* * *
JYLLITH FELT LIKE SOMEONE had punched her in the stomach. “No.” She couldn’t breathe. “You’re mad, you old crone.” She stood, stepped back, and raised her hands.
“Mad or not, you still serve me.” Melyssa coughed blood on cushions and blanket. “You swore an oath.”
Jyllith trembled as Melyssa traced glyphs Jyllith knew well on her pale skin, strengthening her own limbs, and those were the last glyphs she would ever scribe. No Bloodmender could thin her own blood to this degree. Melyssa had just murdered herself.
Melyssa reached into her robes, produced a dagger, and offered it to Jyllith hilt first. “Take it.” The old woman looked strong, now, but she would die the moment her enhancement ended.
“Please don’t make me.” Jyllith remembered the first man she murdered begging for his life. “Make me do anything but this.”
“This struggle is bigger than either of us. Presenting that cult with the head of Torn’s wife will convince them to accept you.”
Jyllith had done all she could to help Melyssa, but what the old woman asked now was unfair, evil. Insane.
“I’ve lived a long, lonely life,” Melyssa said, “without the man I love. Torn is free from the Underside, and I want to be free too.”
Jyllith took deep breaths, forced herself to think and speak. “You’re dying already. Why make me murder you?”
“Demonkin can use a person’s blood to see how they died. They will do that with my head, and they must see you murder me.”
Jyllith knew Melyssa was right. She knew that glyph, because Cantrall had taught it to her. She wanted to take that knife and jam it into her own heart.
“There is a cure,” Melyssa said. “For the Demonkin curse.”
“What?” Jyllith wanted to scream at her. “Why didn’t you tell me? We’ve been looking for a week!”
“I had hoped you would find another way.”
“Why? What’s the cost of this cure?”
“Those cursed must trade another’s soul for theirs.”
Jyllith sagged in place, an empty pit opening in her stomach. Sera would never send another soul to the Underside, yet there was a possibility there. One hope.
“What if I went in place of Sera?”
“Oh, child.” Melyssa smiled at her, like her mother smiled when Jyllith answered a question right. “You can’t. Only an uncursed soul may be given in trade.”
Uncursed. Well. Jyllith was far from that.
“Now, while I can still stand.” Melyssa stepped closer. “Kill me and take my head.”
“I hate you for this.” Jyllith took the dagger and gripped it so hard it hurt. “I’ll never forgive you.”
“Just forgive yourself.”
Melyssa had trusted and forgiven her. Melyssa had saved her when no one else would. Melyssa even made her happy, sometimes, when she knew the old woman wasn’t looking.
Jyllith drove the dagger right between Melyssa’s ribs.
Melyssa gasped, eyes wide. She fell and Jyllith caught her. She held Melyssa as she trembled, shook, and choked on her own blood.
“Thank you,” Melyssa whispered.
Jyllith refused to cry. Melyssa didn’t deserve to see that. “I’ll stop them. I won’t fail you. Thank you for everything.” She kissed Melyssa’s forehead. “I wish we had more time.”
Melyssa smiled at her. Her face relaxed. For a moment Jyllith felt like she had always felt when her mother smiled at her, warm and safe and happy. It felt like holding her mother again.
Then Melyssa died.
Jyllith held Melyssa on the cold stone floor and wept. She hugged the old woman’s still warm body. Finally, she set Melyssa beside her cot and closed the woman’s sightless eyes.
“Wherever you are, I hope you found Torn.” Jyllith raised the bloody dagger. “Five guard your soul.”
It took some time to saw through Melyssa’s neck. Most daggers balked at bone, and when it was done her hands were slick with blood. Numb and messy, she took her gruesome trophy and left the library for the first time in a week.
She was all alone now.
The gloss-stone walls surrounding the academy were charred and cracked. The plain white cobblestones that formed the ground were broken and choked by hard black scrub. Brilliant clouds roiled in the sky, the spectral storms Torn had summoned raging still.
It did not take Jyllith long to find supplies. No looters had ever reached Terras, and the belongings of the departed dead were bountiful. She found a bucket and heated some pitch. She lifted Melyssa’s head by its long white hair and dipped it.
The pitch smelled terrible. She whispered an apology. Then she went inside to pick up Melyssa’s headless body.
It took her an hour to dig the grave and another hour to put Melyssa to rest. She had no time to leave a marker. It was already mid-afternoon, and with only two weeks before this Demonkin curse consumed her, she needed every hour.
Even with a horse, the journey out of the Unsettled Lands and then to Pale Lake would take eight days. More than half of what remained to her. Her demon’s whispers would grow louder all the while, and listening even once would be the end of her.
Any mage who dared scribe demon glyphs, as she and Sera had done on the journey to Terras, allowed the Mavoureen to latch onto their souls. Those demons consumed them, slowly driving them mad, until nothing was left but a demonic shell and endless hate.
That was the Demonkin curse. That was her fate if she did not kill herself before two weeks elapsed. It would be Sera’s fate, too.
Jyllith gathered a heavy oak quarterstaff, a travel pack with a blanket, flint and steel, and coins of various denominations. It was enough for a horse and supplies at the first town she reached. By the time she finished foraging, Melyssa’s head was ready.
She dropped the pitch-covered thing inside a waterproof sack and tied the top tight. Her final task was to pen a note for Sera and Byn. She detailed Melyssa’s cure for the Demonkin curse.
She knew Sera would not use it, but they deserved to know. She signed it with Melyssa’s name — they would never trust hers — and slid it into a weatherproof parchment tube from the library.
Finally, she strapped her quarterstaff across her back and took up travel pack, tube, and sack. She walked for the Terras gates. The sun closed on the horizon, and a stiff wind rose as she stepped off the academy grounds. It chilled even through lined leather.
She pulled out the weatherproof tube. It had a long metal spike on one end. She jammed that spike into the ground as hard as she could, driving it until she was certain it was secure. It would not come free, and anyone returning here could not miss it.
One way or the other, Sera Valence had her cure.
Jyllith straightened. A long road waited, and she would walk it without any friends. Kara had endured much as Jyllith and Cantrall hunted her, but she had people she loved, relied upon, trusted. Byn Meris. Sera Valence. Aryn Locke and Jair Deymartin.
Jyllith had no one. Everyone she loved was dead. Her family was somewhere wonderful, but even if she stopped this cult and saved the world, she would never go where her family was.
She would go somewhere else.
Jyllith stopped at Jair’s grave. She and Melyssa had buried him beside the Terras gates a week ago. She almost imagined she could feel him standing by, watching her.
“I don’t know if you can hear me.” Jair had been a Soulmage as well, and he had given his life to give Kara hers. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this. It doesn’t seem possible.”
Jair had been under Cantrall’s thrall for a brief time, done horrible things for reasons not his own. She imagined he understood her, just a little bit. He had been a kind and patient soul.
“Watch over me,” Jyllith whispered. “Don’t let me fail.”
She looked out over the empty gray earth and made herself stop feeling anything. She made herself numb. She had to once more become the hard, vindictive woman she hated.
She had to deliver Melyssa’s severed head.
ARYN LOCKE HALTED on the meandering muddy road and cursed under his breath. A horde of people surrounded him, but he could make out nothing but their shapes in dream world orange. With his skin charred black and his eyes gone, dream world sight was all he had.
“There he is!” one man shouted. “The thief! The monster! Don’t let it escape!”
Why couldn’t anything ever be easy? Aryn was going home — he needed to go home — and this stupid mob stood in his way. What if he just sprinted past them? Would anyone actually try to stop him?
He stood on a muddy, wheel-cut road drawn in the jagged black lines of the dream world. It ran between a mess of orange oak shapes, interspersed with what Aryn assumed was grass and wildflowers. The mob hemmed him in, the dead black sticks in their hands ranging from torches to pitchforks.
Aryn pulled his cowl closer around his blackened, ruined face, and stood straight. He had no hair, no fine clothes, and barely enough copper left to buy bread, but none of that mattered now. He was of noble blood, and no mere peasant could question his honor.
“I’m no thief.” He spoke with every ounce of eloquence he could muster, drawing on years of training in public speechmaking. “I’m just a traveler on his way to seek work in Locke.” He tried to remember life before fire burned away his skin. “Do the honorable stonemasons of Dane greet all travelers like this?”
Aryn had hoped to bypass their little village, starting his journey as soon as the sun set. Dane was a quarry town in the shadow of the Ranarok mountains a few day’s walk from Highridge Pass. It was only on the most complete maps, and its stonemasons were not well known. Sometimes flattery worked.
“Liar!” an orange dream form shouted, this one holding a pitchfork. “He stole apples from my orchard not an hour after sunset, free as you please!”
“Bread from my porch!” another man yelled.
“Milk from my stoop!” a third added.
Aryn huffed loudly for their benefit. “If you had bothered to look on your stoops, you’d find the payment I left. Is copper not enough? Do you require blood?”
“It’s demon coin, no doubt!” the pitchfork-wielding man yelled, gesturing to his fellows. “Payment to entice us into abiding the presence of this … monster!”
The others nodded, murmuring among themselves. Aryn took another look at the mob, but saw no easy way out. He might glyph up some flames, but would that frighten the mob away, or convince them to attack?
“When I yelled from my house, he turned on me,” pitchfork man continued. “I saw black holes where his eyes should be, pools black as the Underside.” The man pointed at Aryn. “He’ll leave us coins, all right, for everything he steals. He’ll pay us for our children next!”
The mob’s shouting grew into an uproar even as Aryn shouted back, lost in the clamor. “I was only hungry!”
“We can’t let it live!” another man shouted, brave as could be with all these others around him. “You heard what Zeb said about the eyes!”
“It’s a demon!” the third man yelled. “Same as the monster that tore up Lared’s Row last week. Murdered the women and devoured the kids!”
Several men advanced, pitchforks raised as the shouts grew in volume and frequency.
“Not among the good people of Dane!”
“Kill it! Kill the demon!”
Aryn reached for the quarterstaff strapped across his back, over his gray travel cloak, and took a firm grip. He had saved Sera, saved Kara, saved the bloody world, and now a mob of inbred commoners were going to beat him to death with their black sticks. How had it come to this?
Jyllith. She was the reason this was happening to him. Two weeks ago, her gnarls captured him, captured Sera. Two weeks ago Jyllith and Cantrall gave Aryn to the demon Balazel, tossed him into the Underside to be torn apart. Two weeks ago, the Five brought Aryn back.
This was not two weeks ago. This was now, and he didn’t really feel like dying again. Aryn unslung his quarterstaff and spun it twice. He ended his impressive maneuver in a low guard, hands together just below his waist and staff tilted toward the sky.
“Seeing as you have convicted me already, I won’t belabor the point.” He could swing his dead stick about too. “Do you know what a good solid swing can do to a man’s skull? It pops open like a ripe melon.”
The men with the pitchforks stepped back. A traveler who knew how to use a quarterstaff was far harder to lynch than one who did not. Aryn had just made this already unpleasant encounter quite a bit more complicated.
Aryn moved from a low guard to a middle guard, staff straight, then to a high guard, arms raised and staff tilted to the ground. It shocked him how good his weapon felt in his hands. Fighting with a staff was the one thing at Solyr he had been very good at.
The time since he parted from the others at Highridge Pass was a blur, days shuffling from place to place in his gray cloak and hood. He traveled only at night, avoiding passing travelers, taking what food and drink he required and leaving payment. He had to get home. He had to see if his family would take him back.
Aryn heard the tale of Lared’s Row from an old peddler too blind to see his charred skin. Some thing tore the town apart and fifty were dead, children among them. Given the hysteria sweeping through Mynt, it was only a matter of time before Aryn’s blackened skin got him mobbed.
“I’m no demon,” he told them. “I’m no thief. But if you won’t let me go my own way tonight, more than a few of you won’t be going home.” Aryn slipped into a low guard, the safest stance, and glanced at each of them in turn. “So. Who’ll be the first to have his skull caved in?”
“The first?” A new voice rose over the murmuring mob, female and far more amused than she had any right to be. “That’d be me, I suppose.”
Aryn turned his staff toward the newcomer. Her slim dream form was small compared to the men who stepped aside to allow her through, but the way she walked and held himself reminded him of Kara Honuron. She carried a quarterstaff easily in both hands.
“Lady Tania, you shouldn’t be here tonight,” pitchfork man complained. “You know what we do with thieves in Dane, and this one’s far more than that.”
“A demon, yes. You mentioned that.” Tania’s tone revealed nothing of what she thought about that claim. “Well, what does the demon have to say for itself?”
Aryn spun his staff and settled it vertically by his side. “I’m just a traveler passing by your town.”
“Liar!” a woman shouted, and soon the mob took it up. “Thief! Demon!”
Tania raised a slim hand and silenced them. That impressed Aryn. They respected her.
“Say he is a demon,” Tania said into the silence. “Zeb, you brought us the story of Lared’s Row.”
The pitchfork-wielding mob leader — now Zeb — offered a nod. “I did.”
“So what makes you think,” Tania swept her staff to indicate the crowd, “what makes any of you think you can stop something that tore through trained militia and all of the brave people in Lared’s Row?”
Some of the men shuffled their feet, and a few women shifted closer to their men. Aryn smiled to himself. Tania was fast convincing them to leave him alone. His only question now was why. Why would she help him?
“Lady Tania, we can’t just turn around,” another man said, a bigger man than Zeb. “It’ll come for our children next.” Unlike Zeb, this man seemed genuinely concerned for his people’s welfare. “Beggin’ your pardon, but even if it’s like to kill me, I can’t let it slip away.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Tania agreed. “Demon or no, anyone skulking about must be dealt with.”
Aryn ground his teeth. “I’ve already told you I’m no demon. Must you hold me on this road while you debate how best to murder me?”
The big man who spoke last stepped forward, but Tania put a hand on his arm.
“Peace, Bart. I’ll handle this.” Tania glanced at Aryn and settled into a low guard, staff raised with her right foot forward. “I know how to handle demons, if this traveler is indeed among their number. Either way, I will ensure he leaves here and never troubles you again.”
She nodded to Aryn. “How about it, stranger? We’ll have a friendly duel. Should you win, you walk out of here, never to return. Should I win, you’ll pay twice for the things you’ve taken while skulking about … and then you’ll walk out of here, never to return.”
Either way, it sounded like he walked out of here. “You’ve set fair terms.” Aryn liked her way of thinking. He matched her stance, testing the slip of his boots against muddy ground. “I accept.”
“Now hold on a moment—” Zeb started, but the woman behind him cuffed his head.
“Enough!” that woman shouted. “You got us together and told us there was a demon we needed to find and stop. Well, we found it, and now Lady Tania’s going to stop it. Don’t you dare question her.”
Aryn smirked inside his lowered hood. Folk might be more simple on the fringes of Mynt, but couples were the same everywhere. Tania offered a small, graceful bow, and Aryn reflexively returned it. It almost felt like a triptych duel at Solyr, what felt like years ago in a life long burned away.
“How does our duel end?” Aryn asked.
“If you knock me on my ass, I’ll cede victory.” Tania edged closer. “If I put you on yours…”
Aryn almost laughed. “Simple and direct. One caution, my lady. I don’t often lose.”
“Something we have in common.” Tania’s right foot crept forward. Then she moved and thrust.