* * *
JYLLITH MALCONEN WOKE with one cheek pressed on a musty tome. Her jaw hurt. She sat up in a hard wooden chair, in darkness, and her heart hammered until she remembered where she was.
Terras. She slept inside Terras, a devastated magic academy in the middle of a lifeless province covered in magical storms. She was searching for a way to stop demons from eating Sera Valence’s soul.
Jyllith fumbled across the scarred cedar desk until she found the cool metal shaft of a glyph-candle. She pressed two fingers to the base and summoned its warm yellow flame, casting light across dozens of open tomes. Everything beyond remained dark.
Jyllith pushed aside a plate, stood, and checked Melyssa for any change. Kara’s great-grandmother slept with arms crossed over her plain white dress, on a bed of cushions. Her white hair sprawled in curls upon her thin shoulders, and she breathed every so often.
Melyssa had used her blood to heal the others, those injured in the aftermath of their battle with Cantrall at Terras. She had used too much blood. She was dying. They both were.
It was simply a question of who went first.
Jyllith brushed reddish hair from her face and stretched. She had slept in her clothes again: leather riding pants, a stained linen shirt, and a fur-lined leather vest. This library was cold, silent, and she wished she had someone to talk to about her dreams, about the books, about anything. Someone human.
“Melyssa?” she asked softly.
No answer. The demon now living in her head taunted her with memories of all those she had murdered and damned. Her memories of their twisted, terrified faces waited just beyond the light, but she picked up the glyph-candle and headed for the stacks anyway.
Jyllith measured each breath and focused on her surroundings. The first stack to her left was massive, eight shelves filled with twenty to thirty ancient tomes apiece, but it held nothing of interest. Neither did the twenty that followed.
The Terras mages had organized their tomes well. Jyllith focused on that. Book names were written in the Ancient language, glittering white sigils on leather-bound spines of brown or black or green.
The mages had divided their library into histories, memoirs, and countless other categories, but only the glyphs section interested her. Confining her search to that limited it to thirty stacks. Two hundred forty shelves. Six thousand books.
She had read one-hundred fifty-six of them.
The demon whispered louder as she walked. It scratched around inside her head, a gleeful monster that begged her to listen to it, promising power and joy. Cantrall stepped through a stack and into her path. She cried out and backpedaled.
He couldn’t be real — he must be a hallucination — but he looked real, and that had her heart pounding in her chest. His black eyes bored into her as his mouth mimed words she could not hear.
Jyllith squeezed her eyes shut and willed the hallucination away. If she was hallucinating, it must be because she had spent too much blood last night, keeping Melyssa alive. Yet she needed Melyssa alive. If Melyssa died, she would be all alone.
When Jyllith opened her eyes, the man who ruined her life still stood, still stared, and he had no right to stare at her. She stalked closer and clenched her hands as she remembered every last one of his horrible lies.
“You did this to me. You made me a monster.” She had tortured for a lie, killed for a lie, sold her soul for a lie, and nothing Cantrall did could ever make that right. “Get out of my way!”
Her shout echoed through the library, echoed off the walls and the ceiling, and Cantrall vanished just like that. Jyllith only then noticed she had reached the glyphs section of the library. Her legs trembled and sweat rolled down her back.
The echoes of her rationalizations rang hollow, self-righteous excuses and feeble attempts to shift blame. Cantrall had altered her memories, certainly, but he had not made her murder. He had not made her hate. She had done that all by herself.
The demon in her head whispered platitudes, words she almost understood. She ground her teeth as she forced that demon down, forced it back to sleep. The demon grew stronger each day, and soon, it would whisper to her whether she allowed it or not.
Her candle illuminated the stacks as her arm trembled. She was running out of time to save Sera, and hating herself would not make her read any faster. She pressed her finger to the first book in the sixth stack and marked her place.
Jyllith could read the Ancient language — Cantrall had taught her how — but translation remained slow and headache inducing. Even worse, she had to pull anything promising and peruse it at length. Formless Links and Elements of Heat. Poisons of the Valerun. Secrets of Breath and Land.
Her finger reached a tome on a lower shelf and slid to an unexpected stop, a feeling not unlike tripping over a root. She read the title twice more before she accepted that the words she had translated were correct.
Wards Against the Alcedi.
The title brought a cold sweat to Jyllith’s brow. She knew the name Alcedi because Cantrall had invoked it every time she balked at torture, or hesitated at murder. The Alcedi were the endless evil, the storm on the horizon, the harbingers of the apocalypse. They wanted her world and all its souls and only the Mavoureen, an army of demons from beyond her world, could stop them.
Jyllith set the candle down and tugged on the Alcedi tome with both hands, prying with her fingertips until it slid out enough to offer a grip. It was as thick as her forearm and heavy, heavy enough that her arms shook holding it, but she opened it anyway.
The first page was blank. The second was illuminated with pictures of tall soldiers in golden armor marching before a bright yellow sun. Around them were complicated glyphs unlike any she had ever seen, rounded and dotted in ways that made no sense.
The page held a single paragraph written in elegant golden script. The Teranome must never be opened again. The Alcedi are above and beyond us. To offer one’s prayers to the golden horde is to offer one’s soul.
Jyllith had convinced herself that Cantrall’s talk of the Alcedi was madness, a lie conjured by the Mavoureen to compel his obedience to them. Yet this book, tangible evidence of the Alcedi’s existence, changed Cantrall’s ravings into something else entirely. It suggested his worries about an Alcedi invasion had been right.
Jyllith closed the tome with an echoing thump and tucked it under her arm. She needed Melyssa, needed the old woman’s knowledge and counsel. She would have to rouse her, even though that meant spending precious blood.
She hurried back to Melyssa’s cot and set both tome and candle on the scarred desk. She closed her eyes and took the dream world. Cantrall had taught her to do that too, and his lessons were among many wonderful memories of the man who murdered her family.
In the dream world, jagged brown lines formed the library’s stone floor, and straight black lines made stacks, desk, and chair. Melyssa was a luminous orange blob tucked into the winding black lines of blanket and cushion. Jyllith sliced her index finger with the sharpened nail on her thumb and concentrated until she saw the bones and veins inside Melyssa’s frail body.
Jyllith traced complex glyphs on Melyssa’s chest and arms, enhancing her blood flow. This school of magic was called bloodmending, and it had always been her favorite. These glyphs would not heal her permanently — Melyssa’s body had lost the ability to sustain itself — but it would allow Melyssa to wake up.
Finally, Jyllith ignited her glyphs. She gasped as each consumed the blood she’d used to scribe them and more, sliced fingers healing over as they always did. Burning that much blood at once left her dizzy and light-headed, the price the Five demanded to change the world, and when Jyllith opened her eyes, her vision swam.
Melyssa’s breathing steadied as her healthy pallor returned, but Jyllith knew this health was temporary. Flash heals decayed rapidly, and real healing took days. Once she was certain Melyssa was asleep, not unconscious, Jyllith touched the old woman’s arm.
Melyssa’s eyelids fluttered open. She stared at Jyllith, recognized her, and then closed her light blue eyes and looked down at her body in the dream world. When she opened her eyes again, she fixed Jyllith with a disapproving frown.
“You can’t keep doing this.”
“I have reason this time.” It seemed odd that Jyllith still had to justify saving Melyssa’s life, but that was how things were now. “I found something, and I need you to tell me what it means.” She set the tome between them. “It’s called ‘Wards Against the Alcedi’.”
“Yes. What do you think that means?”
Melyssa sat on her cushions and tapped her chin with one finger. Her eyes grew distant and her breathing remained steady. Jyllith wondered then if Melyssa was as alert as she seemed.
“We’re among the few who know that name.” Jyllith leaned close. “Could Cantrall have been telling the truth about their invasion?”
Melyssa shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Had we let Cantrall bring the Mavoureen here to protect us, as he wished, we would simply have traded one slaver for another. I shudder to think what would have happened if he opened that portal.”
Jyllith shuddered as well, all too conscious of the Mavoureen demon whispering inside her head. As much as it tried to appear friendly, she could sense its lust for blood, its hunger for agony. She felt those things because she once desired them herself.
“Child,” Melyssa said softly, “Something else is bothering you. Not just this book.”
“It’s not important.”
“Of course it is.” Melyssa took Jyllith’s hand, her skin dry and her grip weak. “Do you think I don’t know how you torture yourself? You need to stop.”
“Not if I deserve it.”
“If you are to find peace before the end, you must let go of your guilt. Concentrate on making amends, not punishing yourself.”
“How can I possibly make amends?” Jyllith pulled her hand away and stood, every weight pressing down at once. “I helped Cantrall feed Aryn’s soul to Balazel! I murdered Byn!”
“To be fair, he did come back.”
“And that makes it better?” Sometimes, Melyssa’s dry humor infuriated her. “Sera scribed demon glyphs because of what I did. I’m the reason she bears this curse!”
Melyssa stood. “Jyllith…” Then her face paled. “Cantrall?”
Jyllith saw Melyssa staring past her, and a lump rose in her throat. Melyssa was hallucinating again, overtaxed by their argument. She had tried to help, and Jyllith had hurt her again.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you.” She took Melyssa’s arms and steadied the old woman. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Melyssa said. “It’s him we need to worry about now.”
Jyllith felt a chill crawl up her spine. “Who?”
Jyllith found the will to turn around and wished she hadn’t. Cantrall’s forlorn ghost stood right behind her. Melyssa saw it too, which meant it wasn’t some hallucination. He was here. Now.
Jyllith sliced her fingertips with both sharpened thumbnails and stepped between the specter and Melyssa. Had Cantrall been corporeal, Jyllith would have used a Hand of Breath to snap his neck. How did one go about murdering a ghost?
“You made a bargain, didn’t you?” Melyssa asked Cantrall. “That’s how you returned.” She approached the shade.
Jyllith grabbed Melyssa’s wrist. “Stop! You can’t fight him.”
“I’m not going to fight him. I’m going to channel his soul.”
Jyllith tried to take in the stupidity of that. “You can’t. That’s far too dangerous, especially in your condition.”
“Cantrall sold his soul to something very evil to come here and speak with us. I think we’d best hear him out.”
In addition to bloodmending, Melyssa knew glyphs used by Soulmages. So far as Jyllith knew, a Soulmage could control any spirit they channeled, including Cantrall. Yet she did not trust any of this. Cantrall’s return was too sudden, too strange.
“Be ready.” Melyssa settled cross-legged on the hard stone floor and closed her eyes.
Jyllith almost demanded “For what?” but held her tongue. She knew no way to stop this. When Melyssa made up her mind about something, that thing happened.
Melyssa scribed a complex blood glyph on the air, one with different lines and switchbacks than those Jyllith knew. Few mages could learn glyphs from more than two schools, and Jyllith knew only Aerial glyphs and Bloodmending. Cantrall’s shade vanished.
Melyssa straightened and opened her eyes, black now, not blue. Cantrall’s eyes.
Jyllith glared at him. What could she do? Punch Melyssa in the face? She couldn’t hurt Cantrall if she hurt Melyssa with him.
“Jyllith.” A strong male voice rose from Melyssa’s throat. “I’m so sorry for what I did to you.”
“You shouldn’t be here.” Cantrall had been like a father to her. “I hope the demons rip you apart.”
“Listen. There are more like you. More children. I changed their memories and made them hate.”
“More … like me?” Jyllith knelt before Melyssa’s possessed body. “You twisted other children?”
“Too many. Now they have found each other.”
Jyllith imagined a dozen more families like hers, a dozen children hiding in cupboards. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I bring a warning. My children have gathered in a town called Knoll Point, above Pale Lake. They are bringing the Mavoureen through.”
“That’s not possible.” Jyllith stood and glared. “We locked the gate!” She had done that, with Kara, and Trell, and Byn and Aryn and Sera. They locked the gate to the Underside forever.
“You locked this gate,” Cantrall said. “My children made another.”
Jyllith took the dream world and focused on Melyssa’s orange body. Bloodmenders learned to tell truth from lie by watching a person’s dream form. If Cantrall lied, Melyssa’s body would react.
“Say that again,” Jyllith ordered.
Cantrall repeated the absolute truth. He had murdered more parents, stolen more children, and raised them to hate. Like her. Now those misguided children were summoning the Mavoureen.
This was too much to stomach, too much weight on her shoulders. It wasn’t something she could deal with now. “What do you want from me?” Jyllith whispered.
“I want you to stop my children.”
“Join them. I spoke of you often, and they will trust you.”
“So I can murder them all in their sleep?”
“So you can close their portal.”
“How do I do that? I don’t even know how we closed this one!”
“All I know is their leader is Divad, a man I trained personally. He opened that portal. He must know how to close it.”
“That’s not good enough!” Jyllith gripped Melyssa’s shoulders and fought the urge to shake the woman’s body. “Give me something. How many demons has he brought through?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where will they attack first?”
“I don’t know!” Then Cantrall stopped talking. Then Melyssa’s body choked and coughed.
“Cantrall?” She pulled him close. “Talk to me!”
“Please.” He coughed again. “Not yet.” Then Melyssa’s body spasmed, coughs coming in waves. Cantrall screamed, a raw scream like a man being ripped apart. It set Jyllith back on her heels.
Cantrall kept screaming as Melyssa’s body twisted about on the floor. A sadistic puppeter had turned him into a marionette and was now twisting his strings. Bone snapped and flesh split.
Jyllith pinned Melyssa’s thrashing body. “Push him out! Now!”
Melyssa vomited blood. It went everywhere, on her face and up her nose and down her neck and dress, but Jyllith knew that meant Cantrall’s soul had left her. A channeling gone bad could tear the user’s insides apart, and this channeling had done just that.
Melyssa coughed up more blood as Jyllith took the dream world, stared at the damage inside the old woman, and cried out. Cantrall had undone all her healing and more. Melyssa was dying, and it was happening right now.
“He was right,” Melyssa whispered. No soul possessed her any longer.
“I should have channeled him!” Jyllith hugged Melyssa close. “It should have been me!”
“Enough. Listen.” Melyssa felt so frail and warm. “Stop Divad. Stop his cult.”
“I will.” Jyllith lifted Melyssa — she did not weigh so very much now — and carried her to the bed of discarded cushions. She dampened a cloth and dabbed blood off Melyssa’s fingers and arms, face and neck, teasing it out of Melyssa’s hair and making little progress. There was just so damn much of it.
“His cult won’t trust you,” Melyssa said.
“Cantrall’s dead and you’ve been gone too long.”
“I know! I’ll find a way around that.”
She would find a way to make a cult of damaged children trust her. She would somehow close a portal to the Underside that shouldn’t even be possible to open. She would defeat demons that could not be hurt by mortal weapons or harmed by mortal glyphs.
She would get herself killed. Horribly, brutally, and then the demons would spend eternity ripping her apart in the Underside. Yet what else could she do but try?
“I’ll figure something out,” Jyllith repeated softly, as she dabbed at Melyssa’s forehead. “You just rest.”
Melyssa straightened the hem of her dress, a small bit of dignity in a dying old woman. “You’ll need more than words. You’ll need proof you still serve the Mavoureen.”
“So I’ll bring them a demon glyph or an ancient tome. Something. We don’t have to worry about it right now.”
“I have a better idea.” Melyssa glanced at the red staining her white dress, uncurled her fingers, and smiled up at Jyllith. It was a wide smile unlike any she had offered these past few days.
“Jyllith,” Melyssa said softly, “you’re going to bring that Demonkin cult my head.”