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Cast in ruin, p.9
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       Cast in Ruin, p.9

           Michelle Sagara
 

  No; it wasn’t the same. She had called. She hadn’t commanded.

  She’d never truly attempted to impose her will on Maggaron in a way that she didn’t try to force it on anyone else in her life—by shouting, pleading, swearing, cajoling, even demanding. What the name gave her meant that she could do more.

  Would she? If he stood in the streets in the path of a storm that could—if the Dragons were right—literally unmake, re-make, or worse—everything that he was, could she force him to do what she desired?

  Maggaron!

  He didn’t, and wouldn’t, move. Everyone was shouting now. Mejrah, in Kaylin’s ear, as if volume could compensate for lack of comprehension. Tiamaris was roaring, and if it wasn’t in her ear, he was less than ten feet away, so it had the same effect.

  Swallowing air and strengthening resolve, Kaylin looked at Maggaron, and his name flashed like lightning or gold. Yes, she thought grimly. Yes, I would. He had given her the ability.

  His folly gave her the right. She called his name as if his name were part of her, and she pulled him, focusing all her will on the simple act of motion: his.

  It hurt her. It hurt, and she almost stopped. But Maggaron had moved, taking drunken steps toward Kaylin—and, more important, away from the moving cloud.

  She heard Nightshade’s chuckle as she hesitated. Do you think that power is taken—or practiced—free of cost, little one?

  Since the answer was more or less yes, and since he now already knew it, she didn’t reply. Instead, she looked at Maggaron and said, Don’t make me do this. Please.

  She could see his eyes so clearly they might have been inches from her face. If you cannot do even this, Chosen, how will you protect them from me, should the time come?

  Damn you, she thought, hating him for testing her this way. Damn it, if it comes down to their lives, I can. But this isn’t their lives—it’s yours. Maggaron, please.

  She felt his laughter; it was sharp and unkind. But he wasn’t wholly unkind; he did as she all but begged. He walked—quickly—toward where she now stood, his name in her hand. She grimaced, and then, as if letting go of a security blanket, she removed her hand from the rune; it remained in her vision, something Nightshade’s name had never done.

  Kaylin, Nightshade said. He, too, was laughing. You are far too weak for the power you have been granted. But you will learn.

  The first thing Tiamaris did was order a retreat from the edge of the border. Everyone obeyed—and given he spoke Dragon, Kaylin was surprised that the People understood his command. Then again, she didn’t understand Dragon, either, and she had. Severn was waiting—always, and in his usual grim silence.

  But Severn wasn’t looking at Maggaron, although the rest of the People sure as hells were. He was looking at Kaylin. More accurately, he was looking at the sword in her hand. She glanced at it, and her gaze stuck. It had changed shape. The blade was shorter—not long-knife short, but short-sword short; the hilt was practical and almost unadorned. It was straight and it looked—to her eyes—like a normal weapon, except for the obvious runes along the flat.

  Her first thought was, I broke it.

  Her second thought was, on the other hand, Maggaron. He was watching her, his eyes a flat shade between blue and brown. “Your enemies will not hesitate to do what you could not do.”

  “If I have to do it, I’ll do it.”

  To say he looked dubious was an understatement. She started to speak, and stopped as Tara touched her shoulder.

  “Kaylin,” the Avatar said. “Come.”

  “Where?”

  In answer, Tara led her to the edge of the border, which had once again become an invisible, theoretical line across the ground. The storm that she had seen so clearly was still moving, and it moved toward where the People had gathered. Kaylin tried to see not the cloud itself, but what its passage left behind; she couldn’t. The billowing darkness was too dense.

  “What are you doing?” she asked Tara.

  “Containing the storm,” was the reply. “There is a reason that the Shadowstorms do not leave the fiefs.”

  “Wait—are you always aware of the storms?”

  “No. Not always. But even were I not sensitive to their proximity, I could hardly fail to notice this one.” She lifted her arms. Her wings spread and their tips rose, framing her. They also almost knocked Kaylin off her feet.

  “Watch,” Tara said as Kaylin adjusted both her stance and her distance.

  “Watch what?”

  “The storm. I do not see as you see, Chosen. I see as a Tower sees. Watch. My Lord watches, as well.”

  “Not at a very safe distance.”

  “He is behind the border. The storm will not pass me.”

  CHAPTER 6

  The storm drew closer. Kaylin took an involuntary step back, and felt Severn’s hand on her shoulder, steadying her. She smiled; he couldn’t see it, but it didn’t matter; he could feel the hand she lifted and placed over his. The clouds were thick and as they approached, the darkness revealed itself as a gray-green haze. They looked like thunderclouds to Kaylin, although she’d never seen them this close before.

  But thunderclouds moving at a distance were impersonal; only the lightning they shed was a danger. These clouds, similar in color, contained a more immediate threat. She had seen the Devourer as a void or a spreading darkness; she saw these clouds as something entirely different. Their moving folds hinted at shapes—both familiar and new—breaking and distorting them before Kaylin could fully catch or name them.

  She heard Dragon conversation, but at a remove, as if it were thunder.

  Which was strange. She realized this storm and its clouds were silent. Shapes continued to unfurl as they approached Tara, blocking out sunlight and shadowing her white visage. White, pale, it was as giving as stone.

  Stone could tell a story if one understood its cracks and the way it wore over time. But this stone was new. Kaylin thought, watching Tara, that it hadn’t yet been tested. Or maybe it had, and it had faltered once. As if she could hear the thought, Tara tensed and her wings flexed.

  The clouds hit then.

  All sense that they had anything in common with the storms that occasionally covered the city skies vanished; they battered the air above and in front of the Avatar, stretching and thinning as they did. Stretched and thin, they were blacker, darker; they lost the tantalizing hint of moving forms, and for a moment, became two large hands, fingers pressed and curved against nothing.

  The storm roared, as if it were a disembodied dragon; there was both agony and fury in the sound. Through it all, Tara stood like a wall, lifting her chin as she gazed into its heart in defiance.

  The heart of the storm gazed back. Kaylin could see its eyes, disembodied but visceral, present. She could see a mouth, made of dense shadow, forming words that she couldn’t understand but could almost see.

  Tara’s response was clearer; it was more solid. Seen more than heard, runes filled the space between the two: Tower and destroyer. The ground beneath the Tower’s feet shifted, cobbles melting and reforming over and over again as the storm sought purchase and Tara defied it. Denied ground, it rose, warping the heavens. Above the storm the sky became what opals might have been if they had been truly repulsive. And cold.

  Lightning sheared stone, but this lightning, from that sky, wasn’t a flash of white: it was a lance of many colors and those colors bled, like chaos, into the ground itself, defining the hard line of the border in a way that nothing else had. Where the Tower’s Avatar stood, the known, the reliable, held sway; where the storm raged, nothing did.

  Kaylin looked toward Sanabalis, who hadn’t yet gone Dragon, although his eyes were almost red, and his nostrils—in human form—were flared. He’d also managed to singe his beard, something she’d’ve bet was impossible. “Sanabalis, is this—”

  He lifted a hand, swatting her words to one side. Given the color of his eyes, she let them go, and turned, reluctantly, back to the storm. It was screaming.
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  Severn caught her wrist and yanked her around, stepping to the side to avoid the flailing edge of the sword she hadn’t dropped. He pulled her into his arms, her back to his chest, and held her tightly, lowering his jaw until it rested close to her right ear. She knew he was speaking. But she felt his words as a tickle of breath and a sensation; she couldn’t hear anything but the sound of the storm itself.

  The storm and her own answering cries.

  She wanted to run to it. To run into it. Hadn’t she done that once, already? Maybe this time, maybe this time, she could travel back to the night that Steffi and Jade had died. And this time, she would be armed. This time she wasn’t thirteen. This time she knew what would happen. She could change it. She could unmake it. She could do what she’d failed to do then.

  She swallowed her screams, opened her eyes, forced herself to look.

  Why doesn’t it affect you the same way? she asked Severn in the silence and privacy she almost never used.

  I’m not you. She felt his smile. It’s almost passed, he added, and she opened eyes that she hadn’t realized she’d closed. The sky was still the wrong color above the angry mass of darkness, but the darkness itself was dissipating, and its screams had faded into attenuated cries that still broke the heart.

  She preferred multi-eyed demonic heads with obsidian claws and mouths in their butt ends.

  “When will the sky return to normal?” she asked as Severn released her almost reluctantly and stepped back.

  “Normal?” Tara lifted her head, her eyes narrowing briefly. “Ah. Not, I think, anytime soon. It is…a statement, Kaylin.”

  “Of what?”

  “The sky is…off limits? Is that you how say it?”

  Kaylin nodded.

  “The sky is off limits for my Lord, should he choose to attempt to cross the border in that fashion.”

  “What will happen to him if he does?”

  “No one can say. But we can be certain that something will.”

  Kaylin hesitated, and then said, “The Shadows aren’t fond of the storm, either.”

  Tara frowned, and then inclined her head, lowering her wings and folding them across her back. Silence descended, and as it did, the wings folded themselves into the shades of brown that were the Avatar’s gardening clothing. It was a surprisingly effective indication that the conflict—and its inherent danger—was over. “No,” she told Kaylin, her gaze still fixed at a point beyond her own borders, “they are not.”

  “Then you don’t know for certain what might happen.”

  “No. We know only that there is change, and it is neither predictable nor, in the end, desired by those who have been changed. Our history is…incomplete.”

  “But I came to you, at your awakening.”

  “Yes.” Tara still spoke in a voice better suited to the height of cold stone fortification than the gardening clothes she wore.

  “And I came through the storm.”

  “No.”

  “But Tiamaris called it—”

  “He was incorrect.”

  “Does he know he was wrong?”

  “Yes. The borders and their defense are the reason I was…born. They are not, however, the sole reason I was reborn. I want this life,” she added, and as she did, her voice softened, and her eyes lost the hard flint of steel. She now looked exhausted. “We’ve discussed this at length. My Lord felt that the storm—that what he had identified as storm—had not only proved fortuitous, but, in some fashion, benevolent.”

  This stretched Kaylin’s strict definition of benevolent, although she couldn’t argue with the eventual outcome.

  “He thus argued that the storms themselves ultimately had some greater purpose, and that some faith or trust might be placed in them. He is willing to risk much,” she added, voice soft, expression pensive. Then she shook herself, reminding Kaylin very much of one of the women who worked three days a week in the office as she did—which wasn’t generally something she thought of when she thought of ancient, god-touched edifices.

  “You know it wasn’t a storm.”

  “Yes.”

  “But in shape—”

  “And in look, yes. There were reasons that my Lord made his assumption, Kaylin. This,” she said, pointing to the now empty and still air in front of her, “was a storm. Can you see the difference?”

  The urge to be humorous came and went. “Yes,” Kaylin replied. She did so slowly enough that Tara raised a single impatient brow. “The first storm we encountered had no voice.”

  “Voice?”

  “You couldn’t hear this one? It was screaming, Tara.”

  “I told you, Chosen; I do not perceive Shadow the way you perceive it.” Her eyes closed for a few seconds. “Nor does my Lord.”

  Morse joined Tara. The former fieflord’s lieutenant had taken one new gash across her forearm, which had destroyed padding but had managed to break very little skin.

  “So,” Kaylin asked her, “this happen often?”

  “Every other day.”

  Tara frowned. “Morse, it doesn’t happen every other—”

  “Figure of speech,” Morse broke in quickly. Kaylin stifled even the hint of a smile. “Believe it or not, it’s better than it was before the fieflord.”

  “The—oh, you mean Tiamaris.”

  “I don’t mean Barren.” Morse spit.

  Tara watched her covertly, as if fascinated by the gesture, and then turned back to Kaylin.

  “I understood what Morse meant,” Kaylin said quickly. “These border attacks happen frequently.” She glanced at the People.

  Tara frowned. “Illien is still within my Tower, as my Lord’s guest. I remember Illien, and I remember the feel of the borders of his domain before…I could no longer sense them. You can cross the border,” she added. “And at the moment, it is safe; the storm has driven the Shadows from them, and they will return slowly, if at all today. I do not think you will notice the difference, if you travel farther up the road; the road here has been destroyed by the storm, and it will be a while before it once again looks like the other half of a street, at least to mortal vision.”

  “It’ll—it’ll go back to what it once was?”

  “Yes.”

  “The fief’s streets didn’t. And the buildings that were half consumed or transformed by Shadows—those didn’t, either.”

  “No. That is one of the differences between the Shadowlands and your own. Your lands—my Lord’s lands—are solid; they exist.

  “The Shadowlands are more malleable; they do not take scars in the same way. Where Shadows are strong, the landscape on that side of the border will respond to the weight of its call, the force of its power. The buildings will shift and change, growing or sinking or fading; the streets will become molten pools or gaping pits. But when the Shadow passes, so does the changes it made. “Were I to likewise make such drastic changes in the geography of my fief, when the battle was over, what would remain would be those destroyed buildings, the molten rock, and the fissures.”

  “Can I ask how you know this?”

  Tara raised a brow. “The knowledge was built into me,” she finally replied. “And when I close my eyes, I can see the dim and faded image of ancient battles; I can hear their attenuated battle cries.” She smiled then, and it was an almost bitter smile. “I am not what you are, Kaylin. Why do you need to know?”

  Kaylin shook her head. “I want to know—which is different from need—because it’s always a good idea to have as much knowledge of your enemy as possible. It’d be better if any of it made any sense.” Saying this, she lifted the sword that was still, against all odds, in her hands. “Take this, for instance. I would swear it was a greatsword meant for a giant when I first laid eyes on it.”

  Tara said nothing.

  “…please don’t tell me you recognize this weapon.”

  “I do not recognize the weapon,” was the Tower’s reply. It was evasive, and honestly? While Tara had learned many things about interacting with
people, she wasn’t actually good at some of them. Which, given she could take you apart and find her way—with ease—to the darkest and most painful of your memories, said something. Kaylin, at this moment, wasn’t sure what.

  “What do the runes on the blade say?”

  “Runes?” The Tower frowned. Glancing at Tiamaris, who was now waiting, wings folded, in the still streets, she said, “My Lord, I believe the danger has passed for the moment. May we retire?”

  His eyes shifted color. “You are injured?”

  “No! No. But the storms are tiring.”

  “I will remain. Morse!”

  Morse nodded. It wouldn’t pass muster as respectful anywhere but the fiefs, but since that’s where they were standing, it worked. “You want me to keep watch on the construction?”

  “The People are here. Escort the Lady home.”

  Tara pointed at Maggaron, and Tiamaris’s brows constricted; they were silent for a long moment, but at length, he nodded.

  The Lady’s escort was not confined to Morse; Kaylin and Severn traveled with her, at her request, Maggaron walking to their left in subdued silence. Subdued or no, he still wore armor, and he was still eight feet–plus in height; he cleared streets just by existing.

  Lord Sanabalis, however, remained—in human form—at the side of his former student. His gaze flickered rapidly over the sword in Kaylin’s hands, but he chose not to say a word. Loudly, and with an expression that implied that all the words he held in abeyance would be put to better use later.

  The border streets grew smaller as they walked, and the streets themselves were, not surprisingly, empty of anyone that wasn’t about eight feet tall. Even the children of the new arrivals remained out of sight. Morse, in the absence of Tiamaris, relaxed. She didn’t so much walk as move while slouching.

  “So. This happens a lot?” Kaylin asked, picking up the strands of their previous conversation, if it could be called that.

 
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