumble of moving earth—a Dragon’s human voice, but slightly deeper and slightly fuller.

  She couldn’t understand a word of it.

  But even as she thought it, she realized that understanding what he meant to say wasn’t quite the same as understanding its effect: he was trying to tell her his name. He was trying, as she was, to speak the whole of it even as he closed the distance. He was also going to kill her if he could; that was clear. But he knew that if she knew his true name, she could prevent him. This utterance was the whole of his attempt at self-control.

  And he wanted it.

  His desire gave her strength; his speech gave her attempt a more solid foundation. She continued to speak, but as she did, she understood why Mejrah and her companions chanted in unison: she was speaking his name as a harmony to his speech. It was like song, like music, like a chorus of two. It grew louder as she grew more certain; it came faster, because she was no longer struggling to find, to feel, the syllables. Every syllable spoken caused him to lose height.

  When he at last reached her, he was a mere eight feet—or eight and a half—in height, and his blade was no longer so big it could stave in rooftops. And as she spoke what she knew were the last three syllables, the blade fell from his hands, landing on the ground between their feet.

  She looked at him. The armor still girded him, but he was now the size and shape of…of a refugee. He wasn’t young; he might have been older than Severn, but it was hard to tell; if he had a name, he should be immortal.

  At least in this world.

  His hands were shaking as he lifted them and removed his helm. In the dark light of altered vision, the helm shone like polished ebony as it rested in the crook of his arm. His eyes were clear, and they were a shade of gold that looked both familiar and wrong in his face. He spoke again, and this time, she lifted a hand and walked toward him slowly, until she could touch what she could still clearly see: his name, the name he had spoken with her, and by speaking, had given into her keeping. When she touched it, she could hear his voice so clearly it was almost a song.

  “Chosen,” he said softly. “You are Chosen.”

  Kaylin nodded; her arms were glowing so strongly the runes could be seen.

  “But you are not of the People.”

  “Not of your people, no. Do you know where you are?”

  “I am in the heartland,” he replied. It made, of the word heart, something to be dreaded or loathed.

  “Do you know what you were doing?”

  “Yes. I was summoning my forces to do battle against the fortress of…our enemy.” He lifted a mailed hand, and removed, with effort, a gauntlet. His hands were callused and scarred; he lifted them to those startling eyes, dimming them a moment.

  “Call them back.”

  He nodded, and lifted the mailed hand. “I cannot hold them for long,” he told her. “Not as I…am.” He bowed to her then. “I can send them from the border for now.”

  “And what will you do?”

  “I will be called, sooner or later, and I will follow.”

  “You can’t—”

  “Can you give me back my name, Chosen? Can you, when you cannot take it and use it as your own? I would serve you, could you hold me. But the name is not known to you alone.”

  Even as he spoke, she heard the whispers of a distant voice.

  “Maggaron,” she said softly. And then, in the silence of thought, Maggaron. It wasn’t the whole of his name as she’d struggled to pronounce it, but it was the expression of what she’d achieved. Just as Nightshade’s name had been, and was, although this was the first time she understood the fact as fact.

  He smiled; it was a pained, tortured expression. Yes. The mental bond came with the true name.

  Are you alive?

  Is this life? I would not be considered alive by the People.

  Could they cleanse you?

  Ah. No. It is not…an infestation or a contamination of that nature, Chosen. I am used against myself; nothing else is required.

  Kaylin snorted. “You’re not a twenty-foot-tall giant; you didn’t get that on your own. You’ve been living in shadow, in the Shadows, for how long?”

  “What does time signify here?”

  “Spoken like an Immortal,” she snorted. She heard shouting, voices, and one loud roar, as the world suddenly returned; she turned to meet it.

  The road was a mess because it wasn’t really road anymore; there were patches of it that were still glowing an unpleasant orange, and whole new ditches that would kill any horses anyone was stupid enough to drive this far into the fief’s interior. But there were only a few bodies on the ground, and most of those were moving, albeit not without help.

  Morse was bleeding; something had lanced her cheek. She didn’t
appear to notice, and not even Tara fussed over Morse when she decided an injury was beneath contempt. But it was Mejrah’s voice that was clearest, because Mejrah was shouting or crying—or both—as she pointed at Kaylin.

  No, not at Kaylin. At the man who stood before her in his odd armor, his name exposed and held beneath the flat of her open palm.


  “Kaylin.” Tiamaris’s voice was the low rumble of moving earth. “Step back across the border.”

  Kaylin frowned. From where she was standing, she could no longer see it—not that it had ever been all that clear when there wasn’t a small army of Shadows waiting along its edge. “Can I bring him with me?”

  Smoke—a literal stream of it, forcefully expelled—eddied around her feet. Before the fieflord could follow it with words, Mejrah approached Kaylin, her hands lifted and turned palms out as if to imply that she was helpless. She spoke to the armored man, her voice low enough that it broke on syllables.

  The man, still facing Kaylin, moved his head toward the old woman. His expression as he did could have broken stone hearts. Mejrah, however, turned to Kaylin and spoke rapid, agitated words—none of which made any sense. Language lessons had never seemed so profoundly important; unfortunately, no one present was yet expert enough to teach them.

  “What is she saying?” Kaylin asked Maggaron.

  “Can you not understand her words?”

  “I wouldn’t be asking if I could.”

  His brows rose in genuine surprise. “But—you are Chosen.”

  “I can’t walk on water,” she replied tersely. “And you clearly understand her. What did she say?”

  “She wishes to know if what you have done is stable.”

  “Tell her I have no idea.”

  He did. Kaylin was running through Leontine phrases in her mind.

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