Authors: Karen Miller
Tags: #Fantasy, #Epic, #Magic, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction
Asher followed them out, and didn’t look back.
Trapped in his prison of spoiled and spoiling flesh, Morg screams and screams. Wherever he is, he is not alone. There are voices somewhere close, nearby, but they click-clack on the edge of hearing and he cannot reach them or understand what they say. Struggling like a spider tangled in its own web he battles to make sense of this new reality.
Durm’s body is broken and bleeding. Only his own indomitable will keeps the fat fool’s flesh alive, his spirit from oblivion. The sluggish blood is soaked in drugs, enveloping and deadening and holding him fast, but still he is assaulted by pain. It is centuries since last he felt such a sensation. It is insulting. His predicament is insulting.
He is Morg, far beyond the pettiness of physicality in all its incarnations, yet he is caught. Against every expectation, and in the face of all his power, he is bound to this lump of sundered meat. Shackled to its fate. Slave to its destiny. If Durm dies, he dies.
The shock is enough to threaten his reason.
How can this be? he wails. I am Morg! I am invincible!
Death, his bitter and once-beaten enemy, is laughing at him. Waiting in the shadows and laughing. It rubs its greedy hands with glee as it waits for the fat fool’s body to die. For the spell to fail, and so release Morg’s spirit to destruction.
No, cries Morg. You have not won. I will not die. I am Morg and my name means victory! You cannot defeat me. You will never defeat me. There is a way. There has to be a way. Am I not immortal? Immortal beings cannot die! I cannot die!
Yes, you can, says Death. In this place and time, you can.
Morg knows Death speaks the truth, and despairs. For the first time in centuries, he is desperate. Faced with circumstances he did not create and cannot control. For the first time in centuries, he feels fear. The damage done to this borrowed body is dire. Even with his vast powers it still might plunge into Death’s greedy abyss, taking him with it.
And if not—if he does manage to keep the fat fool alive—what if Durm is permanently crippled? His faculties deranged? If the pothers cannot mend this broken frame it will be no use at all. What then? Will he be forced to endure eternity inside Durm’s ruined body?
Morg howls at the thought, twisting and turning and beating the bars of his cage. Durm’s sickly flesh rebels at his fury. The failing heart fails further, and the laboring lungs deflate. Panicked, Morg abandons profitless emotion and focuses his will. Beat, heart! Breathe, lungs!
Resentfully, dying Durm obeys him.
Morg reflects. He is in this place for one reason only: to tear down Barl’s Wall in all its golden glory and grind her treacherous heart’s descendants into the dirt so he might claim the last square inches of the world for his own. To do that, he needs a host. And if Durm can no longer serve that purpose, he must find another host who can.
Another host. ..
He has no idea if such a transfer is even possible.
I will make it possible, vows Morg. I am limitless, and I will finish what I started. After that, fat Durm can die, and welcome. Along with all his friends.
Time marches, and with it the events he has set in motion. Soon the black toad magic planted within the cripple’s mind will warp, and shrivel, and die. He must be there to see it. He must be alive to savor the moment, nectar on the tongue, and birth the bloody days that will usher in the end of the world as these, poor fools have known it.
I am Morg, he sighs. Immortal and invincible. I feel no pain. I feel no fear. Reaching out his mind, he wraps the fraying thread of Durm’s life around his fisted intellect and bends his will towards eternity.
Live, Durm, he croons into the echoing spaces around him. Live, fat fool. For I am Morg, and Vm not done with you yet.
Matt sighed, then stretched his back. It had taken far longer than he’d thought, but at last the injured colt was plucked free of splinters, sticky with ointments and drowsing in the deep straw of its stable. Finally done with physicking he smoothed his hand down an unspoiled length of dappled gray neck, then leaned against the nearest wall. He was alone now, and waiting, all the lads dismissed for the night. It was just him and his horses, the way he liked it best. The colt flicked its ears at him and he stroked it again, seeking comfort in the warmth of living flesh beneath his hand.
Pushed far away where he couldn’t feel it, pain lurked like a wolf in the woods. All the royal family save Gar was dead, and tomorrow the City would wake to a world unimagined. What this meant for him and Dathne, for Veira and the rest of the Circle, for Gar, for Asher, he had no idea. He was too tired now to think of it. Too tired, and too afraid. The shadows in his life had crept much closer, were touching him now with chilly darkness and surprise. He’d been looking for them, and still they’d caught him unawares.
Silence settled inside the stable and out. Matt closed his eyes and let himself settle with it. Let himself breathe, just breathe, and sought out the subtle shift and sway of the energies swirling invisible through the night air. Unfurled his gift and asked it to taste the flux and flow of magics in the world.
Something was different. Something was … missing.
Frowning, he tried to pin down the sensation. What was its cause? Not death, though the death of King Borne was momentous. Powerful Doranen had died before now and he’d not detected any great change in the world. The silence their passing created was soon smothered by the voices left behind.
No. This had something to do with the other change he’d felt. The one that had stood the hair on the back of his neck in a kind of creeping horror the first time he’d noticed it. The one he couldn’t begin to explain, to Dathne or himself. A single discordant note in the choir of Lur’s magic, thin and sharp and sour. Poison, to a man with his knack of feeling the world.
That note had fallen silent. After weeks of hearing its soft, malevolent voice he’d almost grown accustomed; its sudden absence now sounded louder than a shout.
Why had it disappeared, as abruptly as first it arrived? Entirely disconcerted, he stretched his senses to their limits in an effort to find the answer.
An edgily amused voice said, “You look like a man sniffing milk to see if it’s gone off.”
Matt sighed and opened his eyes. “Dathne.”
Small and straight in the stable doorway, her head and shoulders covered in a green wool shawl, she raised her eyebrows. “Your call through the crystal sounded shrill. What’s happened?”
The colt stirred, disquieted by their voices. Matt soothed it with a touch and a murmured reassurance then eased his way out of the stable. The lamplit yard was hushed, just the normal sounds of horses in their beds and owls in the surrounding trees, hooting. His lads were upstairs in their dormitory, sleeping or playing cards. It was safe to talk.
Even so, he kept his voice down. “Borne’s dead. The queen, too. And Fane. Durm as good as, and might not last the night.”
Shocked silence. In her face a wealth of surprise, which meant she hadn’t dreamed this. Strangely, he was comforted. If she’d known and kept it from him …
“Jervale defend us,” she said at last, her voice a fervent whisper.
“And what of Gar?”
“He’s injured too. But in no danger.”
She seemed unable to grasp the enormity of it. He was having some trouble there himself. She said, still stunned, “They’re dead? You’re certain?”
He shrugged. “Asher is. He saw them for himself and told me.”’
saw… ?” Her thin face blanched. “He was there? Involved? Is he injured? Is he—”
He put a hand on her shoulder to calm her. “He’s fine.”
She shook her head. Tugged her shawl tight. ‘Tell me everything.”
When he was finished she stepped closer, her face flushed with angry color, and shoved him hard in the chest. “You
What were you thinking, letting him do anything so rash, so dangerous? Climbing into Salbert’s Eyrie? That’s madness! What if he’d fallen? What if he was lying there dead like the rest of them? What then?”
He caught her hands as she lifted them to shove him a second time. “I tried to stop him. But he was determined and I had no good reason to keep on arguing. Not one I could share. You bade me hold my tongue, remember?”
She pulled free. “So it’s my fault? Why didn’t you go climbing down there yourself?”
“I offered to but he wouldn’t listen. Dathne, why are we fighting? He isn’t dead.”
“No, but he could be! You had no right to risk him!”
“And you haven’t risked him?” he retorted. “By not telling him what he should know of himself? And that business with the fireworks and Ballodair the day we first met, you don’t think
was risking him?”
“That was different and you know it. I had to put him in the prince’s way, I had to get him into the Usurper’s House!”
“And I had to let him see if any of the royal family were left alive,” he said. “Or risk stirring his suspicions. Asher was beside himself, Dath. Ready to go right through me. What would you have done if you’d been there instead of me?”
Furious, resenting his logic, she glared up into his impatient face. Then, without warning, her hot gaze shifted. Focused somewhere behind him. Melted into relief and sorrow and something else. Something he didn’t want or dare to think about.
He turned, knowing already who it was he’d see. Asher. Trailing into the yard like a man at the end of a week’s marching over unforgiving ground.
He heard her gasp. Stepped aside and watched her go to him. Stand before him, thin and worn with worry. “Matt’s told me,” she said. “Are you all right?”
The question seemed to surprise Asher, as though the last thing he expected was concern for himself. He shrugged. “Aye.”
“And the prince?”
“He’ll live. I’ve put him to bed up in the Tower.”
“Praise Barl.” She looked at her feet, and then into his face. “And it’s true? They’re really dead?”
“Aye,” he said again. “They’re really dead.”
As though speaking the words out loud were some kind of catalyst, his stolid composure fractured. His face crumpled, lost years, became the face of a boy in unbearable pain. Matt felt his own face twist in sympathy.
Dathne held out her arms and welcomed Asher to her breast. He went to her gladly, fiercely, holding her like a man in fear of falling. Her holding of him was no less desperate.
The sight of their embrace sank Matt’s untouched heart, and roused a host of fears. Dathne’s face was hidden from him, and he was glad, because he could see Asher’s … and it told him everything he needed to know. More than ever he’d wanted.
“Jervale have mercy,” he said aloud … but softly, so they wouldn’t hear him. “Please. And then tell me what to do now.”
Asher woke the following morning fully clothed and sprawled facedown across his bed. For long moments he just lay there, groping for his bearings. His head felt heavy, wooden, and his mouth tasted like barnacle scrapings. His hair was tacky with dried sweat, making his scalp itch. There was dirt under his chipped fingernails. Dirt on his shirt sleeves too, along with dried blood. His back ached, and his shoulders, and his hands were scabbed with cuts. What the—
And then a wave of memory crashed over him, tumultuous with fragmented images.
Borne. Dana. Fane. The dead brown carriage horse. Gar’s face. Dathne …
He groaned, rolling over to stare at his pale blue bedchamber ceiling. Groaned again as muttering pains roused to a roar. Everything hurt. The room tip-tilted about him and he clutched at his blankets, waiting for it to steady right side up so he could think more clearly.
After the stables, and Dathne—
the way she’d held him, soothed him, the warmth of her hand against his cheek and the tickling rush of her breath across his skin
—he’d staggered back to the Tower. Gar had demanded to be left alone, insisting he was all right, but he’d wanted to make sure. Nobody could lose their entire family in one blow and still be all right, not even a man as habitually cool and self-contained as the Prince of Lur.
But Gar had locked his suite’s main doors and wouldn’t answer no matter how hard the bell rope was pulled or how loudly the carved wood was banged upon. Truth be told, he’d not been sorry. He’d had his fill of grief for one night.
So he’d gone all the way downstairs and underground to the deserted Tower kitchen and filled his empty belly with this and that from the cook’s precious pantry. Then he’d staggered up to his room, intending to sit a while and try to think this calamity through. Unravel all its implications and decide what it might mean, to himself and the kingdom.
Instead, he must have fallen asleep.
No reason to feel guilty, he told himself sternly. The dead were dead. The living still had to sleep, didn’t they? Aye, and eat and work and fight and love …
Pushing the thought of her aside, because he didn’t begin to know what last night might mean and lacked the energy right now to untangle the puzzle, he sat up. Swung his still-booted feet to the floor, twitched open the bedside window’s curtain and looked outside.
It was late. Maybe half-nine. From this high up he could just make out the tail end of the morning’s second exercise string: six immaculate horses heading out from the stables towards Spindly Copse. Looked like Willem bringing up the rear; the boy always Liked to ride Sunburst, and he’d know the chestnut colt’s broad backside anywhere.
In his imagination he heard the stable lads’ laughter and scoffing catcalls as they rode out to the Copse, and was greenly envious. Lucky bastards. What he wouldn’t give to be one of them again, far from the glare of public service and the intimacy of lives shattered by disaster.