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Cast in ruin, p.8
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       Cast in Ruin, p.8

           Michelle Sagara
 

  “She asks if you know who I am.”

  “Tell her—” Kaylin bit back the flippant response. “Does she know who you are?”

  He didn’t repeat the question; instead, he nodded. When he began to speak again—to Mejrah—Kaylin listened. But she listened, if it were possible, with her hands; she listened to the word that she hadn’t released. It was warm, and it was bright; if she looked at it too long it burned itself into her vision, the way the sun could at the wrong height.

  “Ascendant,” Mejrah said. Kaylin could hear two words overlapping each other as the older woman spoke. It wasn’t cacophony, but it was disturbing. “How is it that you come to be here?”

  “Do you not understand? You are here.”

  “We came through the emptiness. We—all of our people that could be gathered—walked the gray space and the hungering void. We are here. But you…” She hesitated.

  “I fell in battle.”

  “Yes. On plains far from these streets and this…city. But even here, the Shadows exist.” This last was said with resignation and bitterness.

  “Yes.”

  “They are not so strong here; the war in these lands has barely begun. We will fight,” she added, her voice a low growl.

  Maggaron’s smile was sharp and brief. He raised an arm in salute.

  But the older woman was not yet done. “We did not think to see Ascendants again. How did you travel here?”

  “I…did not travel here.”

  Mejrah was silent for a long moment. When she spoke again, her voice was harder—but it was also more brittle. “How is it that you command the darkness? How is it that you fight at the behest of our enemy?”

  He flinched and turned away from her—but turned back as if shorn of will. “There is truth,” he finally said, “in the stories of the Ancients. The Shadows spoke my name, and they knew me, and when they bid me follow, I could not disobey for long, although I did struggle. I came, at last, to the heart of the Shadow—and it is the heart of the world, Mejrah. What I have seen—what I have touched—” He fell silent. “I have fallen. But there is beauty and majesty in the Shadows; there is—there could be—freedom.”

  “If you were free,” Kaylin asked, “would you stay in the Shadow?”

  His smile was bitter. “No, Chosen. There is no freedom for me now. What they have, they hold, and they will hold it—”

  “Until they’re destroyed.”

  He shook his head, and his face developed the expression that Kaylin most loathed: pity. “They cannot be destroyed. They are eternal; they live and breathe and move and change. They defy death, just as—”

  “As you do.”

  “No, Chosen. Their will is stronger than any other force they have encountered. They live in the web of the knowledge of worlds, and they feed from it. They move along its strands, and they change whatever they touch. They speak all languages, they can live in any environment. They require no breath, no warmth, no food.”

  “If they were that powerful, all worlds would already be Shadow. All of them. We can fight them. There are people here who are also powerful and ancient.” She was acutely aware she wasn’t one of them.

  He did not speak; instead, he looked toward Tiamaris and Sanabalis. And then, to her great surprise, he bowed. His armor clanked. She wondered, given its weight, if he’d be able to stand up again without teetering, because she doubted she could have. “They are Dragons,” he whispered.

  “Yes.”

  He rose with an enviable ease. “They are the firstborn, and the oldest. Do you not understand what they are?”

  A brief memory of Diarmat’s first class came to mind. It was hard to feel any awe for someone you wanted to strangle so badly. “They’re Dragons,” she said.

  “Kaylin.”

  Kaylin turned to the fieflord. His eyes weren’t orange; they were an unfortunate shade of red. Sanabalis was now standing by Tiamaris’s side; his eyes were orange. And unlidded.

  “I have his name,” she told them. And then, after a pause, “He has one.”

  The two Dragons exchanged a glance. Sanabalis said almost gently, “I do not believe that is possible if he is of the People.”

  “Why?”

  “They are mortal. They age and they die.”

  “So am I, and I have one.”

  The Dragons exchanged a more familiar glance. It was Tiamaris who answered. “And that is, of course, information that is best shouted loudly at the edge of a fief, where Shadows are dominant.” His breath was a plume of bright-colored flame. “Do you hold his name?”

  “Yes. But so do they.”

  “They?”

  Actually, that was a damn good question. She didn’t have an answer, but hazarded one anyway. “The Shadows.” Frowning, she added, “What does happen if more than one person holds a true name?”

  “It depends,” Tiamaris replied. He glanced at Sanabalis, and Kaylin could almost see him passing the question off.

  Sanabalis ran a hand through the long strands of thin beard. “It would depend. Let us assume that you speak of only two entities: yourself, in this case, and the Shadow. If you have opposing goals—and again, we will assume for the sake of simplification, that this is true—you will exert the force of your will upon the name.

  “The name will not break; it is not a physical object. But the man will be pulled in two directions. The best that can be achieved in that case is that he will be rendered immobile and will do nothing.”

  “And the worst?”

  “You sleep. You are easily distracted. You are not accustomed to enforcing your will and your desire upon others. I do not believe any of these three things can be said of your enemy. Kill him, if it is possible for you to do so; leave him, if it is not. If he follows you now—and I believe he will—there is no guarantee that he will not turn upon you, or upon any of us, the moment your will flags.

  “And he will be dangerous then. The power that he can easily reach will be lessened, but he will be able to draw it; he will be a window from the heart of the fiefs into the fief of Tiamaris, and we are already undermined by some Shadow we cannot yet locate.”

  She turned back to Maggaron. He smiled. It was not a happy smile, but unlike most smiles one saw in the fiefs, it wasn’t cruel, either. Bending at the knee, he retrieved the sword that had fallen between them. “Chosen,” he said. “Learn to speak the tongue of the People. Ask Mejrah what the Ascendants are, and how they are born.

  “If I understood the Dragon Lord correctly, you bear a name much like mine, but you are, like the People, a thing of flesh and mortality. Take this. It will serve you well in your coming war.”

  She looked at the runed sword in his hand. It was no longer the greatsword of a giant; it had lost that form and shape when he had lost the same. But at its size it was still something even Severn would have difficulty wielding with any grace; it was a weapon of brute force.

  “Take it, Chosen. Take it, or it will serve me, as it has done.”

  She shook her head. “I can’t—”

  But Mejrah shouted in her ear loudly enough that her teeth were rattling by the end of it. She didn’t need to understand the language of the People to understand exactly what the old woman’s demands were. She wanted Kaylin to take the sword. Kaylin’s sword training was such that she was competent; she doubted she would ever be good.

  And she didn’t doubt, looking at the blade whose runes still glowed, that good was what this sword deserved. But she lifted her hand, and Maggaron placed the sword across her palm hard enough that the blade bit the skin of the single hand she’d lifted; the second was occupied. She wasn’t willing to release him yet, and she therefore kept her hand around his name.

  He shuddered once as the sword left him, and then took a step back.

  Mejrah shouted at him.

  Tiamaris, however, roared at Mejrah, and the old woman stilled. She didn’t, however, shut up; instead, she lowered her voice and spoke quietly to Kaylin. Quiet didn’t have the for
ce of imperative behind it. “What is she saying?” she asked Maggaron. She couldn’t focus clearly enough to pick up the language again.

  His smile was slow and sweet around the edges; it was also sad. He shook his head. “Go with her, Chosen.”

  “Maggaron—”

  “She wishes you to bring me to the People here. I cannot take that risk.”

  “You can’t destroy yourself.”

  “No. But…the Shadows have less purchase here, and I do not think they will send me to the outlands again.” He bowed. “I must go. Can you not hear them?”

  Kaylin frowned. The rune beneath her palm was still warm, but it felt…less solid. “No,” she told him, staring at the hatches and curved strokes beneath her palm. She began to speak the word again, and it gained brilliance, as if her syllables were filling it. His brows rose, and his eyes took on that light.

  “How important is this?” she asked him. “Ask Mejrah.”

  Mejrah replied almost before he’d finished the sentence.

  “She says it is very important, Chosen.”

  Kaylin nodded. “Tiamaris!”

  The Dragon rumbled, his language as unintelligible for the moment as Mejrah’s. “He’s been to the heart of the Shadows; he knows something about them that we don’t—or can’t—know safely. I think it’s worth taking the risk—but it’s not my fief.”

  “Good of you to remember,” the Dragon Lord replied. She couldn’t see what he did next, but she heard steps, and Sanabalis entered her peripheral vision. “How strong is your hold?”

  “I don’t know, Sanabalis. I haven’t fought many wars inside a living person before.”

  “If you aren’t careful, you’ll cut your hand in half,” he observed. He walked past her until he stood like the third point of a very tight triangle, the other two of which were Kaylin and Maggaron. “I am aware of your dislike for magic,” he told her calmly. “Unfortunately, some magic is now required.”

  She nodded. While she couldn’t hear what Maggaron clearly could, she could feel it beneath her hand; the texture of the rune was shifting and changing. Not the word itself—the parts didn’t bend, split, or fold. But it was, once again, losing solidity. She knew that when it became permeable enough, he’d be gone.

  Sanabalis had given her warning. As usual, he had mastered the art of understatement. If she’d plastered her entire body—both sides, bottom of feet and top of head—against the most extreme door ward in the Imperial Palace, it would have tickled in comparison. She bit something—her tongue, her lip—and her mouth filled with the familiar and unpleasant salt of her own blood.

  It was followed by the worst Leontine phrase she knew; it was all she could do not to drop the sword and the damn name simultaneously.

  Sanabalis didn’t seem to be particularly concerned—at least not with her. But he studied Maggaron’s face, and as he did, Maggaron’s eyes began to shift colors in a rapid cycle. She’d never seen anything like it before, and had she, she would have immediately assumed the person possessing those eyes was dangerously insane. But Maggaron’s expression didn’t change at all; he continued to stare at Kaylin. It was very disturbing.

  “Sanabalis,” she said, forcing the syllables through gritted teeth, “is this entirely necessary?”

  “It is.”

  “Will-it-be-over-soon?”

  “Yes.”

  She didn’t even ask him what he was doing because his answer might have prolonged the casting. But her eyes began to water, and her vision began to blur; she saw two or three of Maggaron begin to separate as she watched. The blood in her mouth did not help. People began to speak—shout, cry, babble, and hiss—in a way that destroyed the actual weight of syllables. She bent slightly into her knees to brace herself, and then bent slightly more, because if her legs were too stiff she’d probably topple, and folding usually left fewer bruises.

  She could barely see Maggaron now; she could see—and feel—his name, and she clung to that, tightening her fingers into rigid claws. Unfortunately for Kaylin, her suspicion that the sensation of hand-on-rune was a metaphor that didn’t actually involve her real hands was proved correct. It didn’t hold her up.

  Nothing did; she felt as if she were walking—slowly—through the portal in Castle Nightshade. Or rather, that Sanabalis had uprooted said portal and had dropped it, in one go, on her head.

  Kaylin. The single word was cool and clear, and none of its syllables—all two—clashed with anything else. Even given the source, it was a relief.

  Nightshade?

  Where are you? In Tiamaris.

  You are not in Tiamaris, was his edged reply.

  I am—she stopped. I’m less than ten yards from the border of the fief.

  Return to the fief. Now.

  So much for relief. We have a bit of a situation here, she said as tersely as she could, given that she wasn’t actually speaking any of this aloud. I’m leaving the heartland as soon as Sanabalis stops—

  Stops what?

  Whatever the bleeding hells he’s doing.

  What is he doing? Kaylin—what are you doing?

  I’m falling over.

  Nightshade had never had a sense of humor. He did, however, have a temper. He also had the universal condescending arrogance of the Immortal everywhere. She felt his frustration and his annoyance.

  Tell Lord Sanabalis to stop whatever it is he’s doing. Tell him to stop now. There is a danger.

  She couldn’t even see Sanabalis by this point, and what she’d had of breakfast was threatening to revolt; telling a Dragon Lord—even one as tolerant as Sanabalis—what to do was so far out of the question it hadn’t even occurred as a possibility. The frosty and furious arrogance of the Barrani wasn’t Kaylin’s by birth or inclination.

  She started to think as much—saying it was beyond her—but the flow of defensive thought was interrupted by something a lot less pleasant: thunder and the flash of something that looked like black lightning.

  She heard Nightshade curse, and she understood the meaning. The syllables themselves were—or would have been in any other circumstance—a delight of discovery because they were Barrani, and Barrani, to her knowledge, didn’t have curse words. But delight at that discovery was swamped by the sudden certainty that the danger that Nightshade feared was about to arrive.

  On the heels of Nightshade’s sharp word, she felt the pain and the disorientation recede in a rush, as if someone had pulled the plug. That someone was Sanabalis. As the pain and the visual distortion fled, she felt two things: the physical, full-body trembling that was often the result of portal crossing, and the hair-raising, sharp pain that was also the result of strong magic in such proximity.

  Her hand was somehow still clasped around the broadest of strokes that comprised Maggaron’s name and she blinked rapidly as his multiple wavering images coalesced into a single shape again. She turned, still holding his name, and also holding the sword he had handed into her keeping by the blade, which would have caused any number of sword experts to deafen her in their rush to have her handle it properly. Since it had, in fact, cut her palm, she didn’t require this. She set the blade on the ground, and picked it up again by its hilt.

  It was, of course, in her off-hand, but at this point, it didn’t matter; the hair on the back of her neck was rigid. She was afraid to release Maggaron’s name, and that fear was just a bit stronger than her fear of being unarmed. Adjusting the sword, she turned. Oddly enough, her grip on the name itself didn’t change at all, even though Maggaron was now behind her. She could see the word; she couldn’t see him. This meant something. She wasn’t certain what.

  At the moment, it didn’t matter. She could see a black, amorphous cloud rising—coalescing—in the not-far-enough distance; it was the source of the dark lightning.

  Tiamaris roared a warning in all-out Dragon, and Sanabalis roared back. Before Kaylin could speak—or react—at all, Sanabalis lifted her with ease and leaped toward the border, where Tiamaris and Tara were standing.
The People had pulled back, and huddled more or less behind them. Kaylin noted that Sanabalis had also picked up Mejrah, who was, in theory, too large and cumbersome to be tossed around like a sack of potatoes.

  Maggaron, however, didn’t move. Kaylin tried to shout his name, and then, remembering what she held, thought it instead. Maggaron.

  No, Chosen.

  She cursed him in every language she could—which now included Barrani. Maggaron, cross the border, damn you.

  It is not safe, Chosen—

  It’s not safe to stand there—you don’t understand what that is.

  Of all unexpected things, he laughed. It was a wild roar, just slightly quieter than the Dragons’ normal speaking voices would have been. “I?” he shouted. “I do not understand what that is?” He swept an arm toward the approaching cloud; as Kaylin watched it, she saw that it was eating the ground it passed over.

  His laughter grew wilder, and she heard pain break free of amusement. “It is the Shadowstorm, Chosen. What do you think I was born for? What do you think the Ascendants are?”

  Crazy. She didn’t say the word. And then cursed as his laughter deepened. We don’t have time for this.

  You cannot take the risk of—

  Yes, damn it, I can. She took a deep breath as Sanabalis deposited her more or less on her feet beside the Avatar of the Tower. Tara was glowing. The whole of her form—winged, an echo of Aerians—was made of shining alabaster. But stone or not, she moved; Tiamaris didn’t.

  “Tara,” he said, speaking in sharp Elantran, “do not risk too much.”

  “It is a test,” was the cool reply, “of the boundaries and the area over which my responsibility lies. Kaylin,” she added in a tone of voice that no friendly, itinerant gardener should have been able to use, “bring your follower across the border.”

  “I’m trying. He’s afraid that the Shadow—”

  “I am the Tower. I am the border. Bring him; the responsibility will be on my head.”

  On her head, Kaylin thought, but if she failed—if Maggaron was right—it would be writ in the bodies of the People and the humans who still lived in the fief of Tiamaris. She was willing to take that risk; she’d already attempted to call Maggaron. At Nightshade’s insistence she had done that before—to him—and she had felt his counter.

 
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