When the last shade fell, collapsed against the sweep of her blade, shattered into light and dispersed into the air like a hail of sparks, Tanelsa dropped back a pace, planted her back against the musty wall of the keep and nursed the tender, tainted flesh of her lungs with careful, shallow breaths. In her shaking hands, the silver, vine-like tracings of the blade she'd conjured from the stuff of her own soul flickered, seemed to lose substance, bleed into the air as easily as the fallen shades had. Let go. She urged herself, panted, coughed, ignored the black blood that came up, ran in a thin line from the corner of her mouth.Scattered eyes bounced through the room, shook as they took in shadows, corners, sought threats, the stirrings of shades waiting to strike, found none.
Release came quick, half reluctant, the blade flaring, flashing for a moment before the vine-like framework collapsed in on itself, folded into reality and fell into a cascade of sparks that died before they hit the floor. Pain came back almost immediately, dropped her to the base of the wall, left her wheezing, eyes closed, mouth hanging open, one hand on the seared armor protecting her chest, the other tangled in the butched edges of her sharply cut, midnight hair.
“It's. . . done.” She whispered, knowing the seer could hear her, was watching her with projected eyes caught between void and ambient dust. She couldn't see him, couldn't touch him, but she knew he was there, somewhere, knew that he could hear her when she spoke to him. “Now let my sister go.”
Eyes snapped open, lingered in air, dropped to half-lidded.
“Felgath.” She almost growled. “We had a deal.”
Your sister has a powerful spirit. The voice came in coils, wrapped itself in resonant waves around her spine, seemed to nest there, tickle at the base of her brain. She's one of the best conduits I've ever had access to.
“We had a deal.” Tanelsa repeated, harder this time. “Let her go, Felgath.”
No. She's too useful to me.
A breath, a sigh, the fire of burnt lungs itching its way up into her throat. She tried to swallow, to linger in that place between murderous rage and sleep, to chase down and seize that fickle connection that Felgath brought to her senses, used like a feather to flirt with the corners of her mind. Like dust, like wind, she felt his influence only as it left, only as it slipped through her fingers.
“I'm not going to let you keep her.” She whispered. “I'll find you--”
You won't. He shot back, whispered it into her psyche on the hint of a laugh. You'll never find me.
“I will.” The words came resolute, carried more steel than she thought she could have mustered. “I'll find a way to track you. I'll hunt you, Felgath. I'll find the dark hole where you've hidden yourself and I'll take back what you've taken from me. . . and leave you begging for your life.”
Many men have made that vow. He laughed, and she felt it as a tickle somewhere deep between her eyes.
“Men may make vows.” She shot back. “I'm a daughter of Thealda Arkenstride. I keep them.”
Not this one, Tanelsa. Not this one.
And then, as easy as a breath of wind, he was gone, folded out of the air, out of the dust, out of her mind, leaving only a momentary absence in his wake, an emptiness that sound and taste and touch rushed in to fill so quickly it was almost as if he had never been there, as if his mind had never tickled its way into hers, left the worms of its words in the corners of her soul.
Eyes closed, drifted shut as she let the benign darkness left in the wake of the shattered shades take her, seep into her, fill her. For one brief instant, the pain in her chest flared, traced its way up through lungs, through charred flesh and out to the spattered surface of her lips. Sleep. That's what she needed. Just a quick rest. A quick rest to give her the strength she needed to move again, to leave the musty keep behind and strike out in search of Felgath, in search of her sister. Sleep. Rest.
Eyes snapped open, searched shadows, darkness, caught the flickering edge of movement against mossy brick. Somewhere in the room with her, she could feel it, could feel the traces of it, of something, something. . .
Something hunting her.
Hands tightened against the stone beneath her, scratched across brick as she used the leverage of her arms to push herself back, back against the wall, back and up to a half-standing position. Eyes fought past sleep, studied air, studied shifts in the things she could not see for traces of the thing that was hunting her, the shade that had come as if called, as if summoned, a tool intent on burning its way into and through her, corrupting her, killing her, possessing her dead flesh as its own. Coughing, spitting blood, she forced herself into a staggering stance, stirred the focuses in her chest, her shoulders, her arms to sluggish life, spun each of them as quickly as she could, watched them lose balance, slow as her concentration flickered.
Fighting shades had left her fighting her own body, had left her fighting past the injuries they'd burned into her flesh trying to take her down, conquer her, possess her. Baring teeth, she fought to spin up her body's focuses again, push forth even a sliver of light, a jagged little knife of soul-stuff capable of slashing the shade, injuring it just enough to keep it at bay. Fire flared in her palm, spun out, shaped itself into rough edges, the uncertain hilt of dull dagger woven along between the undersides of her index and middle fingers. Maintaining it became more and more difficult with each passing moment, left her struggling, switching focus between the blade and the beast in the room with her.
There was no sound when the shade struck, just a tingling, a burning she'd come to associate with such creatures. Armor sizzled, blackened steel bubbling suddenly, superheating across the skin of her breastplate even as she pulled back, left the supernatural heat to conduct into the air, into the rest of her armor, baring teeth as the blistering heat burnt into her already tortured skin. A shiver in the air, the barest movement of dust where she had stood only moments before became a sudden beacon in her eyes, led her forward again, led her blade into a movement of unseen shadow that was suddenly tangible, suddenly alive, screaming where her shiv of soul ate into it, slashed glittering viscera from the air. This time, there was no reason to stick around, no reason to finish the job. On foot, she was faster than the shade, immune to its heat as long as she kept moving, kept putting distance between her and the beast. Even as she turned, let the blade of light in her hand disperse to sparks again, she felt the shade lash out at her, send heat into steel, scorch her skin with a lingering touch that fell away as she ran.
Five flights of stairs crumbled and shook as the shade burnt superheated currents after her, chased her to the bottom of the keep and blasted the stone around her to dripping rivulets. By the time she reached the ancient oaken door between her and freedom, it was already burning, flaring with enough heat to make her hesitate, throw an arm in front of her face before she backed off a step, rammed it at full speed. Rusty hinges shattered under the force of her impact, and then she was outside, stumbling, flailing through the snow, hands grasping at air, butchered lungs throbbing against every breath. Frozen winds shot in from the side, ate at the burnt skin of her face, chilled the charred flesh beneath the plates and chain of her flame-scoured armor. At some point, she lost her footing entirely, collapsed and rolled through several rises of icy rock, felt them bite her cheeks, bruise her hands, her shoulders as she tumbled. Snow sizzled as the shade chased her, burnt a trail through the thickening blizzard, igniting trees, flinging waves of heat after her.
At the bottom of a low rise, she forced herself into a roll, shaking hands jamming her upright, jamming her back to unsteady feet that ran, pumped snow to slush in a haze of adrenaline. Got to keep moving. Trees slapped past, long, frost-covered boughs of pine needles lashing out at her. Got to keep moving. Stumbling, losing balance on rough, uncertain footing, fingers spreading, tired arms fighting to keep her balanced. Got to keep moving. Blinking against the snow, the ice gathering on her lashes, her lips, blinding her eyes.
Got to keep moving.
Feet gathered under her like unwilling rope as she slid to a stop on the rocky edge of a high cliff. Far below, the endless ice of a wide and spreading lake, sprawled on into the whiteout, its waters snow-covered and frozen over for the winter. Behind her, the hissing of the shade whispered through the trees, the snow melting where it slithered, melting where it paused, watched her from somewhere in the cascading flurry. A snorting breath of steam shimmered in the haze, the movements that betrayed the shade despite its natural stealth. Eyes blinked, struggled to stay open against the ice, against the threat of imminent death, fought her and left her shaky, on the verge of collapse.
No way out. She set her jaw, steeled herself as much as she could. No way out but through.
Focuses flared through her arms, spun to life in her chest, spun up at her command and forced a long, thin blade of light and spirit from her palm. Several paces away, the shade stirred in the snowfall, snorted against the memory of the last cut she'd given it, seemed to hesitate, to gather itself and pull back a little. Barely conscious, she raised the blade, shouted some wordless noise to stir her rebellious body back into action, hurled herself forward, sweeping the weapon in a wild arc as the stones beneath her feet gave way, left her scrabbling, fighting to hold onto the crumbling edge with frozen, chain-gloved hands. Above her, the shade inched closer, rattled with an expectant, hungry growl. Beneath her, wind whipped like a hungry howl where the cliff gave way to snowy abyss, to the wide, smooth surface of that distant, frozen lake. The blade was gone, lost with her focus, her concentration as she fought to keep her grip, fought to keep from falling.
Hot air blistered past her tortured cheeks, the breath of the shade misting her charred armor, turning snow to steam in its wake. Hovering above her, she could smell it now, felt her already rebellious stomach heave a little at the scent it left lingering in the air, that tang of burning hair, stench of rotting meat. Fingers slipped against gravel, fought to hold purchase, fought to grab onto something solid, something that would hold her. In one last attempt, she yanked herself up, swept one hand out in an attempt to grab the shade, to seize it and use that secure handhold to pull herself up, or at least take the beast down with her, but as she reached for it, she felt the warmth of its shimmering body heat the chain of her glove to glowing, her grab passing right through it, leaving her screaming as she fell, hands twisting, one smoking, one full of cold gravel.
Impact came suddenly, solidly, brought almost a sense of relief with it. Blood burbled up from broken lungs as she lay in the snow, let the lazy flakes fall across her face, her eyes. Far above, the sky was a mat of gray-blue, an abyss swirling with feathery white, so cold and so welcome as she lost herself in it, felt her muscles slacken, relax. Eyes drifted half-closed, blinked once, then surrendered, stared endlessly upward as they were slowly covered, as her whole body was covered.
In those final moments, she spared a thought for her sister, a fractured, half-remembered memory of a field of dandelions bobbing, glistening in an early spring shower. In the memory, she watched as her sister's rainwet hands closed over stems, pinched them off with thumbs, gathered them into a knot meant for her father, for their father, in the brighter days before he had died. In the memory, she watched as her sister worked, as she sang the little nonsense songs of children, made her way from blossom to blossom while Tanelsa watched, smiled. Darkness settled in as frozen lips twisted into a loose approximation of that same smile, eyes glazing slowly over, snow carrying her away, away from the pain, the cold.
The steady, rhythmic sound of the shade's eager breathing.