Aprelle 12, 1543
The day the Dawngate opened
The sky over the mountains was cut from fire.
Scraps of smoke whirled and twisted away on the hot wind. The overcast pulsed crimson and copper, a mirror of the valley below. The chalky green river steamed in the heat, choked and foaming with fire-blackened debris. As he watched, a building crumbled, spitting flames skyward, dust and ruin rolling and tumbling across cobblestones. The ring and clatter of metal on metal echoed from the alleys. Cries of suffering came from somewhere; panting, flooded sobs begging incomprehensibly for death or mercy. It was impossible to tell which.
He tried to take a step forward, but found he couldn’t move. He tried to speak, to ask the Spirit where he was, but his mouth wouldn’t work.
There were shapes running through the ruins. He squinted, but they were blurring, indistinct, lost in the haze. Figures chased by the shadows of… dogs? Wolves? As he watched, a man – or at least a figure in trousers – stumbled and fell. Others turned, but fled before the bounding shadows. Some of them swarmed over the fallen figure, and the shrieks went on far too long. The rest continued after the fleeing crowd.
The ringing of metal grew louder. Raina staggered backwards from a side street, grunting with exertion. He boggled. She was clad like a warrior, in battered blue and gold armor decorated with owl motifs. She straightened, tossed singed copper hair back, and held up her left arm. Slabs of twisted metal whirled in on her like a murder of crows, and he was flooded by the useless, helpless need to shout a warning. But the plates assembled into the shape of a kite shield, floating before her. They were black with ash, bent and warped from blows.
A thunder-crack reverberated from between the buildings. In the span of a heartbeat, Raina’s shadow lengthened, deepened, cut into the earth. With a rush of wind, a woman appeared at her back, wearing a mask forged from dark metal, cast in the shape of a bat’s head. Only her mouth was visible. She bared her teeth and swung… nothing. A hole in the air. An absence of light, clinging to her stained fist.
Raina had begun to move when the thunder broke, spinning, her makeshift shield reorienting and hurling itself through the air towards her attacker.
The other woman disappeared in mid-swing. The thunder-crack came again, as dust flew in towards the place she’d stood. The shadows behind Raina ate the ground again, and the woman was back, dark gown snapping behind her as she drove in towards his sister.
And she folded around the warhammer that Raina had thrown behind herself, blind. The breath exploded from her as she was thrown back.
Crack. A puff of dust.
The hammer thudded to the ground, skidded into the wall of a building.
The shadows gnawed at the world again, and Raina had nothing left to throw.
He couldn’t scream. There was no air here.
She turned to meet her murderer.
The masked woman viciously buried her nothing-blade between the seams of Raina’s armor, teeth bared, pressing until the tip of it was visible again.
“I got you,” she cooed, playfully.
Blood ran from the corner of Raina’s mouth, tears from her eyes.
Raina’s killer twisted her strange weapon. Raina shuddered and cried out. She ripped it free, and his sister fell limp to the ground. The woman’s blade vanished as if it had never been, the blood that had marked its place in the air spattering the ground.
“Aw. The pretty princess got hurt.” The masked woman laughed strangely, holding an arm across her hammer-bruised chest, see-sawing between contempt and hysteria. “There’s no second chance here. You’re dead.”
Raina lay crumpled on the ground, sinking into an ocean of shining crimson. She reached up with one stained hand, lips moving.
“You have something to tell me?” the woman smirked. She knelt beside Raina, the violet hem of her dark gown setting ripples in the blood.
Raina smiled up at her, fresh tears tracing across her dirt-stained cheeks. She whispered something.
The masked woman stiffened. “No,” she said. Her lips pulled back from her teeth, her fingers curled into claws. She grabbed Raina and shook her like a limp doll. “Don’t you dare say that now. You hate me. Say it! You’re supposed to end me, you stupid bitch,” she spat. “You ruined everything!”
Raina slid a hand under the mask, lifting it clear. Dark hair streamed in the ash-clad wind. Cheeks the color of bitter snow. Eyes once dark as a sleepover confidence, now stained lurid fuchsia.
Raina touched Kindra’s face, softly caressed the curve of her pale cheek. Faint words bubbled from her torn throat. She shuddered, coughed a spatter of blood, and eased away in the other woman’s arms.
Kindra shook her head in confusion, dropping the copper-haired corpse roughly to the cracked stones. “What?” she said, to no one at all, and touched her own eyes.
She stared at her fingers as if they belonged to someone else. “No,” she said, scrabbling back away from the corpse, frantically swiping at her wet cheeks. “No no no. This isn’t. I’m not. No.”
She shuddered, staggered, and folded in half, clutching her stomach as she fell to her knees. “No,” she said, her breath ragged and rapid in the howl of the wind. “I don’t care. I don’t care.” A single sob escaped her gritted teeth. “I said I don’t care!” she yelled to the empty street, punching the smashed cobblestones with bloody knuckles.
The flood burst from her all at once. The keening of a little girl woken by thunder; high, desperate, wordless wails, echoing from an empty house. “No stars,” she said, and balled her fists in her own stomach. “There are no more stars.”
The shadows erupted from her arms, and tore her in half.
Zalgus was back on the bed, gasping, arms too numb to clear his blurry eyes. “Why?” he said, high and uneven. “Why will it end like that?”
A pair of leaves blew in from between the shutters. He blinked. His chambers were far above the trees.
The Spirit pulled itself aside, seeming to contract. It hissed quietly, dark eyes contracting, and the room filled with a profusion of gentle breezes, pulling this way and that, guttering the candles. The leaves fluttered about, tossed up and down, left and right. At first, they flew together, one after the other. As time passed, they drifted further apart, pulled by different winds.
The first leaf touched the flame of the candles. It fell to the desk, curling in on itself, consumed.
The second leaf alighted on the swan down comforter beside him, trembling in the slackening breezes.
He looked back up, and had no time to gasp at the sudden immensity of the Spirit’s staring eye before the room collapsed into darkness again.
He was back under the charred sky.
The smoke still rose over the valley, boiling up in dark columns to meet the bloody, glowering overcast. The river still frothed over and around piles of fallen debris. The buildings were still blackened and crumbling. The alleys resounded with the percussive song of steel.
“Come along,” Zalgus called, walking in from a side street. Not him, but another Zalgus; older, rougher, and, he was chagrined to admit, rather more vigorously built than himself. The other him held a book before his face with one hand. A crowd of people followed, but they were colorless, blurred and indistinct in this vision. Smoke-smudges, hunched and nervous, leaning together.
He regarded himself with horrified disbelief. Did he truly look this insufferable?
A small blur at other-Zalgus’ elbow piped, “How do you see where you’re going, mister?”
“Multi-tasking, my dear,” he said carelessly.
He’d have to remember that one. Or maybe he didn’t.
A howl echoed through the ravaged streets. The smoke-people froze and trembled. His vision-self frowned impatiently and slid a marker into his book. “Don’t stop,” he said, turning and pushing them into motion. With a start, Zalgus noticed a great, long-healed scar across his other self’s face.
Raina walked out of the side street looking over her shoulder and trailing an affectionate flock of metal plates. Her armor was battered, showing bright steel where ornamental lacquer had been scraped away. “Go. Go. Keep moving,” she said absently, laying gentle, reassuring hands on the indistinct shoulders of the crowd.
“Is she..?” other-Zalgus asked.
“She’s here,” Raina said, glancing round at the crumbling rooftops.
The howls grew shrill, the smoke-people frantic. The last few stumbled by on hazy feet. “They’re coming,” Raina said. She turned to the other Zalgus. “Stay with them. I’ll hold here.”
“You’re sure you’re-?”
“She’s here.” Her voice brooked no doubt.
The other Zalgus lifted a disapproving brow. “Don’t come crying to me if you get killed. Blood stains simply will not come out of this coat.”
“Jerk,” Raina said casually, reaching behind her to tousle his hair as she turned to face the rising howls. The other Zalgus did not duck away, merely scrunched one eye closed against stray strands. “Go.”
His counterpart left, smoothing his rumpled locks. Raina took a breath and held up her left arm. The circling plates snapped to, forming up on her arm with clatter of metal on metal. There was a shout of command from somewhere off in the streets. “All right, then,” she said, and unhooked the hammer from her belt.
Cloudy forms bounded in from the side-street, yarping and snarling, fanning out around her. The first tried to dart past her in pursuit of the shadow-people.
Raina’s hammer blurred, and cratered a wall with the smoke-wolf’s corpse.
“Hi!” she said brightly. “You probably don’t want to ignore me.”
The rest did not. They came at her one by one, in waves – it didn’t matter. She knocked them aside, smashed them down, picking her targets and letting none through.
He noticed motion behind the debris clogging the street, out of Raina’s sight. A trio of smoky wolves, heads low, ears high, stalking silently around behind her back.
He couldn’t yell. He couldn’t move. He could only watch as they crept up like morning fog.
From somewhere above came a sharp crack, a tiny burst of thunder.
He knew what was coming. He could only watch, horrified, nauseated, as the ground beneath Raina’s shadow seemed to fall into infinity.
His sister didn’t turn. She swung her hammer, smashing aside another foe, keeping her shield pointing down the side street, where the ghostly wolves were now pouring forth in great numbers
Kindra appeared at her back, accompanied by a susurration of wind. She was clad in dove-grey, the color of once-pure snow tainted by layers of ash.
She spun away from Raina on the heel of her boot, bared her teeth, and thrust out her hand. Claws of shadow burst out, raking over the three skulking wolves. They yelped and snapped at the air, backs arching in agony as darkness flickered through them. When the nothing-blades slid back to their mistress, the creatures collapsed, flopping lifeless to the ground.
Raina’s eyes flickered over her shoulder, just for a second, and one corner of her mouth turned up. “Knew you’d come for wolves.”
“Dumb bitch,” Kindra said. Her strange new eyes, fevered magenta, flickered around to count their foes. “Think I’ll always save you?”
Raina smiled out at the roiling, growling fog. “Yes.”
The pack flowed around them, circling, snapping, growling. Raina held her ground, neither retreating nor advancing, smashing away anything that came at her. Kindra was in constant motion, long hair glittering violet in the fire-light, streaming behind her, twirling as she spun. Again and again, she cracked away, appearing from nothing to cut and hew, laughing with savage delight.
Always Kindra blinked to Raina before the wolves closed in on her back. Always Raina held the wolves away from Kindra while she was too winded to jump and cut.
Raina held, Kindra moved, and the two women slew them all. He hadn’t imagined there were so many wolves in all the north.
Off to one side, across the foaming river, Zalgus saw himself. There was another figure with him, not smoky and indistinct like the others had been, but hard, sharp, a standing shadow so dark it ate the light of the fires nearby. Invisible forks of power snapped away from the figure, towards the women on the far bank, leaching the colors along their path.
The other Zalgus’ eyes glowed with icy light, and a whipping nest of ethereal chains snapped out of the pages of his book. In a heartbeat, they’d snared the shadow’s nothing-projectiles, yanking them to a halt before they reached the river.
The other Zalgus benignly flicked luminous runes, slapping down each chained outburst one by one. “That will be enough of that,” he said mildly. “I mislike cheating.”
“Why do you interfere?” the figure said. Its voice was milkily androgynous, but the menace in it was plain.
The other Zalgus smiled pleasantly and pushed his spectacles up to the bridge of his nose. “Because it amuses me to do so.”
“I could destroy you.” The shadow seemed to grow, to suck the light from the sky.
“Easily,” the other Zalgus agreed, still smiling. “But I know how to take you with me.” His voice dropped to a whisper, and his smile became icy. “I’ve had enough of your games. I’ve stayed in the background because that is my place; she is the lever, and I am her rock. No more. Wherever you slink, I will see it. Any path you choose, you will find me standing on. Press me, and I will strike you down. Even if it means my life.”
“Stay away from her,” the other Zalgus concluded, “or I will end you.” He flashed a chilling, predatory smile. “I trust I am perfectly clear?”
Then his smile turned benign again. He made a shooing motion with one hand. “Run along now,” he said lightly.
The shadow faded into nothing, shedding tangles of entropy in its wake. Where they spilled, plants withered, stone crumbled, and flames roared brighter and hotter. The other Zalgus looked smug. “Distasteful creature,” he groused, and pulled out the book he’d been reading before. “Now, where was I?”
His eyes were drawn back to the near shore as Raina hooted a cheer, throwing her fist in the air and hopping like an excited teenager. She slapped Kindra on the back, grinning with delight. The women were surrounded by piles of vague corpses.
The vicious scowl on the dark-haired woman eased. The hard glint in her eyes melted. As the bitter snow of her cheeks warmed, the familiar, terrifying wolf-slayer fell away.
She stared at her blood-stained hands. A tremor passed through her.
Raina laid a hand on her shoulder. Kindra blinked, inhaled sharply, and didn’t quite yank herself away. “It’s all right,” Raina said quietly. “Thank you.”
Kindra let out a shuddering breath. “Right.” She shook out her ragged hair and looked down to check the damage done by claws and fangs. The lacing of her corset – a darker smoke-grey – had worked loose at some point in the fight. She pulled the ends tight with shaking hands, but fumbled to assemble a knot.
“I’ve got it,” Raina said. She gently tugged them free from Kindra’s unsteady fingers and tied them off with a series of careful, precise motions. “That better?” she smiled, arranging the dusky plum laces to fall symmetrically.
“Yes,” Kindra said awkwardly, self-consciously tucking a sweat-damp strand of hair behind her ear.
Across the river, the other Zalgus had paused, silently watching Raina and Kindra, a fond smile playing across his scarred face. “’If you play the role correctly,’” he murmured, “’no one knows you’re doing anything at all.’” With a nod of satisfaction, he disappeared into the shadows.
His sister held her arms out, palms to the burning clouds. With a self-mocking grin, she asked Kindra, “Indulge the dumb bitch?” After a moment of hesitation, the dark-haired woman stepped into her arms, and embraced her.
Briefly – just for a vanishing moment among the cinders and ruin – Kindra closed her eyes, and sighed, and mirrored Raina’s unguarded smile.
She seemed not frightening, but radiantly, achingly beautiful.
Raina released her. “I say this as a friend,” she said. “You need a bath.”
Kindra snorted. “You’re one to talk.”
He was in his chambers, breath tripping and face-planting in his throat. “What?” he gasped, frankly astonished by the urgent, painful hammering of his heart. “That was… I… what?”
The Spirit was perched at the foot of the bed, small now, no bigger than a dog. Its star-eyes sparked and hissed at him. Zalgus had sagged deep into the pillows. He tried to push himself up again, but his arms lay heavy and unresponsive on the comforter.
“Is the end certain?” he asked, the words seeming to crawl from his mouth. “If I live, will she – they?”
The Spirit’s face rotated like an owl’s, turning upside-down.
He saw himself struggling alone in winter woods, panting through drifts up to his chest. Behind him was a long trail of disturbed snow, stretching into the dim and windblown distance. He’d learned something they needed to know. It was terribly important. His hands were ashen, wrapped in bloody rags. He pushed himself a final step, but slipped, falling face-first into the white. The snow seemed warm, and he was so, so tired…
He saw himself carrying a child through a darkened manor, a girl with emerald eyes and strawberry-blond curls, chattering excitedly as he yawned. He poked the tip of her nose with a weary smile, setting her to giggle. But his foot fell on a forgotten toy, a wooden duck with wheels. They slid, began to fall. Without a thought he adjusted his weight to fall beneath her, to absorb the blow, and his head struck a marble balustrade…
He saw himself among the stacks of a library. Not his mother’s, and not the royal reserve in Serath, but a room grey and laced with cobwebs. The only illumination was a wisp of celestial-blue Spirit light flitting about his head. He clung to a rickety ladder, searching desperately for… something. The names on the spines were too dim and worn to make out. The room trembled and boomed. He cursed, hands tracing over the tomes faster. The impacts came louder, closer. Dust ran from the ceiling in streams. The ladder shivered and collapsed, and shelf by shelf, the books toppled down after him…
He saw Raina in a torn ball gown, leg bent the wrong way, panting with agony as she dragged herself across a blood-slick parquet floor. Something dark and massive loomed over her. He rushed in, jaw set, eyes lit with icy light, as a great weight came down…
He saw himself lying among uncounted bodies, broken and thrown across the snow. A bitter wind hummed through the abandoned swords and spears, snapping the tattered banners of a hundred principalities. He knew, somehow, that they had followed him here. That they had trusted some decision he’d made. The sky was black with crows. The wavering song of wolves floated from the distant treeline…
He saw himself pale and withered in a sick-bed. Raina sat at his side, red-eyed and brave-faced. She did not dare touch him, for when anyone did, it scalded his flesh like acid. He whispered a handful of words and passed with a wistful, ironic smile on his lips. Raina covered her face and shuddered into full-body sobs, rocking herself back and forth. As the room faded, Kindra appeared behind her, pale fingers trembling in the air over his sister’s shoulder, observing her grief in baffled, helpless pain…
He saw himself fleeing through a crowded village market in naught but a loincloth, tripping over chickens. He dodged contemptuous men, set scandalized women to blush, and vice-versa. At his heels loped a massive white bear, braying and slavering. The man on the monster’s back, wheat-colored hair shining in the sun, thundered an oath. A woman with pale blond hair in half-undone braids pursued them both, unashamedly pulling on a shirt as she ran, hollering eye-watering foreign obscenities at the bear-rider. The man leaned out to swing a massive warhammer at his head…
He saw himself hurrying through the burning halls of a shattered castle. He was frowning, irritable, trying to make notes on a ragged piece of parchment with only a stick of charcoal. He trailed a familiar man in black and grey. He’d seen him somewhere, but the name evaded his tongue. As they walked, his companion spoke constantly, making sharp, rapid gestures. There was a rumble from the ceiling. The two glanced up, and just before the stones hit, he shoved the other man clear…
He saw himself pinned against a gilt-papered wall, gagging as Kindra crushed his throat beneath her forearm. She spoke slowly, deliberately, eyes feverish with loathing. But her words reached him as incoherent jumbles, echoes from the end of a long tunnel. She drew back an arm, and shadows leapt from her fist. As the blood burst from his mouth, he noticed a locket hanging open on her porcelain throat, containing a strand of copper hair…
He saw himself lying in the bed, the Spirit watching him from the footboard. “Go,” he said faintly. The Spirit collapsed into a ribbon of light that curled and flickered out between the shutters. As the candles on the desk burned down, the Zalgus on the bed closed his eyes…
The Spirit sat at the foot of the bed, its face ticking slowly around.
“Stay,” he said.
Radiance bloomed forth, washing out the dimming shapes of the furniture. The Spirit’s eyes opened wider, until they were larger than its body, until they were larger than the room, until they were all that existed. “Spirit,” he whispered. The darkness enveloped him, leaving only stars, a handful of brilliant, barely-attainable jewels burning in an infinite sea of dark possibilities. “I want to see that smile again.”
The stars went out. His final memory of that night was a voice made of landslides and driving snow, rumbling from deep within his chest. It seemed to say, earn it from her.