White light pierced the darkness twice and the Prikenskrins screamed as their cloaks went up in flames. Ember knew that wouldn’t be enough, and tried to get up, but her body wouldn’t respond.
No, that wasn’t it. It was as if an icy hand had shoved its way into the back of her head and captured her will to move, while a thousand voices whispered soothing words to her soul.
That’s a good girl, Ember. Just lie right there. It will all be over soon. All the pain, all the running. Shhhhhhh.
Here now. This is what you always wanted.
Peace, Ember. Peace. Rest at last.
Sleepy. She felt so tired and sleepy.
That’s it. Why fight? Why live? It’s time to end.
A softer hand stroked her mind. The feeling of a gentle embrace surrounded her and her whole body relaxed.
Yes, the floor was comfortable and she was tired of running.
Lying down was a good idea. The only idea.
Someone was shouting her name.
Shut up. Go away.
“Ember! Get up!”
Immilene. Immilene wanted her to get up.
She’ll be fine. You don’t need to get up. Just stay…
Small hands closed around her arm. Ember rolled her head to the side and saw Immilene staring at her from under the bed.
“What are you doing?” the Tixerie asked.
Ember tried to think. Tried to speak. But her head hurt when she did and the thoughts wouldn’t move.
Immilene tugged on her arm, dragging her a little with surprising strength, then winced.
“Tanirin!” the Tixerie whispered. “Kai!” Immilene started to whisper something in Hahkaht.
The icy hand shivered, then convulsed and slackened. A ripple of pressure traveled along Ember’s skin and voices screamed in anger.
You filthy little slut! I hate you!
Die die die die die!
Ember gasped as her heart began to hammer and terror filled her again. What in Eddenloe was she doing on the floor?
“Under the bed!” Immilene said.
Ember rolled over and crawled under the bed after Immilene, the tiny woman pulling her along until they emerged on the other side. Pressure returned a moment later, like fingers poking into her skin, jabbing her all over.
Give up! Just give up!
As Ember rose, Immilene waved her back into a crouch and brought up her bow with an arrow nocked. The Prikenskrins had thrown their cloaks off and were standing between the women and the door, their obsidian-scaled bodies gleaming in the white light cast by the roaring remains of their clothing. Each had a sidesword in their right hand and a dagger, no, a throwing knife in the left.
Immilene saw the knives, too. She snapped her wings open, blocking Ember’s view with blue iridescence, just as the assassins moved their throwing hands.
Two blades punched through Immilene’s wing level with Ember’s neck, but caught in the membrane and stopped. Ember heard the woman grunt.
Your fault, Ember. They’re hurting her because of you!
Ember almost screamed as the urge to throw herself out from behind her guardian filled her mind. She was such an undeserving, dirty, weakling. A heartless monster with no right to live.
She couldn’t let Immilene die for her!
She fought the urge.
No. She wouldn’t die like that.
Draksl. She was such a dirty, worthless little coward.
A whimper escaped from her.
“Hold it together, Ember. Don’t listen to them, whatever those things are saying.”
Things. Things! The Elder Gods! The Prikenskrins had cursed her!
Ember fought to hear herself. Survive!
She pushed the voices away, crushed the urge to die, and focused on the situation.
Looking around Immilene’s wing she saw the Prikenskrins waiting, with new knives in their hands, assessing. She glanced at the arrow Immilene had nocked and saw that it was another of the flaming ones made for attacking Garagrans. Why Immilene had them was obvious, but in this situation Ember wasn’t going to be bitter.
For you, Ember. Immilene was ready to KILL you!
No. NOT bitter.
The arrow meant a standoff. Without their cloaks, a hit from something that hot would cook the Prikenskrins in their own scales, if it didn’t burn right through.
But Immilene could only get one before they closed. And the other would be next to impossible to kill with a blade.
Prikenskrins were like Garagrans. Neither wanted to die.
The obvious choice was for them to kill Immilene, then her.
Move. Change the equation.
Yes old woman.
Ember opened her mouth to whisper to Immilene.
The voice filled her head and she felt like something had punched her mind from the inside. Her thoughts scattered. More fingers jabbed at her side, stabbing as if forcing their way in. A feeling of pleasure ran up and down her body, ending with a tingling run up her spine that made her want nothing but to lie down. A pair of hands wrapped around her neck and squeezed.
She was not dying here!
She pulled the scattered fragments together, found the words for the Tixerie.
“Shoot one. Fly. Flip bed,” Ember said in rough Hahkaht.
The Prikenskrins moved into throwing position again.
Light exploded on the chest of the one on the left. It screamed in anguish and fell to the ground writhing as white flame bathed it.
Immilene snapped her wings and leapt over the bed.
At the same time Ember rolled under it to the far side, then pushed.
For a moment hundreds of hands pulled her arms to the floor.
Then her strength came and the bed went up… up… over. It landed on its side. Ember grabbed the bottom of the wood frame and pulled back, dragging it toward the corner. Immilene was next to her and threw in her small weight too.
“Window!” Ember yelled.
Immilene left the bed and moved to open the window as Ember pulled the bed into the corner, blockading them in.
“Ember!” a man yelled.
She heard metal on metal, and a sound like rocks slamming into wood… or armored flesh.
Immilene, standing on the windowsill, looked over the side of the bed. Whatever she saw, she decided to join in and leapt over with a snap of her wings. Ember heard more ringing metal and then the clink of chain, a gasp and a thud. She pushed one end of the bed away from the wall so she could look around.
Bethania was there, choking the life out of the second Prikenskrin with what appeared to be two long-handled maces connected at their bases by a chain. The mace shafts gave her plenty of leverage and the assassin had fallen to its knees as it began to pass out. Her calm expression was terrifying in the flickering light from the three white fires, one of them burning in the chest of the first Prikenskrin.
Bethania nodded to Ean, who was standing next to her, and he grabbed one of the mace heads and helped pull the choke tighter.
The Prikenskrin collapsed all the way, and a moment after that it was still. Bethania let go of her end and Ean dropped his as well.
Safe. Alive. Ember gasped in relief.
Whispering surrounded her. The upper half of the room had filled with smoke that wasn’t pouring out the open window quite fast enough, and strange trails began to run through it.
She’s going to get away! We can’t let her get away!
Bring everyone! Everything!
Don’t let her escape the Master!
The lights came back on, smoothing out the harsh glare of the arrow fires and revealing a room that was mostly destroyed.
A moment later, objects flew everywhere. Papers, teacups, chairs, blades, pillows, burning cloth.
“The Tanirin are still here!” Ean yelled.
Ember dodged a book that flew past her head.
An invisible fist slammed into her stomach.
She fell to her knees.
Ghostly hands grabbed her face and forced her chin up. Something drew her eyes to Ean, Bethania, Immilene, and other people who were just pouring in. All of them were dodging objects. Several had linked hands and were singing together against the spirits.
Prey! Do you remember what it felt like to eat their flesh?
Ember remembered the taste of manflesh. The texture of it as it slid down her throat. She remembered running down a young woman. Ending her struggles with a crashing bite. Tearing her to pieces and drinking her blood.
Why do you submit to them? You are GARAGRAN! Kill them and be free!
Anger blazed in her chest. Greatness filled her mind.
She was Rehkskarri! She was more than they would ever be!
She whimpered. She wouldn’t kill them. They loved her.
Filthy coward. Nothing! Just like your mother always said.
She was nothing. Forever nothing.
Nothingness wrapped around her and crushed.
You can’t win, Ember. You always give in to us. Just like you gave in to the Duke as he took you, and you enjoyed it. Just like you gave in and murdered Antan, and sang with pleasure when your mother approved. Just like you gave in and kept quiet when your mother took Leovarn as a lover, and then rejoiced when he betrayed her. Just like you gave in and abandoned your brother, and felt relief even as he burned.
We own you, you selfish little slut.
You even made a contract.
You made a contract, and you’ve been ours from the start.
And that means we know exactly what you are: A selfish, lying, conniving, murdering, betraying, whore. And that’s all you’ll ever be.
Now let us in.
It was true.
It was all true.
That was what she was.
Ember gave in. The voices flooded her.
She looked at the humans. Tiny little morsels. Fit only for food and entertainment. She would…
The objects in the air fell to the ground. The old woman, Bethania, looked right at her.
Kill her. Change and KILL HER.
Hate surged and struggled within her. She fell all the way to the ground and writhed.
Out! Get out!
Tendrils coiled through her flesh, leaving twisting nausea in their wake. Thoughts slid across her mind like the swirling actors of a dance troupe, running hands up and down her insides, recounting every evil ever done to her and telling her she had no hope. Leering faces filled her vision, dark eyes flickering with horrors, tongues glistening with every evil she had ever done, and told her to rejoice in rage.
Madness gibbered in a legion of tones as pain and pleasure began to tear at her at the same time and darkness closed in, chasing away all light.
She was nothing. She was nowhere. She was drowning at the bottom of the sea, forgotten and alone.
Warm hands gripped her cheeks and a woman’s face blazed before her eyes.
“Who will you belong to?”
The words rang, sang, lodged in her brain.
I belong to…Nk’drak’sl! To Nk’drak’sl!
“Who will you belong to?”
I belong to… US! You belong to us!
“Who will you belong to?”
There was a choice?
NO! There IS no choice! We own you! We…
She was on a hill, in the snow, her mother’s rotting corpse beside her. Her own body vibrating with maggots. But the woman’s face still filled her vision. Suddenly there was another blazing face beside hers. A man. She knew him.
They watched her, fear in their eyes.
Fear? For her!
Another face appeared. Immilene!
And another. Trin!
He is speaking! Kill her! Kill her now!
She stared at the faces, at their fear for her so plain.
“Who will you belong to?”
Who was that asking?
She looked beyond them and saw…
A great white bird?
No. A man? With a sword?
No. A horse. With wings? And a horn?
A horn that blazed like the sun, and mane made of rainbow, and wings that whispered songs in a wind she couldn’t feel.
Now! Do it now!
The horse approached, snow melting and fire coming up where he stepped, and pushed between the faces until his nose was touching her chest and all she could see were his eyes.
Ember looked at them, blue as an ocean of tears, and then into them, and further into them, and into the impossible, eternal depths of them, and saw… the whole cosmos spinning in one glorious whole, every color and note and sense and smell, every heart, hating or loving, every hope or dream, every pain and joy, gathered together in a dance set to a song where even discord was woven into the greater harmony, building and falling and building and falling in an agonized, ecstatic crescendo, until out of a sea of sorrows and suffering that burned like fire rose the walls of a glorious city forged and refined in its depths, shining as if all the rainbows to ever promise hope had been mixed with clay and fired into a gemstone kingdom. And all the meek and despondent of the world, the poor and forgotten, poured into it through gates of pearl and drank of a crystal river within, and sang at what had come.
Ember gasped as she saw it, and then gasped again as something cold and hateful curled around her heart and squeezed.
But the eye held her and pulled her even deeper, into the city and along the river, under a tree and before a throne. And on that throne, holding it all together, she saw one man, blazing brighter than the sun. And he had his hand outstretched to her.
And she saw on his hand, two words, written in his blood:
“Who will you belong to?”
She knew now that it was the horse speaking.
She tried to respond, but her mouth wouldn’t open and her tongue wouldn’t move. The hatred was there too, holding it still. She whimpered in desperation.
The hatred heard and squeezed harder. Her heart slowed.
The horse heard and breathed fire into her mouth.
The hatred left and put its all into her chest.
Agony filled her and her vision began to darken again.
Her heart stopped beating.
But her tongue was free.
“I renounce Nk’drak’sil,” she whispered. “I make contract with Yahsaw. All of me for all of him.”
The horse nodded and lowered the tip of his horn to her chest.
She braced herself. He rammed it home.
All that Ember knew exploded in fire and light.