viernes, 9 de marzo de 2018

KINGDOM 4

FOUR
Concealing a yawn, I refocused my atten-
tions on the thick volume entitled The Elicrin
War. The dust tended to make me sneeze, but
the words themselves had the power to put me
to sleep.
Tamarice and I were back in front of the
painting of the Battle of the Lairn Hills for an
evening lesson. Since her fight with Brack, she
had been a perfectly well-behaved tutor, walk-
ing me chronologically through elicromancer
history and teaching me phrases in Old Nis-
seran so that I could begin to perform spells.
Brack had been the only one to address my
shapeshifting, and I had learned much within
the span of a few weeks. I had succeeded in
changing water to briarberry tea and even
managed to take on Brack’s alternate appear-
ance momentarily, from his scar to his stature.
I was quickly learning that my gift came
with limitations. I could not make something
out of nothing, nor could I make natural ele-
ments out of a manmade thing, like iron ore
out of a sword or goatskin out of parchment.
A living thing had to remain living and a non-
living thing to remain nonliving. Riches were
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fickle as well. I had tried replicating a copper thesar by pluck-ing a button from my tunic and giving the command, but not
even an hour passed before the coin changed back to a button,
not an ounce heavier or a tad shinier.
It was best to keep something as similar as possible to its
first form. A scrap of cloth would serve better than a leaf if I wanted to make a blanket; though the second might look as
much like a blanket as the first, perhaps only the first would
keep me warm and dry.
Tamarice snapped her fingers, startling me. “If you can’t
pay attention during this part, there’s no hope for you.”
“Sorry,” I said, stretching my shoulder and neck, which
were sore from lessons in archery, staff combat and swordplay.
Drell had forgiven me for my harsh words and was proving to
be an apt instructor.
“Don’t be sorry, be attentive.”
“I’m listening.”
Tamarice went back to pacing as she lectured. “Klaine
was the leader of the revolutionaries. He was one of the oldest
elicromancers, and had earned the respect and awe of many. He
believed that solving mortals’ problems and cleaning up after
them was a waste of elicromancer potential, so he decided to
leave Darmeska and establish his own city. He gave his many
followers high positions and allowed them to use their powers
freely to keep mortals in line.
“Cassian was younger than Klaine, but more powerful, and
he had a slightly larger force on his side. At the start of the
war, it seemed that both sides had an equal chance of victory.
But by the final battle, it became clear to Klaine that Cassian
and the peacekeeper elicromancers would prevail. Klaine was
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desperate. He turned to one of the most condemned acts of magic: a fate-binding spell.”
At this point she had my full attention. “A fate-binding
spell? What does that do?”
“It’s a grueling ritual that ties the life of one person to
another so that when one dies, the other dies as well. When
Cassian killed Klaine near the end of the Battle of the Lairn
Hills, he also killed himself. Think of it as a sort of preemptive revenge.”
“What do you mean it was grueling?”
Tamarice stopped pacing and studied the battle mural.
“Some spells are not . . . pretty. They can only be performed
at great cost.”
Someone cleared his throat behind me. I turned around
to find Brack with his arms crossed firmly, his graying beard
newly trimmed. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, looking at
me. “But I have some important news.”
Tamarice pursed her lips as if pained by his presence, but
gestured for him to go ahead. I hadn’t seen her and Brack speak
once since their argument.
“The queen of Volarre is with child,” he said. “The Loren-
thi family has had trouble producing an heir, as you know,
so this is rather significant. I hope the child will be a girl so that— ”
“Volarre can strike up a betrothal between the new prin-
cess and one of the princes of Calgoran,” I finished. “It would
put the two countries on more stable ground.”
Through my kingdom politics lessons with Brack I had
found out just how much the countries’ rulers liked to quarrel
and threaten war. The royal family in Calgoran and the royal
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family in Volarre had long been at odds, using their children as pawns to make statements about who was whose ally.
Brack nodded once, impressed. “Right. I’ve decided I would
like you to attend the name day with me when it occurs, in
disguise.”
“Truly?” I exclaimed, before checking my childish excite-
ment. An occasion like that would mean feasting, performers
and extravagant gifts from royalty. “I never dreamed I’d get to go to the royal city, much less for a prince or princess’s name day.”
Tamarice shifted uncomfortably in the corner of my eye,
but Brack did not seem inclined to extend her an invitation.
“It will be good practice wearing a disguise,” he went on.
“Not to mention acquainting you with royalty in person, since
all of the royal families will be there. I would like to assign you positions of influence in the courts of Calgoran and Volarre
in an attempt to strengthen their relations. Your training will
continue, of course.”
I couldn’t hold back a grin. Brack swept his eyes across
the mural. “You’re learning about the Battle of the Lairn Hills
today?”
Tamarice tilted her head. “It is one of the most important
events in our history, isn’t it? But perhaps you would have liked me to start with something even more basic, since you gave me
all of the blandest subjects to teach?”
“Your lesson didn’t sound so bland to me,” Brack said,
unfazed.
I hoped their hostility would dissolve— it was bound to
grow tiresome over an endless life span. “Did you know any of
the elicromancers who fought in this battle?” I asked Brack by
way of intervening.
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His voice was softer now as it echoed in the vast gallery.
“No. They were of the last generation of elicromancers, and
they died shortly before my time. But their stories make me feel connected to them. They remind me of what sacrifice means.
Most elicromancers have been wounded by love. After all, we
must watch the world change and the people we know pass
away, clinging to fading joys or refusing to partake of them at
all. Even Cassian and his wife Callista, both immortal, could
not flee tragedy. They didn’t even try when the battle came.
They sacrificed their happiness to fight for the betterment of
the world.”
“Tamarice said he and Klaine killed each other in battle.
Did she die in battle too?”
His expression grew wistful. “No. She was one of the sur-
vivors who agreed to give up their elicrin stones and live the
rest of their lives as mortals. That way, the existing elicromancers would die off and would no longer present a threat of tyr-
anny to mankind. They could do nothing about the Water and
its power to birth new elicromancers, other than try to keep
the unworthy from drowning. But the elicromancers chose not
to go on living forever, fostering their bloodlines and building their cities. That’s why there are just the three of us now.”
I had read something to this effect in my history book, but
Brack’s explanation made surprising loneliness spike through
my heart. Darmeska was a hollow husk of lively city, just as we
were husks of an entire people.
He sighed. “I’m sure Callista was more than ready to sur-
render her immortality once Cassian was gone.”
I stared at the mural, this time tearing my eyes away from
the horrific otherworldly creatures to study the faces of the
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many warriors. They looked so human, so raw— full of resigna-tion, hope, outrage or despair. I wondered how many sorrows
of my own I would have to tell in a few hundred years’ time.
Tamarice cleared her throat, snapping us out of the spell.
Voice brisk and overloud, Brack said, “Please, continue
with your lesson.” With a bow of his head, he retreated the
way he had come, firm footsteps echoing into silence.
“Can you believe that?” Tamarice whispered. The irritated
edge to her voice had heightened and changed. I now sensed
trepidation, perhaps even panic.
“What?”
Without tearing her eerie, wide-eyed gaze from the door-
way Brack had passed through, she answered, “You think he
couldn’t have waited to tell you that news about the name day?
He felt he couldn’t trust me for even the length of a single
lesson.”
“I’m sure that’s not what— ”
“We’re running out of time, Bristal.” She transferred her
intense gaze to me. “I fear I will not be permitted to stay here much longer. We must have one last lesson together, unlike
any we’ve had.”
“Um . . .”
“Come.” She picked up both our satchels of books and
grabbed me by the forearm. I shuffled after her, as unwilling to tear myself from her grasp as to let her drag me into something
Brack would disapprove of. But she didn’t have far to lead me—
merely to the library, whose massive wooden doors stood open
right around the corner. Two people of the city sat reading
dense volumes in the dusky orange light bearing down from
the high windows. Behind them, the grand arcade continued
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into shadow, lined with shelves upon shelves of thousands of books. I had intended to spend more time here, but my lessons
so far rarely permitted free time for exploring.
“Out,” she barked at the two mortals, one an old man and
the other a young woman. They both scurried away with sore
looks, leaving the heavy books where they’d been sitting. Tam-
arice heaved the doors shut behind them. “We must be quick,”
she said, taking off toward the farthest end of the room. The
light from the lofty windows and torches cast the unlit squares
of the library into the darkest shadows, so much that I didn’t
see the stone statue set against the wall straight ahead until we were upon it. It was of two men, one on the ground and the
other standing over him, running his sword through his chest.
“Is that Cassian killing Klaine in battle?” I asked.
“Or Klaine killing Cassian, if that’s how you want to look
at it. Their fates were bound, remember?”
There was a strange energy to Tamarice’s voice and every
movement. She knelt down in front of the statue and tried
to separate the door of some hidden compartment in its base
with her fingertips, only to let out a hair-raising growl. “They closed it up. Stand back and cover your eyes.”
I did as she asked, not out of endorsement but out of self-
defense. A loud crack sounded and I opened my eyes to find
the square base of the statue broken in two. The scene the art-
ist had created slumped down to the floor on one side, making
the sprawling villain Klaine now stand on two feet.
She peered down the gaping secret vault and gestured
for me to join her. I took a few steps through the debris and
crouched down. The vault held sparkling elicrin stones of every
color, rich white furs, weapons with glinting jewels and boxes
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full of nameless other treasures. Tamarice tore out the white furs with little care for how pure and fine they felt and tossed them on the rubble as she kept searching. I picked one up,
admiring its beauty until I realized it had a face. It was a pelt, with pearly fangs the size of small knives, glassy silver eyes and an expression of rage that would haunt my dreams that night.
“What is this?” I demanded.
“A korak, one of the feral cats from Galgeth that you saw
in the battle mural. This vault is full of spoils from the Elicrin War.” Her voice grew strained as she reached for a small box
on one of the stone ledges. “The peacekeeper elicromancers
weren’t much for flaunting victory.”
After retrieving the small wooden box, she backed away
from the vault, rising to her feet. “I’m going to show you a
vision. You must trust me. Nothing will harm you.”
I didn’t say yes or no. I didn’t know what to say. She opened
the box and turned it toward me.
It held a heap of dried blue-black leaves with a pungent,
unfamiliar scent. I knew plenty of plants and herbs from my
walks in the woods as a child; between that and my few weeks
of training in herb lore, I was acquainted with a fair number of species. But these were foreign to me.
Tamarice’s eyes glinted as she picked out a single leaf and
pressed it into my palm. “Place it on your tongue.”
I hesitated, casting a glance over my shoulder. “Is this from
Galgeth too?”
“It won’t hurt you, trust me. We are together in this.”
I felt a drip of sweat roll down my neck as I brought the
leaf to my lips. Closing my eyes, I placed it on my tongue. The
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taste, like the smell, was pungent and sweet, but it didn’t take long for the fire to set in.
I gripped my skull and collapsed to my knees as the flames
licked through my veins. My own screams sounded distant to
my ears. My eyes were locked shut, lost in blackness, until the
blackness became fog and the fog became a figure.
Its garments were tattered and its skin ashen. As it faced
me, I saw the murky whites of its eyes, the tiny black pupils
that were no larger than the point of a quill. Its teeth were
long, jagged, smeared with what could only be blood, black
and foul. A scar the shape of a near-perfect circle, made up of
markings I didn’t recognize, shone dark on its pale skin. The
beginnings of a scream issued from my lips, but I was jerked
from the haze.
I lay curled up on the cold floor, coated in sweat, sputter-
ing out damp remains of the leaf that had caused me so much
agony. Tamarice rubbed my back, her voice rich with hope as
she asked, “Did you see it, too?”
“What was that?”
“Astrikane leaves from Galgeth. They are very danger-
ous, very poisonous to ordinary humans. Only a supernatu-
ral constitution can survive their effects.” I coughed again as
she helped me stand. “Did you have the same vision I did last
time?” she demanded. “Did you see what the world will look
like when we elicromancers take our rightful place as leaders?”
“I don’t know what I saw. . . .” I trailed off with a shudder.
The hopeful arc of her brow dropped. “It was someone, some-
thing with white eyes and a scar in the shape of a circle on its chest.”
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Tamarice looked surprised. “The fate-binding spell. The same one that Klaine performed on himself and Cassian leaves
that type of mark.” She ran her delicate fingers over her mouth
as she thought deeply.
“What was that creature?” I managed to ask.
“I don’t know. Maybe a blight, an elicromancer who uses
dark magic so extensively that it decays them from the inside
out. They’re in the old legends.”
Chills coursed through my body. “Are the visions real?”
“Were, are, will be, could be.”
I sighed and closed my eyes, sickened by the lingering taste
of the astrikane leaves.
“Bristal,” Tamarice said, her urgency returning anew.
“Elicromancers like Brack have long condemned certain prac-
tices as black elicromancy— dark magic. They don’t under-
stand how complex it is, how whole and beautiful a picture
elicromancy makes before you segregate its disciplines. Imag-
ine training to have access to it all, Bristal. Training with me.”
I breathed in deep. “With only you?”
She placed her hands on my shoulders and looked into my
eyes. I had the urge to squirm away. “Yes. You have been given
an extraordinary gift that deserves more use than thanklessly
mediating kingdom quarrels. I wish you could have seen the
glory I saw . . . the shining realm we will build together.” She looked past me with a lost, awestruck smile, then drew in a
sharp breath. “I have to go now. There’s something I must do.
After what I’ve done here, given what else Brack and the elders
know of me, I may not be able to return for good. But I will be
back for you. In the meantime, I need you to hold onto some-
thing for me. None of my possessions are safe.”
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I nodded, unable to utter any words, much less make a promise. But when she handed me a threadbare book bound
in black material with a gold circle embossed on the spine— a
circle that I hoped didn’t correlate to the mark on the crea-
ture’s chest— my hands accepted it. I was beyond refusing her
demands, even if I couldn’t quite wrap my head around what
she was asking of me.
She strode off and pushed open the doors, leaving me
alone in the library. The dusk had deepened without my notic-
ing, and now the torches supplied the only light in the room. I
opened the book and found text in Old Nisseran that I couldn’t
decipher. But something about it made my pulse thrum in fear
and realization. I knew what I had to do.
Hands trembling, I grabbed one of the torches off a metal
sconce, flinching at the shadows it cast in the empty room. The
vision of the blight haunted my every step as I scurried across
the shadowy galleries brimming with cold moonlight to the
wing where the elders resided.
I shivered as I waited for Kimber to open her door.
“What is it?” the old woman asked, wrapping a robe tightly
around her thin frame. The light of the sconces cast shadows
on her wrinkled face. I held up the book so that the symbol
showed, and those shadows grew deeper.
“Tamarice.” The name was nothing more than a hiss on her
tongue, but it was full of knowing accusations.
Grim-faced, Kimber beckoned for the book. I gave it to
her and followed her inside. Drell lit a candle. Though she
already wore her dressing gown, she stood at the ready with
her sheathed dirk in hand.
“I think it has something to do with Cassian and Klaine’s
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fate-binding spell,” I said while Kimber opened the book with the pained determination of someone pouring alcohol on a
wound.
The elder shook her head. “Spells can be summarized in
a few pages, a chapter at most. Fate-binding is no spell. It’s a ritual. A curse. It involves sacrifice. See here: there are many steps, and hundreds of components required to make the
elixir. Primarily, ground roots of a fallen tree, ash of a pyre, much blood of a gifted vein.”
“Gifted vein?”
Kimber fixed me with a grave stare. “Elicromancer blood.”
“A lot of it,” Drell added.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I had been alone
with Tamarice more times than I cared to recall.
“I’ve only heard of dark elicromancers using it in the face
of eminent death,” Kimber said. “As in the case of Klaine and
Cassian.” She turned over a handful of pages and skimmed
them, reading silently. “It appears that completing the ritual
involves carving your name and the name of the person you
want to bind to yourself in the shape of a ring on your own
skin,” Kimber said. “And then you drink the elixir, saving the
last drop for your enemy. Once the enemy swallows it, the
ritual is complete.”
“Bristal, have you drunk anything Tamarice gave you
lately?” Drell asked.
“Not that I can remember.”
“There’s a page marked,” Kimber said. “It looks like instruc-
tions for binding fates of others, without involving yours. You
mark one party’s name on your skin but leave your own name
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out. And then you give the last drop of the blood mixture to the other recipient.”
“But this is all just theoretical as far as she’s concerned,
right? She wouldn’t drink blood?” My stomach churned at the
thought. “Should we tell Brack?”
“She had plenty of chances,” Kimber said, only somewhat
reassuringly. “Tamarice has always shown a curiosity for shad-
owy magic. But Brack cannot reason with her. He’s been trying
to do that for a hundred years. A confrontation between them
right now will only escalate.” The old woman’s blue eyes met
mine. “Yet she trusts you.”
“It seems that way.”
“There’s a spell you can perform to follow someone’s mate-
rialization trail,” Kimber went on. “It should be easier for you to materialize this way because you already have a precise destination. We just have to hope she was in enough of a hurry to
leave her path traceable.”
I had only materialized a few times, but part of my trouble,
according to Brack, was that I did not visualize myself at the
destination clearly enough. If the destination was decided for
me, perhaps I would manage to come out on my feet and ready
for whatever I would meet.
“If you appear to be in danger, come right back,” Kimber
said. “You know how to do that, don’t you?”
Mingling fear and urgency made my “yes” sound impatient.
Drell handed me her dirk.
“Aphanis halak,”  Kimber said.
I closed my eyes and braced myself. “Aphanis halak.
The spell yanked me violently sideways through biting-cold
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air. Dark trees, hills and towns whisked by as if I’d just spun around until I could stand still and watch the world move on its own. I half-landed, one foot on the ground, in what appeared
to be a packed tavern, before a nauseating jerk set me off again.
When I halted this time, I didn’t so much land as tumble into
deep snow.
I picked up Drell’s dirk, fingers tingling from the cold, as
my eyes gradually adjusted. By the time I could see trees in the darkness, I had already sensed the presence of the Water.
I might not have noticed it otherwise. The trees that made
up the silver gates did not stand at attention, but instead
made an unassuming circle. Someone had opened the gates.
The Water appeared so black in the twilight that it barely
caught so much as a hint of the moonlight.
That’s when her voice rang out, melodic as notes on a lyre.
“Please do not swallow this one,” she said. “I believe she is
gifted. Please give me what I desire.”
Following the sound, my eyes found Tamarice crouching at
the edge of the Water, stirring it with her fingers. She stood up, her lithe body nothing but a shadow to me even thirty paces
away, close enough that I was thankful for the snow that had
softened the noise of my fall.
Another figure emerged from the darkness of the trees.
Thin branches were wrapped around a woman’s arms, tugging
her toward the dark surface. She whimpered as they snaked
away from her.
Tamarice’s hand hooked around the back of her neck, driv-
ing her to her knees at the Water’s edge. And then, as though
deaf to her desperate pleas, Tamarice shoved the woman’s head
under the surface.
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The Water pulled the woman into its depths like a pred-ator gulping down its prey. I scrambled backwards in horror,
toppling onto my backside in the snow.
After a taut moment, the elicromancer roared in frustra-
tion, kicking a spray of snow in the air.
In a burst of terror I whispered, “Aphanis.”
I must have pictured Brack’s cottage well enough, because
I landed on my back on his dining table. I groaned and rolled
off, trying to fill my lungs back up with air. Brack rushed in
from the den, catching me as I stumbled.
“Tamarice killed someone. I saw her do it. She brought a
mortal to the Water.”
Brack’s pale eyes entertained a full range of emotions. I saw
a hundred years’ worth of guidance, rebuke, trust broken and
rebuilt over and over again. I saw a deep sense of failure strike him like a blow.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
I shook my head. Brack steered me toward the den, where
we sat and caught our breath.
“She gave me a book about a spell,” I went on. “I mean, a
ritual. It requires the blood of an elicromancer. She must have
been testing the woman in the Water.”
“Why didn’t you come find me?”
“Kimber thought I would be able to reason with her. I
didn’t know until I arrived that she was already neck-deep in
dark magic.”
Brack closed his eyes, wounded by each word. “Tamarice
obviously thinks that with you on her side she would have
enough leverage to overpower me. We are fortunate that she
sees promise in you, or you may have been in grave danger.”
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I shivered, thinking of being alone with her in the deserted, dark library. “How could she do that to an innocent woman
when she spoke with such fury about the way my kidnappers
treated me?”
“The difference to her is that you are an elicromancer. If
she turned out to be wrong about the woman, the tragedy
wouldn’t move her. She sees mortals as expendable.”
“But I was mortal too. It’s no different.”
“She is beyond reason, Bristal.” He stood, his wrinkled face
a mask of resolve. “Come with me.”
We hurried to the main halls, where all was still and dark.
Brack’s elicrin stone lit up as enchantments poured fluidly
from his lips. We left the galleries and crossed through the
marketplace, where the shops were closed and the streets were
silent but for the stirring of sleeping animals and Brack’s hum-
ming chant. The icy wind cut through my clothes as I ran.
When we reached the enormous wooden gates marking
the entrance to the city, the gatekeepers were cranking them
open to allow someone to pass through. They creaked to a stop
against the stone frame, and I saw Tamarice striding toward
the bridge where she had pushed me from the ravine, her soft
face etched with angular shadows in the light of the blazing
torches.
“Acasar im doen. Halonir tacaral gemisk temorrah,”  Brack said. A shimmering partition began to spread across the open
gates. “The other side, Bristal! Say what I say.”
I rushed to the opposite end of the gateway and repeated
what Brack had said, stumbling over my words. The partition
began to seep across the air like honey sliding off a spoon.
“Good, Bristal.” Brack’s partition crept toward mine.
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Through the small gap between them, I saw Tamarice reach the bridge, mere yards away from us.
My voice cracked as I called Brack’s name. He looked at
Tamarice, and then back at his partition. “Focus,” he said.
I glanced up, realizing my enchantment had slowed. I
resumed chanting, but Tamarice was now striding across the
bridge with purpose in her steps and smoldering heat in her
eyes. I couldn’t shake the image of her gripping the frightened
woman by the neck and shoving her under the surface for the
Water to swallow whole.
Our two partitions had nearly melted together when Tam-
arice shot a delicate hand through the open space. The barriers
paused in their paths.
I scrambled back, fearing she would reach for me. But she
seized Brack’s hand and dropped to her knees in front of the
glistening enchantment. Her dark hair fell around her face as
she bowed her head and pressed his hand against her cheek,
clasping it earnestly.
Brack looked as if he could weep, but he merely took a deep
breath and said, “I always seem to understimate the depth of
the hole inside you.”
Tamarice looked up, her tear-filled eyes shining like flecks
of forgotten gold under a clear river current. “No, you mis-
understand me. You always have,” she said, gripping his hand
more fiercely. “From the moment I questioned your teaching,
you punished me for thinking I could be more.
Her desperate whisper sent shivers down my neck and
shoulders.
“How many innocent people have you killed?” Brack asked.
Tamarice swallowed hard. A dark strand of hair clung to
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her snow-kissed cheek. “Dozens. I took them to the Water to find more of our kind, until Bristal fulfilled my need for
a comrade. Her power is more striking and rare than what I
could have hoped for in this day of diluted magic.” Her eyes
flashed to me, and then back to Brack. “Then I learned about
fate binding.”
“So you needed elicromancer blood— from a new elicro-
mancer who couldn’t fight back.” Brack shook his head, as if
he wished he could reject the thought and go back to believing
Tamarice was no more than misguided and brash. “What do
you plan to do with the ritual?”
“Will you forgive me if I tell you? Will you listen to me,
for just one moment in a hundred years, listen to me? If you
had accepted me,” she went on, her voice breaking. “If you had
seen reason in my beliefs, I wouldn’t have had to harm anyone
in my quest. Together, we could have found an easier way to
control the kingdoms of men. But you cling to the lie that we
were created to serve and not to rule, when you know in your
heart it isn’t so. Don’t blame me for wanting more.”
There was that word again: more. Emerging in her smooth
voice from her rounded lips, it was all but ambrosial.
Brack wavered, sadness deepening the lines around his
mouth. His other hand closed over hers, not in agreement or
submission but in protest, as though he were tempted to seize
her and pull her close through the enchantments he had just
laid to lock her out.
But he dropped her hand and his warm, pain-filled eyes
iced over. “You have no home here, and no ally in me.”
Tamarice’s hand hung in the air, reaching for him. For a
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moment she looked utterly forsaken, her rich eyes full of broken hope.
But they narrowed into slits, and her calm feline inflection
tightened to a growl. She rose to her feet and squared herself
before Brack. “Then you must kill me. Or someday I will have
you on your knees. I will bleed the coward out of you and leave
you to die in regret.”
With a cold whisper, Brack sealed the barrier. The two par-
titions merged and shot off in opposite directions, trailing light across the walls before disappearing.
I could almost feel the pulse of rage in the air a beat before
it manifested. And then Tamarice roared, thrusting her hands
away from her body. Every inch of stone not covered by the
barrier, from the frame of the city’s gates to the bridge beneath her feet, began crumbling. Brack yanked me back by the arm,
but there was no need— the barrier held.
As the bridge collapsed beneath her feet, Tamarice sum-
moned a thousand branches reaching out to carry her across
the abyss and place her gently on the ground. Then she melted
into the darkness of the night.
A moment later, I felt a hand on my shoulder and glanced
up to find Kimber, looking haggard yet resolved in the merging
of moon and torchlight.
“The fight could have been much worse, right?” I asked,
still trembling.
The old woman looked at the empty place that the bridge
had occupied. Her wrinkled fingers felt like ice on my neck,
even against the chill mountain night.

“The fight hasn’t begun.” 

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