Epilogue

His mind was slowly numbing from the rhythmic sounds of snapping stems. He was clipping the tea bushes as he always does in the afternoons, finding the yellowing leaves spotted with illness and snipped away when the little child barged in unannounced.  She was a bewildering existence with her wide, shining eyes, beholding him with a ready warmth he thought the world was devoid of after he lost his daughter.

“Excuse me, Sir,” She announced herself. “Do you happen to know where the Goddess’s Springs are?”

It seemed innocent, a lost traveler seeking directions. But, although he didn’t trust his eyes enough to judge one by their appearance, this girl cannot be older than five, if not younger, and it alarmed and disturbed him that her parents would let her wander on her own.

“The springs are in that direction, little girl, now where are your parents?” He cannot help but be nosy, every irresponsible parent a reflection of his guilt; he set his shears aside, attempting to read the child with her clean traveling robe and her strangely delicate features.

“My ma and pa always know where I am,” She was almost proud not answering his question as she pulled out from her little knapsack a curved dagger bearing an embalm he recognized from the haze of his memories as the crest of Etzion royalty, pointing at the hilt where a gem rested; his throat went dry. “And so does my sister! She –”

“– Ah, there you are,” He nearly leapt when another voice joined them; warm, feminine, authoritative as the young woman clad in a similar, humble traveling cloak entered his circle of the vision. She darted a glance at him, and for a second, he thought he saw a flash of recognition, but when he chased after it he was lost in the depth of her eyes, “You scared us! Thank the Creator you ran into a nice grandpa.”

“– But…”

“Thank you for finding her, good sir, she tends to wander off on her own,” The formal apology and the knowing smile that became the woman somehow reminded him of calm mirrors gathered in ancient roots, and as the little girl bid him good day and farewell it was a featherly blessing that lifted a weight upon his heart, then he remembered his shears and went back clipping away at the tea bushes.

Where had he seen that girl before?

Once again the air was filled with nothing but the sound of stems clipped, only so they can grow back stronger.

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LXXVI.

She never knew her promise was one-sided.

He knocked on her chamber’s door three nights after her coronation. She was confused, then fearful when she find his facade plagued by indecisions and turbulent sorrows. He stepped into the faint radius of her reading light, she closed the door behind them as he paced to the ink black windows. She read the words on his lips before he let them fall and clatter against the floors.

“They need me,” He said quietly, avoided her shimmering gaze that may very well crumble the powder of resolve he collected. “There’s no one to lead them,” He stared into the white marble beneath his feet.

She didn’t say a word but watched her room with newfound alienation: this same room where they met.

It was so different then, they were so full of vengeance and anger, her more so then him even though he was the rebel’s assassin, while she the misguided girl who stabbed one that later saved her from herself so many times without a second thought. They fought their demons, and they won. She thought the scratches and scars would be all, yet she was not done being hurt, it seemed.

She forget that he was speaking, and seeing that he seemed more perturbed than before slowly guessed at what else he was hiding, so she merely closed the few steps between them, embraced him tightly, “That’s not it, isn’t it?” She mumbled into his tunic, hoping she was wrong.

She wasn’t. When she looked up, she wondered how he mustered a smile, and of course how could she forget that he was one who smile through pain, “Now that we have a clearer understandings of the darkness of this world is, the Elders is currently in favor of sealing off our realm…indefinitely.”

She felt his touch on her cheeks before she realized tears had escaped her eyes, and she merely rested a hand on that touch to preserve it, lean into it, squeezed the floodgates of her eyes shut, nodded, “I understand.”

She asked for three more days, and when he acquiesced she immediately regretted it.

The first day, they did fairly well in hiding the fact that they were counting every second. After she spent the first half of the day passing out verdicts that she tried to remember could be life-changing for her citizens, they merely strolled in the palace backwoods. They might have wandered off to a ravine she didn’t know existed, showed her how to talk to woodland and water sprites without offending them before he kissed her on the brows as though to smooth out the deep frowns.

The second day, Horatio noticed the clouds in her eyes and inquired with perfect politeness. And for the first time in her life, he nearly shoved her off the throne and shooed her away from responsibilities. “There are no pressing matters that I can’t deal with,” He assured her as she knew that there weren’t. “It’s unlike I didn’t handle most of it during your father’s time, anyway. Go, find your dumb crow.” Horatio was concerned that no one corrected him on the nickname that stuck, not even the brown fluffball owl.

So they went to town, him in his silly disguise that somehow still did its job in fooling the townspeople, or perhaps they did not care. Or she didn’t care; it was just a surreal torture, the calming notion of her hand linked in his, a simple courtship she knew she would never have. They weren’t hunted by evil spirits summoned by deranged priests or angry rebels or tortured sprites or ghosts of their pasts, but just the notion of time and the helplessness of love. As she wiped away a smudge of honey from the corner of his lips, she only wanted to bawl like a child, but instead she smiled, forcibly smiled against the gravity that seemed to grow stronger with each inch of the sun sinking into earth. They stayed up late naming stars and their origins, competed in whose story is sillier as though to make up for a lifetime of sappiness.

The last day, she woke up exhausted in absolute darkness.

How could she pretend she would be fine? How could he? He who despised his power for the very notion of love, she who sought power to preserve it. So, she was not fine with it, and as they flew to a remote mountain range beyond the clouds to watch the sunrise she felt stupid clenching and unclenching the basket of fruits, breads and cheese she haphazardly stuffed until the handle crackled in her fist. They sat down under the outreaching arms of an ancient tree and its flowering branches, the infinite sounds of nature so crisp against the waking air. They let that meandering murmur dominate their conversation before she nudged herself into his arms, sighed as the first ray of sunshine fell.

“I will miss you,” If she wasn’t listening to his every heartbeat, she might have mistaken his whisper to be the wind. “I love you,” His breath was warm against the shell of her ear, and she realized that she will never be warm again.

She trembled, “I wish I am selfish enough to tell you to stay.” More rays of sunlight crept past the horizons, and they caught dew and tears and refracted all the same.

“I know you are not, but you have every right to.”

She shriveled into herself, not having control over her wayward tongue, “Stay, then,” She begged. “Please, stay.” She saw that he was moved, that his hand left her frame briefly to wipe at his eyes and that a word that would have granted her so much happiness quivered on his lips but he bit them back.

“I will return,” She closed her eyes and tasted his promise. “No matter what it takes, I will return.”

And she believed. She was ready to believe until the end.

The End of The Emperor and Her Assassin

Dear Readers,

Happy Holidays! This past week had been a crazy one: with me coming home from college, catching up with friends, getting a driver license (that may or may not have involved me not knowing the test route and improving on the spot), having surprisingly philosophical discussions with church friends that used to strike me as closed-minded conservative individuals. Long story short, this year draws to a close on a surprisingly positive note (who knows, packing for my trip to Taiwan may or may not lead to unnecessary stress and etc., but I am going to be optimistic).

And the point is, the end of the year (along with the end of my semester) accompanies the end of my story, The Emperor and Her Assassin. This is the longest project that I have attempted (and actually carried through with), and I never really imagined, when I published the first post “I.” back in 11/8/16 that today would come, when I am only two sappy chapters away from the end.

77,000 words (+ several side chapters) would conclude this long journey, and I am infinitely thankful for all of you that supported me by dropping by and/or gave me a like here and there. Here’s to the next year of happy writing/reading, I have a new series already lined up, started, ready to go.

Cheers,

Meiko

LXXV.

She woke from a dreamless slumber, refreshed, younger, and as she took in the familiar carved wooden bedsteads, dressing table and patterned arches framing murals she painted over, she could almost pretend that none of her tiresome adventures occurred, that she just woke after a day composed of nothing but music, art, occasionally charged by the excitement of magic or sword training from Horatio. But, she knew it wasn’t all but a long, eventful dream, as she pulled her blanket off the silken fabric brushed against the scars on her gut from a sword wound too many sunsets ago. And as she brushed at her eyes, something on her bedstead moved: a brown feather ball hooting with delight. It all came rushing back to her, the confrontation with darkness, the explosion of light.

“Al…” She got up a little too suddenly, and she attempted to steady herself; once the earth ceased swaying she shot out of bed and dressed in a flurry — her closet had been left untouched during all this time to her pleasant surprise — but before she could run to the door with Jiube perched upon her shoulder Athlem entered with a flask of medicine.

“Oh,” As though seeing a ghost, the Doctor froze, cracked into a smile that shrugged off the anxiety settling gradually deepened over the past days when her beloved niece was unconscious. “My God.” She squeezed her into a tight embrace, and Lyra burst into giggles as the bump of the physician’s motherhood pressed against her.

Once she was released from her aunt’s grasp, she asked, “How long have I been…asleep?”

“A good two weeks, it felt much longer,” Athlem bestowed a kiss upon her brow, cupping the little face to remind her that she was the most precious thing to her.

“So…it’s over,” Lyra muttered, clasping her hands upon the small, delicate ones of the doctor. “The priest…that monster…”

“They are all gone, thanks to you,” The odd-eyes beheld the little Empress, softened. “Your uncle and I are so proud of you.”

“…” She wet her lips, sought for words to capture her jubilee and triumph, but memory caught up to her. “Where’s he? And where’s Alde? Is he –”

“– The latter probably wandered off to the back forests to collect whatever. I suppose you cannot wait to see him, but if you would you should go find the former: I am not sure how much longer I can deal with him moping amongst books like that.”

Lyra thanked her with a peck on her cheek, fighting her every instinct to bolt to her Nokshan as she passed by a few bowing servants and the crumbled remnants of the throne room. She won, and turned to the library instead. And of course she was right in finding her uncle paging through another volume he probably already memorized with nervous disinterest.

So, being the angel that she was, she decided to sneak up upon him and startle him with a roar. The book slid off his lap, his shoulders tensed; he clicked his tongue and turned around with an expression she know to be his indecisions between adoration, consternation and sheer happiness seeing that she is well before the last sentiment was all he knew and he lulled her into a tight embrace.

“You scared me,” she knew he was not referring to her childish entrance, and his admittance of his vulnerability only made her smile.

“Don’t be so eager to get rid of me, now,” He chuckled, and she noted without so much joy the lines by the corner of his eyes deeper than she remembered.

He fussed over her and hinted at the mountain of responsibilities that they now have to sort through in the near future before releasing her to her heart’s desired destination. She trusted her senses, finding herself in the direction of the lesser courts. But she wasn’t resentful of the cooing doves amongst the messy overgrowth anymore. She didn’t even hear them, deafened by the shuffle of her own steps in the fresh grass and her pounding heart.

But, she never remembered the lesser court’s gardens being so lively, each branch seemed to have to have their own song, humming in tune to a greater symphony. The little owl flew off to explore some dry branch of interest, and she followed the little one’s flight that led to him. He was amongst the spiraling, waltzing spirits, bent over a delicate flower that he plucked after a whispered apology and placed into a satchel.

“Alde.”

He didn’t seem startled; he merely turned to her and his face bloomed into a brilliant smile.

She threw herself into his outstretched arms, and he spun her, laughed, set her down and rested his forehead against hers and they just shared a breath, her presence, his intoxicating being, “I’ve been waiting.”

“Sorry to worry you,” She wounded her arms tightly around him, remembrances of an unspoken tragedy struggled to leave her tongue. “I am sorry.”

First his father, then his sister, and now…she could not help but find herself to be the string connecting each agony in his life.

His whole family, he was alone, “Her…time came, and her death was not in vain.”

She heard the crack of his whispered pretense, and she could only cradle his tender soul with sympathy, gentle kisses and promises as he sighed, crumbled.

He retained his composure for the past two weeks as he occupied his mind with concerns for his future, her, and now as she stood before him with that sunshine of a smile he lost his reason to maintain his mask, but he wanted to just smile for her and not tax her already exhausted frame. He couldn’t, he loved her too much to lie and act, and he just lost himself in her protective arms.

She was content, then, with his chin resting upon her shoulders.

She whispered, “I will always be here,” and his wings tugged her closer.

LXXIV.

Horatio is a patient man: he was seasoned in the art of judging how opportune moments present themselves, so his current post should be a suiting one for him.

But he wasn’t alone: he was in the company of his unease and an unintelligible fluffball stubbornly anchored on his shoulder, hooting protectively. “Our little Lyra will be fine,” He recalled Ath’s chiding the eve before the execution of their, to his opinion, largely incomplete plan. “We would just get in her and her raven’s way.”

Suppose she was right, but it didn’t change the fact that he felt absurdly useless watching the winds perched upon the outer walls, which a couple of Nokshans secured in deathly silence.

He had long-ceased attempting any conversation with the familiar, opting to gaze into the distant horizons of the capital city casted against the sun. He could almost trace the dents where grand structures had fallen when the Priest violently thwarted all semblance of order that the advisor knew was but a thin film held together by tension, weaker than the mirror of water in a greedy goblet.

A blur of movement caught his eyes, then he realized that it was one of the scouting Nokshans, a small dot in the sky that zoomed into its full, falcon glory in the matter of heart beats. As she landed and breathed out a panicked message, “…The rebels are here,” Horatio froze.

How had they known their location? And what dared them to set foot upon their enemy’s stronghold? A simple informant hardly justifies the latter, leaving the possibility of a truce between the Priest and the rebels…

His companion heeded the warning and left his shoulder to transform to its full, beastly form, leaping off the castle walls while some Nokshans followed suite; he estimated their adversary’ numbers from the volume of the battlecries and the dust in the horizon, scoffed at the unnecessary onslaught that proved to match cruel reality as the rebels marched into sight, gave pause to challenge.

Of course no one surrendered, of course Claud managed to convince them that Nokshans are actually banshees that reap earthlings’ souls, of course Horatio’s proposition for a civil negotiation earned him a spear aimed for his face, to which he avoided and responded with his usual exasperation for men’s incapability to reason and stubborn resolution.

As metal glided through flesh and pristine air filled with the tang of iron, he told himself that civilization was built upon each lifeless frame that crumble and rot. He wrenched his blade free, greeted the next fool who rushed at him with a vision of a gruesome death no one really deserved. As the soldier, a man probably less than a decade his elder, fell and cried himself to eternal slumber, Horatio vaguely recalled his first blood.

They were also Lunzeldine men, but he was ten, and his mother was screaming in fear, a fear that didn’t subside even when the last foul men fell, even when he did what he was taught, defend his family to the very end: so the last gaze she bestowed upon her youngest child was glazed with only fear, and he watched her breathed her last, humiliated, defiled.

He decided that it was meaningless, then, to fight against the inevitable for that only prolonged the fear and suffering. That idea epitomized eight years later in that very throne room behind him; he realized his goal in life as he knelt before the very nation who killed his kin, his sister their Emperor’s bride: to enable his cowardice of the prospect of death. He would bend knees or lie or kill or do whatever necessary to sustain his stay on earth in any way possible. For he knew the earth wine and dine all the same on all the Creator’s vessels once they are empty, Lunzeldine or Etzion or Nokshan.

So when the world screeched under the weight of a darkness it hadn’t experience for centuries, his heart skipped a beat. The beast-familiar Jiube looked up from mauling its latest victim. Seeing that the rebels had more or less been frightened off, he sprinted for the center palace, the throne room. For one of the very rare occasions of his life he forgot his instincts for survival, his senses.

For Lyra.

She had to be fine. His promises to Saph. His child’s cousin-sister. Ath needed the girl.

He needed her.

So when Jiube caught up to him with ease and squawked in warning he shooed at it to no effect. The thing knew better than him, its master warned it to pin down the advisor, tug the man under its wing as another deafening boom rumbled the world, a wave of shock and pure energy swept over all there was and for a second Horatio forgot that he was breathing feathers as the pressure upon his chest seemed to be enough to force his heart through his throat. As soon as the earth had any semblance of settling he wiggled out of Jiube’s protective hold, continued down his previous trek into the throne room.

He coughed out a feather before choking on ash and dust and sheer panic as he found the room half-cavedin, supported by the will of a few loyal pillars now with the disposition of dried sticks. “Lyra!” There weren’t space for echoes, he nearly tripped on a crack in the floor. “Aldebaran?” Jiube squawked from the gate, amber eyes imploring. Then as the dust calmed he saw them, the dark fan of raven wings a halo to his hopes in the middle of the chaos.

The Nokshan was looking down, and that made Horatio dread his every graceful step; but he saw a faint smile as a wing lifted to reveal his niece, serene, almost glowing in a deep sleep between her beloved’s arms.

“She’s fine,” Aldebaran assured. “She will be fine.”

Horatio blamed the dust now lodged in his throat for his hoarse reply.

“Thank you…my miracle…”

LXXIII.

He came about with a pang in his chest: a cry, he knew before he saw from his blurred vision. “Ma…,” She was armed with nothing but her profound remorse as she beheld the shadow that towered over her. Eri was still in there, trapped in the infinite abyss of eternal suffering, and as the Nokshan Lord raised her bloodied hand, Aldebaran knew.

“I am sorry,” He stood witness to every calamity the Creator pulverize their family with. “Eri, ma is here now.”

“No…” After all those years, he thought that time made him stronger, but he was pinned to his place, his shoulder and gut pierced by twisted shadows into the wall.

He grabbed one blade like a fool and barely registered his palms burning as he saw the demon froze in its place by the voices of a wronged sprite. Alvenia walked to it, drawing runes on her way, “I will see you again,” it sounded so casual, like one of those utterances before she bend down to kiss him on the head before leaving for a long mission when he was a boy. One last smile, he wrenched one spike free but he was too late. The floating runes glowed, the beast suppressed its threads of consciousness, roared and it was over.

He knew what he had to do, dust settled though his vision swam and threatened to drown in tears as he ripped the other spike free. The ancient rite where a soul was the price, and the empty shell bowed forward to be swallowed by the darkness. He never envisioned his coming-to-power to be so violent and sudden, but what did he expect? Waiting out his mother’s death before he receives the title? He closed his eyes, embracing the warmth that calmed the burning, numbing sensations of his broken frame, finally able to breathe in his lifetime. They were there, the rulers past, and he could only thank them for their blessings as he knelt before them.

At last, he could do more than witness.

*******

Claud was flanked by his guards and certainty that he would die the pathetic death that perhaps, he deserved. The steady ooze of blood made him reflective, and each time he had to stop to pant, the nauseating sight of his stub of hand in blood-soaked bandages and his subordinates regarding him with increasing intent of abandonment threatened to make him retch. A carriage was waiting for him in the west wing’s exit, and with each screech of the palace’s marble bones under his demon’s abuse, he wandered what good galloping horses could do.

The beast was his shadow, and just a sprinkle of light would bring it out of him.

Right as he thought that came a ray of light outshining the setting sun. He was blinded, pained, and at last the two guards sought after their own life upon seeing the shadow against angry fiery red.

“You are not worthy to be a vessel of the Creator,” The voice was devoid of personal vendettas, a crystal sound delivering a divine message.

He could only see a world of pure white, and the Creator’s Messenger was before him. He was humbled, bowed his head to pray for the first and last time.

*******

She knew, that it was a foolish idea, attacking a demon without a plan like that, and she reaped the reward of her foolishness as she pried at the obsidian spike protruding through her chest. She fell to her knees, her adversary was towering over her, mocking her. Something within her called, Let us help you. And as darkness took over it dwindled to a voice, a warmth buried within a rare glimmer from her childhood, Lyra, let me help you.

It was him, Lyra closed her eyes to meet him.

You don’t frighten me anymore, she muttered as she walked to him.

He looked so foreign without a sinister sneer, almost just like his brothers, almost kin, almost kind. Forgive me.

I am no priest, I cannot pardon, she took his hand anyway, her eyes never leaving his though she almost thought she was looking into a mirror. Your time here is finished.

He blinked, bit his lips, very well. When she released his hand it was as though the world’s will to keep him on its surface disappeared, his will to haunt and remain disappeared, faded, off to the eternal abyss he knew he needed to face one day. Then power, the warmth in the dream under the rebels’ tents returned: freed, it finally manifested as the last of his shadows lifted.

She woke to herself in a pool of her own blood, though her wound was gone; the beast was writhing, the commandments that held it in place suddenly went silent and its hold on itself threatened to shatter. It looked up from the ravages it wrecked, screamed infinite blades of darkness at her. She brushed it aside with a wave of her hand, the loosened sprites recognized her, was confused.

Then the confusion led to wrath and another rumble of pure energy: she raised a hand, and the wave parted, thinned into air. The beast didn’t understand the sudden change, didn’t understand the overwhelming aura. The full power of the Fallen was contained in that woman who merely approached with uncanny calm as she gathered the wisps of tortured sprites stripped from its form, its body, its very core.

It screeched, writhed under the pull of this woman’s power.

“Give up,” A simple command. “This world is under my jurisdiction.”

The power burnt her, but she couldn’t care. As she fought each agonizing step towards the monster, the world about her eclipsed into anguish; but she could see through it, her sights was illuminated by her will and memories guiding her to the core of the storm.

A reach, a leap, she gripped the form, a dagger of bone, and dashed it into the hell until it shattered and light remembered its name.

LXXII.

“You have come, I am honored,” Claud hid his sputtering under courtesy as he snapped himself out of the daze imposed by the heavenly aura that humbled even the grandeur of the imperial palace deigned to regard him; Eridani was nothing in comparison.

She was flanked by two equally dignified lords, and their procession paused ten paces away from the stolen throne.

“I am here to honor my words only,” Her voice was crystalline, tainted by a slight accent and disgust. “And as out of your habit as it is, I expect you to honor yours.”

At that Alvenia’s clansman presented a bundle of silk to the Grand Priest, and as he peel the silks away to reveal the clear sphere. He grasped it like a greedy child after candy, and marveled at the antiquated power he was promised now pulsing between his fingers.

“Now, my daughter,” The feathers upon the Nokshan Lord’s back bristled subtly while her lips pursed. “Where is she?”

“Oh, she is right here,” Claud smiled.

The earth shook, the ancient walls of the palace shivered for its inhabitants, the air was enslaved by an oppressive aura that was strong enough to manifest into a physical force extinguishing all the torches and hopes within the throne room.

“Your daughter is dead, Lady Alvenia,” The beast appeared by his side, a blank facade of pure shadows screeching as a horde of tortured souls were forced to take physical form.

“What…have you done to this world?” Alevenia placed herself between the Priest and her clansmen, betraying no emotion beyond a deep frown.

“It is hardly in its full form even with a whole mountain worth of spirits,” Claud saw that his demon retreated slightly at the artifact in his hand, smiled. “Now with this, and you and your clansmen’s spirits, I can restore it to its proper glory.”

The figure of pure shadow regarded the Nokshans in animalistic hunger, morphing nightmares launched themselves to prey.

Alvenia found an unmistakable aura within the tumult and gasped, “My child.”

“Relieve the Lord of her duty,” Claud savored every syllable, though as he raised the sphere to draw its powers pain overcame him instead.

Previously concealed by Horatio’s illusion, Alde dove off of a vantage point into the throne room, a flap of his wings, and he was behind the priest. Claud saw, yelled incomprehensibly, but the momentum of his fall carried him to his target through a clean slice following the curve of his flight, singing through blood and flesh and bone.

Lyra leap off, too, breaking her fall with a spell before deflecting a thrusted spear, fell guards with a wave of her hand. She spared the priest a glance, his pathetic face twisted in the pain he deserved as he clutched at where his arm had been, those deceptive eyes fixed upon the blade about to crash into his skull.

Then the shadow came upon them.

“Alde!” He felt it, too, evaded with a twist of his heel and slashed across the beast.

He returned to her side, observed the scattered spirits reassembling into its cursed form now enraged, extending its grasp at them. Before it could touch them, Alvenia had retrieved the artifact from the dead clutches of the priest’s severed hand and bound the demon with ropes of light. It cried out, wriggled once, twice, seemed to have shrunk under the bindings of pure spirits but they were naive: it burst through twice as powerfully, a sheer explosion of shadows solidifying into obsidian shards.

Alde tugged her behind him as though he knew the shield they raised would still crack and crumble. A poor wing caught a few stray shards, Lyra winced at the wet crunch though he remained expressionless, eyes fixated upon the scattering dust where his mother stood as he pulled the blades free.

The Nokshan Lord was unscathed, but her face betrayed a deep fear and they understood as they followed her eyes to the glass powder in her hand where the artifact had been.

The monster, invigorated by blood and absorbed spirits, leapt at her, and her sword clashed against claws before tendrils sprouted to tangle with the blade, reached with its spiked edges her sword arm. She was wise enough to let go, ducked low to evade a swing that snapped the two central pillars behind her like dried sticks.

The form split, shot across the hall in a blur; an incomprehensible weight crashed down, her legs and the wall behind her gave away. She scrambled upon her feet as Aldebaran forced back the monster with sheer will.

The previous strike left him a gaping gash he tried to ignore; but, she was fine, and that was all that mattered. The world swirled, and when the demon pounced back he barely sidestepped. Then it spouted more tendrils from the earth, infinite daggers piercing his leg. He fell on one knee, and it was as though it knew exactly where its last blow landed. He pretended he was deaf to the wet crunch of his poor ribs and numb to the taste of iron.

She was yelling something, and he pushed against the earth to leapt backward for a belated retreat but the figure followed. An iron grasp locked about his neck and slammed him into what was left of the marble walls. He stabbed, kicked, dug at the claws before he was out of breath and blinded by flashes of white agony.

Lyra summoned powers she knew she didn’t possess, temporarily stunning the tendrils that bounded her. She tore herself free, not caring about the scarlet trickling down her arms, dying her armor. Instead, she hurled insults and another spell at the creature. As though it relished the art of the dramatics it was content to drop the Nokshan after bashing him against the wall one more time. She winced as he crumbled to the floor, lifeless.

But she had very little time to frown: the beast was upon her.