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AGE OF IRON by Angus Watson

AGE OF IRON Angus Watson

Bloodthirsty druids and battle-hardened Iron Age warriors collide in the first volume of this action-packed historical fantasy trilogy.
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SYMBIONTMira Grant

The second terrifying novel in the Parasitology series by New York Times bestselling author Mira Grant!
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The Heir of Night extract

The whisper sounded again, resolving into a definite footfall—and then more than one. It came from the maze of unused corridors and storerooms, rather than the stairway to the upper levels, and this made Kalan doubly cautious. He crouched low, trying to blend with the deeper shadows and the angles cast by the stacked mops and brooms. He had discovered, over years of playing truant, that if he kept very quiet and still, emptying his mind of everything except the image and texture of his surroundings, people tended to overlook his presence. Kalan had never discussed this aptitude with anyone, not even Brother Belan, but he found it very useful, especially when he wanted to avoid unwelcome attention.

The footsteps drew closer and Kalan saw the first shadowy figures file past the cupboard entrance. They were clad in black, but he could make out sword hilts at their sides and the keen, flame-shaped heads of spears in their hands. They carried no lights, but could apparently see clearly in the unlit hall. And that, Kalan knew, ruled out any possibility that they were a patrol of keep guards who had gotten into the Temple quarter by mistake.

Besides, there were too many of them, far more than in any guard patrol—upward of a hundred at least, he estimated, swallowing hard. Their silence exuded menace and their helms were crowned with horn and talons like were-beasts, quite unlike anything used by the Derai. Kalan could almost remember seeing something similar in one of Brother Selmor’s books, but the exact detail eluded him. He pressed further back, holding his breath as the lead warrior halted.

The warrior’s grotesque helm peered this way and that, like a hound questing for scent, and Kalan thought desperately of stone, cold and still and rough-hewn all around him. He became stone, forgotten in the darkness. The voice that spoke was cold, too; sibilant and metallic, rasping against the silence. “I thought I sensed something, another presence.” The words sank slowly into Kalan’s consciousness, filtering through the weight of stone. They were strangely accented, but he found he could understand them. “Just for a moment . . . But now there is nothing.”

“This is a temple,” another voice replied, dispassionate as iron. “Even at this level it will echo power. If you cannot sense anything more, an echo is all it will have been.”

The first speaker did not move. “Still nothing,” he said, after a long moment.

“We must go on,” the iron voice said. “The others will be in place soon. We must not fail in our part.” He paused. “What of our . . . ally? Do you have it safe?”

“For  now,”  the  other  replied,  a  thread  of  tension  in  the sibilant voice. “But I do not know how long I can contain it.” The darkness thickened as he spoke, and Kalan felt a ra pacious, insatiable will striving to push through. It hungered, that will, famished and thirsting; the sweep of its power was like a dark wing brushing across Kalan’s mind. Desperate, he clung to the roughness of the surrounding stone. The first speaker grunted, as though lifting a weight, and the warriors stirred, their hands shifting on their weapons. The warrior with the hard voice cursed under his breath, then gestured the advance, and they moved forward as one, flowing silently up the stairs.

Kalan’s whole body was shaking, cold and sick from the brush of the deadly will across his mind. Cautiously, he re-leased his hold on the image of stone, letting out his breath with a gasp when he realized that the blood was hammering in his ears. “Darkswarm,” he whispered. There could be no mistaking that dark will. For the first time in his life he wished he was a mindspeaker and could raise an instant alarm.

The intruders must have come through the Old Keep, he thought. Brother Belan had always said that there were secret doors from the abandoned fortress into the temple quarter.

“But how,” Kalan whispered, “would the Swarm know that?” He shook his head, still trying to take in what was happening, to think out what he should do. “I have to get ahead of the warband somehow,” he told himself sharply, “warn Sister Korriya and the others.” But the only other way up was a service stair that had fallen into disrepair and the attacking warriors could already have sent another warband by that route. And who knew what other dark powers they might possess?

I don’t know, Kalan thought, and clenched his fists until the nails cut into his palms. But I have to try and do some-thing.

Carefully, he checked the hallway again and then hurried toward the service stair, keeping as close to the wall as he could and straining both eyes and ears for hidden enemies. The distance to the second stair seemed further than he remembered, and Kalan gradually picked up speed. Rounding a corner fast, he slid to an abrupt halt, staring at a large door of black metal where he had never seen anything but blank walls before. “So they did come through the Old Keep,” he muttered, realizing that he had not quite believed it before.

The door had been jammed open. Kalan could see a stone landing through the gap, and a stair twisting down into darkness. He peered through, thinking that if anything it seemed sadder, colder, and more derelict than his side of the door. But even with his keen sight, the absolute blackness beyond the landing was frightening. Kalan shivered, almost glad to have a reason to turn away and start running again. Caution made him slow before he reached his destination, hugging the wall again and creeping along the last half corridor to the foot of the staircase. He craned to look, and saw a bar of light across the first landing and booted feet beneath long black cloaks.

Lookouts, Kalan thought grimly, and retreated as quietly as he had come. He frowned, trying to come up with some way of getting past unseen. But there were too many rear-guards posted and the stair was too narrow, with too few places to hide if they came after him. The only option he could think of now was to try the Old Keep. The staircase he had seen twisted down, but it might lead to a landing where another stair led up—and Belan had said that there was more than one secret door. Kalan suppressed the thought that the invaders might know of those doors as well; that he might already be too late. “I can’t just give up,” he whispered. “I have to keep trying.”

But he still hesitated when he reached the iron door, wondering what might be waiting inside that profound dark. He could not help remembering all the ghost stories told about the Old Keep—but every moment he hesitated was taking the intruders further into the unarmed temple quarter. “You wanted adventure!” Kalan told himself sternly, and stepped through the door. 

The stairs wound tightly down and the blackness was in-tense. The silence, too, felt tangible, pressing in on Kalan as though the Old Keep itself were aware of him. The muted echo of his sandals on stone sounded frighteningly loud, and Kalan tried to step and breathe more quietly. As he descended, the darkness grew thicker, even to his cat-like vision; he listened intently to compensate, his neck and shoulders tense with strain. But there was no sign of any other route leading upward again, let alone back into the New Keep. Eventually, Kalan stopped.

“This is hopeless,” he muttered. He would have to go back, see if he could slip past the intruders’ rearguard some-how. But Kalan remembered their bright, bitter weapons, and the way the one with the sibilant voice had quested after his presence, and was not sure how it could be done. He closed his eyes, trying to think—then opened them again as a sense of light penetrated his lids. All he could make out was the stone floor and rough block walls on either side, yet the impression of light, pale as honey, teased at the corners of his eyes.

Kalan turned his head quickly, trying to catch it out, but there was nothing there. He shook his head, but the light flickered again at the periphery of his vision and this time it persisted, enticing him further down the stairs. Kalan resisted, trying to turn back, but the light twisted and danced, beckoning him further into the dark. Fear touched his spine with a cool finger as he strained to hear something— anything at all—but only silence answered. “Nine take it!” Kalan muttered, and swung around, determined to return to the iron door.

Far above him, a voice howled. The drawn out, ululating wail made every hair on his body stand straight up. Even as he shuddered, it was answered by another eerie, mournful cry and then another, like an unearthly pack baying for the scent. The surrounding darkness was filled with urgency and fear.

“Danger!” The whisper brushed the surface of Kalan’s mind. “Make haste!” Light glimmered again on the down-ward spiral, a compelling flicker. Above him, the hunting cries rose, ululating to banshee pitch.

“Hurry!” the voice in his mind commanded. Kalan hesitated a moment longer, then turned with a curse, plunging further into the dark.

*  *  *  *  *  * 

The light in Malian’s mind, which had flooded in with the voice that bade her flee, had almost gone out. It had led her through the spy runs and then down, deep into the Old Keep and well beyond the places that she knew. Now it had grown dim and the surrounding darkness was so thick that Malian felt it might swallow her.

There was humor in that, she supposed, the Heir of Night being devoured by night itself. She wondered if Yorindesarinen had felt something similar when she stood alone, abandoned by her comrades and her kin, to face the Worm of Chaos. The stories said that the Worm’s vastness had blotted out the constellations, but that Yorindesarinen had blazed in answer—like a star fallen from heaven to pierce the Darkswarm murk. Malian found the thought comforting and tried to imagine herself as the hero, blazing like a comet across the darkness of her age. Immediately, the light in her mind caught fire and sprang up again, white and clear and brilliant.

A cry split the silence of the Old Keep, rising on a long, ululating note until it was almost a shriek before dying away again. Another cry followed, melding into a wild clamor of howling voices. Malian’s heart leapt into her throat, then came thudding down again into her stomach. “Flee!” her mind commanded, but night blindness betrayed her. She had only taken a few hasty steps when her front foot came down onto nothing.

“Nine!” Malian flung out both arms to steady herself, but there was nothing to grasp and she pitched forward, tumbling head over heels to the next level. For a long moment she lay completely still, flat on her back and trying to decide whether she was still alive. When she finally decided that she was uninjured, she had to fight back a wild desire to laugh.

“Now that,” said a boy’s voice, “was impressive. Do you always go down stairs that way?”

Malian turned her head carefully and decided that the patch of deeper blackness crouched a precautionary spear’s length away, could—just possibly—be a person. “Not usually,” she said. She sat up, tentatively, and confirmed that yes, her body did seem to be intact. “It’s just that I can’t see a cursed thing in this darkness.”

“Can’t you?” the boy asked. He paused, then continued slowly: “Because the light burning in you could illuminate the entire keep.”

Malian wondered if the fall had done more damage than she realized, or whether the boy she was talking to was hallucinating. She hesitated and the hunting cries rose again, far away still, but coming closer.

“I think they can sense it, too.” The boy spoke again, and she felt rather than saw the jerk of his head toward the cries. “The light. I think that’s how they’re tracking you.”

Malian  shivered,  peering  at  him  through  the  darkness. “Who are you?” she asked. “What are you doing down here?” “I’m Kalan,” the boy replied. “But we don’t have time for that now. We have to run!”

He paused again. “Are you sure that you can’t see anything at all?”

“Not a thing!” said Malian. “I can’t even see you. Not really. Unfortunately, I am no Kerem to see in the dark!”

“Kerem?” Kalan echoed, an odd note in his voice. He cleared his throat. “Well, I can. See, that is, so I’d better lead you.” She sensed his sudden doubt as the clamor rose again behind them, louder now. “I don’t suppose you’ve any idea which way to go?”

Malian  stood  up,  steadying  herself  against  the  rough stone of the wall, and forced herself to think coolly. “I don’t know  these  regions  at  all,”  she  said.  “Certainly  not  well enough to play hide-and-seek in the dark. But it’s too risky to double back, or to try and dodge them on this level. We’d better keep going down or find somewhere to go to ground.” “Down, then,” Kalan agreed. His hand reached out and closed over hers, reassuringly warm and real, but his voice was rough with anxiety. “You’re going to have to do some-thing about that light, though.” The dark outline of his head turned toward the wailing cries. “They aren’t even hesitating,” he whispered. “They know exactly where you are. If you don’t do something now, we’re lost.”

Malian concentrated, responding to the raw certainty in his voice. She thought about the path of light she had followed, and how it had faded when she grew weary and flared up when she thought of Yorindesarinen—just as it ignited again now at the memory. Beside her, Kalan flinched and Malian quenched the thought hastily, transforming the image of blazing fire into a candle flame cupped between her two palms. Carefully, she visualized the hands closing together, so that not even a chink of light escaped.

“Nine!” Kalan’s relief was palpable. “That’s so much better! We might even have a chance, so long as we get going.” He started down the next curving flight of stairs, murmuring cautions to guide her, but still descending far more rapidly than Malian could have managed on her own. There was frustration in the ululating cries behind them now, like a pack that circles after a lost scent.

The stairs levelled and Malian hesitated, sensing the size of the space around them, but something tugged at her awareness, a tiny flicker of light that was not her own. It hovered like a will-o’-the-wisp at the corner of her eye, pulling her attention back to the staircase they had just descended.

“I wonder,” she whispered, thinking of the spy runs that riddled the New Keep—and perhaps the Old, too, since Night had built them both.

The will-o’-the-wisp danced, an imperative flicker. “Over there!” Malian whispered to Kalan and pointed. “Can you see what’s there?” She didn’t want to ask outright whether the light was visible to him as well.

“I  see  something,”  Kalan  muttered,  peering  toward  the wisp.  “There’s  a  recess  under  the  staircase.  But  we  don’t have time to explore it. We’ve got to stay ahead of the hunt.” “Or find somewhere to hide,” she whispered back. “This reminds me of places in the New Keep, where the entrances to  secret  ways  and  bolt-holes  are  concealed.”  She  glanced over her shoulder. “We should have time if we hurry.” Kalan hesitated, then led her closer to the recess, a darkness beneath the curved base of the staircase. “You’re right,” he said, after a moment. “There is an opening here. It’s very narrow,” he added, turning his body sideways and edging forward. “But—we should—just—be able to—squeeze through.” Malian crawled through after him and began to search the interior walls, her fingertips seeking for concealed triggers like those in the New Keep.

“Whatever you’re looking for,” Kalan whispered, “you’d better find it soon. They’re coming!”

Malian’s hands trembled in nervous haste, then she sighed as the first stone shifted and a whole section of wall slid aside. She slipped through the gap and Kalan followed, helping her ease the secret door back into place.

“They’re here!” he muttered. Malian could sense it, too, like a stifling closeness in the air. But if this was like the New Keep, there should be a spyhole . . . After a moment her fingers found it and she peered through, catching the first uneven leap of torchlight across floor and walls. Jagged shadows loomed and Malian held her breath as the first of the hunters padded into view.

One by one, four more hunters crept down the stairs to join the first, their heads moving constantly as they turned and quested, checking everywhere for the prey. Their headgear was horned, bestial. Masks? Malian wondered, staring intently, then swallowed hard as she realized that the grotesque beast shapes were neither masks nor helms. Were-hunters, she thought, her eyes dropping to the raking claws that served them instead of hands. She and this boy, this Kalan, could never have outrun these pursuers; they had found their hiding place just in time. Even so, they were still far from safe, for she knew that were-hunters used Darkswarm sorcery to enhance the sharpness of their beast senses.

Silently, Malian motioned Kalan to look and felt the sudden, rigid tension in his body the moment he set his eye to the spyhole. He reached out an arm and drew her close, placing his hand over her mouth as though to prevent even a whisper. For a moment she resisted—and then felt a wall close around the remaining spark of fire in her mind. It was like being encased by stone: cold, rough-hewn, and dry with the undisturbed dust of centuries. She could almost see it closing over the narrow opening beneath the stairs as well, impenetrable to searching eyes. The flaring nostrils and bestial heads swung from side to side, baffled by the silence and sense of nothing-there-at-all in a place where they had expected prey.

Gently, Malian eased away from the boy and he lifted his hand from her mouth, moving to let her look through the spyhole again. A light flickered on the far side of the landing now, a tantalizing firefly spark, and the bestial heads turned toward it as one.

It’s drawing them off, Malian thought, just as it showed me this hideaway. She could sense the were-hunters’ wariness and doubt, almost tangible in the air, but they followed the will-o’-the-wisp anyway, padding out of sight. There were no more hunting cries, but both she and Kalan remained very still for some time, watching and listening. “I think they’re gone,” Malian murmured at last, daring a whisper.

Kalan shifted. “For now,” he said. “But with were-hunters you never really know.”

Malian shivered. “You did something, didn’t you?” she said. “I could feel you blocking them with your wall of stone, turning their eyes and minds away.”

I would never have escaped them without you, she added silently.

He shifted again, as if uncomfortable, and was close enough that she could feel his focus, intent on her. “So what is your name?” he asked. But she could imagine the unspoken questions, too: The “Who are you?”; and “Why are they hunting you?”

Malian frowned, and for a moment considered not telling him, but then she shrugged. “It’s Malian,” she said.

“Malian,” he repeated, but not as though the name held any significance for him. Malian suppressed a wry grin, mocking herself.

“We should go,” Kalan continued, sounding worried. “Before they come back.”

Malian nodded and let him lead her away from the spyhole and the secret door, deeper into the maze that ran through the walls of the Old Keep. After a time, she whispered that they should keep bearing to the left, that doing so should bring them to a concealed safe hold. “If,” she added, “this place works the same as in the New Keep.”

“How—” Kalan began, then broke off, apparently thinking better of whatever question he had been going to ask.

They went on in silence, following the secret way for what seemed like a very long time. In one part, the roof curved in so low that they had to crawl on hands and knees. Eventually, the passage opened up again and they were able to stand upright, only to find their way blocked by a steel door. “Is this your safehold?” Kalan asked, keeping his voice low, but Malian shook her head.

“All the doors into the safeholds are wooden,” she murmured. “I’ve never encountered anything like this before.”

Kalan put his ear to the door and appeared to be listening. Finally, he eased it open, just wide enough to peer through—then stopped. “The room’s not large,” he whispered after a moment; he must have remembered that she couldn’t see. “But it has twelve sides and twelve doors, one in the center of every wall. The walls look rounded, as though they’re curving into the roof.” Kalan took a step forward, into the room, drawing Malian after him. “And the roof’s arched.”

“It’s very quiet,” Malian whispered back.

“But peaceful. Not threatening at all. Not like the silence in so much of this place.” Kalan took another step forward. “I don’t think these walls are made of stone either. The surface looks very smooth.”

“This bit feels like glass.” Malian snatched her hand back as light flared beneath her touch. The initial spark brightened to a soft glow and she blinked at Kalan in astonishment. Then she looked again, absorbing the detail of a square face beneath rough tawny hair, gold-flecked gray eyes, and the spattering of freckles across a straight nose. He was stockily built and slightly taller than herself, and the mouth below the freckles was wide—with a quirk, Malian thought, that might mean humor. She noted the gray-blue robes of a temple novice, robes that were patched and far too short at wrist and ankle. Her eyebrows went up when she realized that he was surveying her every bit as critically as she was studying him: A second later, as though reaching some unspoken consensus of approval, they looked into each other’s tired, grime-smudged faces and smiled.

“I like the light,” Kalan said, “even though I don’t need it to see by.” He reached up and touched the glass panel, but the light didn’t change. “How did you do that?”

Malian ran her hand over the glass and the light faded until they stood in darkness once more. When she touched it again, the light returned. She shook her head. “I don’t know.” She looked around at the white, gleaming walls and saw more glass panels spaced at even intervals. “What a strange place this is. It feels as though we’ve been drawn here, but to what end?” She slanted a look at Kalan. “And what brought you down here, out of the Temple quarter?”

His eyes held hers, his expression curious, assessing. “I thought you’d know, since those were-hunters seemed to be after you. They’re not the first Swarm minions I’ve seen today: The keep’s been invaded.” Quickly and quietly, he told her about seeing the company of black-clad warriors pass, bringing some sort of Darkswarm demon with them. “I was trying to warn the temple,” he said at last, “to get around the invaders somehow. But I just got drawn deeper and deeper into the Old Keep, until I met you.”

Malian felt sick, almost dizzy. “So it’s not just an assassination attempt,” she whispered. “This is a major attack. Even now, our people may be dying in their sleep!” Her hands shook and she curled them into fists. “We must find a way to warn them, to save them!”

“What can we do, just the two of us?” She saw her despair reflected in Kalan’s face. “We’re not armed and there are were-hunters after us. Or after you,” he amended, with that same measuring look.

Malian ignored his unspoken question and began to pace. “I was asleep,” she said, half to herself, half to him, “and when I woke it was to a voice in my mind, telling me to flee. The warning was so compelling that I didn’t wait to ask questions; I just did as it said. I ran.” Her fingers opened, then closed again. “Unlike you, I didn’t even think about warning anyone else.”

Kalan was frowning. “It’s probably just as well since the were-hunt was after you. Brother Selmor’s books are full of warnings like that.” A thread of excitement crept into his voice. “All from the old days, of course, when we were strong in the powers and the Golden Fire burned in every keep. Some stories claim that the warnings came from the gods, some say from the Fire. But they almost always came to the Blood alone, usually when they were in very great danger.” He nodded, as though a puzzle had clicked into place. “I knew your name seemed familiar, although mostly people just say ‘the Heir’ or ‘the Heir of Night.’ But it certainly explains why they’re hunting you.

“I suppose it does. But otherwise—” Malian shrugged. “I don’t think it matters that much who I am, not right now.” Kalan rolled his eyes. “Of course it matters! You’re the Heir of the House of Night, by all the Nine Gods! There are no other children of your Blood—you’re the only heir that Night has. You of all people have to know how important that makes you.”

Malian sighed. “ ‘If Night falls, all fall.’ They say that prophecy is as old as the Derai Alliance itself, but that its true meaning has been lost over time.”

Kalan’s lip curled. “Brother Belan always said that the prophecy means exactly what it says; that belief in it is the only thing that’s been lost. But you do see,” he added, stumbling a little over the words, “that it’s my duty to help you, and to try and protect you and all that other stuff, now that I know who you are?”

Malian grinned. “You’ve already helped me,” she pointed out, “and not because you knew I was the Heir of Night.” The grin faded. “Can you understand how I feel, though, knowing that I fled when it was my duty as Heir to warn and protect my House?”

“I can,” Kalan said slowly, “except that you were told to flee. And in the old stories, it’s always disastrous to ignore warnings like that—to set your own will against that of the gods, as it were. No good ever comes of it.”

“Wise boy.” The whisper seared the quiet air with light and heat and both Malian and Kalan jumped, staring around the twelve-walled room.

“Who are you?” Malian demanded. “What do you want?” “You, Heir of Night.” The will-o’-the-wisp danced at the edge of her vision.

“Well, I’m here,” she said, as boldly as she dared. “Now— who are you?”

“Do you not know me?” asked the voice, a rumble of muted thunder. “I and my fellows are in all the histories of the Derai, your long allies and your friends in the age old war against the Swarm of Dark.”

Malian pushed a hand through her hair. “Then I do know you,” she said, and heard the wonder in her voice, “although you have been gone a long time. Most believe that you died, along with so many others, on the Night of Death.”

“Died?” mused the voice. It was warmth, light, heat, all shimmering together. “No, we did not die, but we came very close when Xeriatherien broke the first law and called down our fire against the Derai. That dealt us a soul wound, striking at our very essence, and we fled from it and the horror of her deed. And then the Blood, who should have been most diligent in seeking us out and aiding our recovery, abandoned us instead. The Old Keep and I have become ghosts together, neglected and forgotten by all but a very few. You, child, were one of that handful, creeping through to play your games and breathe a little life back into the old halls. You were not aware of me, but I learned your voice and your heart, which is why I could reach out to you and warn you of your peril. I cannot rouse anyone else. I have tried, but though some few may have stirred in their sleep, none have woken. The House of Night, it seems, has grown both deaf and blind!” The voice paused, as though recollecting itself.

“But you, child—it may be that you can reach them, for you know the New Keep as I do not, and they know you. You may even be in time to save many, for the enemy have delayed and dispersed in hunting you. Much of the keep still sleeps on, unaware of the attack.”

Malian stood straighter. “Tell me what I must do,” she said.

“First you must come into the heart of my power,” the voice replied, “so I have some hope of protecting you, while you may draw on my strength. It is imperative that we work together, for you are young and untrained and I am weaker than I used to be. But together, and with the boy’s help, we may do what needs to be done.”

Kalan was frowning. “Rouse the keep?” he asked. “Is that all you mean to do? Or is there something more?”

Fire crackled through the air, like the dry summer lightning that scoured the heights of the Wall. “There is,” said the voice of fire. “The Child of Night must mindspeak the New Keep, rousing the alarms that the invaders have silenced. The alarms are tuned to the Blood of Night, so she can override the Darkswarm binding. You must help by anchoring her to this physical place and adding your strength to hers. But as soon as she touches the alarms, the enemy will become aware of her presence and then she will be in deadly danger. For they have brought an ally with them, a Raptor of Darkness, and even now it hunts in the New Keep.”

Malian looked at Kalan. “A Raptor of Darkness?” she asked, and saw him shudder.

“It must be the darkspawn I sensed when they passed by me in the Temple quarter,” he replied, low voiced. “It was terrible, like an all-devouring darkness brushing against my mind.

“You did more than well,” said the fiery voice, “if you felt its presence but it did not sense yours. It is an eater of souls and hungers most for those who are power wielders, which is why they loosed it in the Temple quarter. There is no one there now, alas, who is a match for it. But the Darkswarm minions have overreached themselves, for to get the Raptor through they had to bring down the psychic barrier that Night erected between the Old Keep and the New, in order to wall out the ghosts of their dead. Those same walls have kept me out as well—but now the wards are down.”

“Does this mean that you can fight the demon and defeat it?” Kalan asked, the eagerness clear in his voice.

“It means I will try, but I, too, am not what I was. And since I cannot be sure of success I will need an edge, some-thing to distract the Raptor’s attention so I can take it by surprise.”

Malian swallowed. “You plan to use me as bait,” she said. “No!” exclaimed Kalan. “You cannot risk the Heir of Night!”

The room was silent, and after a moment Malian nodded, understanding that it was to be her decision. “The enemy is loose in the New Keep,” she said quietly, “and once this Raptor of Darkness is finished in the Temple quarter, it will hunt us out anyway. We have to do this, Kalan, take the risk.” But inwardly, she mocked her brave words, wishing that she did not feel so afraid.

Kalan looked bleak. “It’s ‘Yorindesarinen’s Choice’,” he said somberly, “from the saga.”

Malian shook her head, thinking that Yorindesarinen’s choice had been far more bitter, her hour more desperate. She drew a deep breath and spoke to the quiet room: “Tell us how to come inside your power.”

“Close your eyes and empty your minds and hearts, then open them again to me.”

Malian exchanged an uncertain look with Kalan, then closed her eyes, striving to let all thought and emotion drain away and fix her mind on emptiness. Gradually, she was filled with an immense golden light that intensified until she flinched away from its brilliance. The muted thunder rumbled in her head. “Fear not, I will not burn you. Now open your eyes.”

Malian obeyed and saw her own awe and wonder mirrored in Kalan’s face. The room’s twelve walls remained, but now the roof was far overhead and points of fire glimmered in the arched dome.

Like stars, Malian thought, staring up—or meteors burning through space.

The twelve doorways, too, had grown tall, stretching toward the distant roof. Each frame was outlined in golden flame and the solid wooden doors had been replaced by shimmering mist. “You may not look through them yet,” the fiery voice said. “For now, turn your eyes to the table.”

Malian blinked at the circular table that had appeared in the center of the room. Its circumference was vast and sup-ported on what looked like a massive tree trunk, rooted into the stone floor. She moved closer and saw that the table was divided into twelve equal parts, each one separated by fiery lines. The surface was cloudy, filled with moving shapes that she could not make out.

“No child of the Blood of Night has stood at this table in over five hundred years,” the Fire said. “But if you look closely, you will see your place.”

Malian looked again and saw that one of the twelve sections was growing clearer. As she watched, it became a field of gold with a glittering horse flying across it, its wings cleaving heaven.

“Touch it with your hand and mind at the same time, and join with me,” the Fire commanded. “As you do so, let the boy take your other hand. He will anchor you here, for that is part of his gift. But be careful, boy, not to touch the table yourself, for only the Blood may do so and live.”

“I was born to the House of Blood,” Kalan said, but he sounded uncertain.

“It is not the same, alas,” the Fire replied. “Your House has named itself for the blood of battle and war, at which it excels, whereas I speak of the Blood, the kin bound to us since the beginning of the Derai Alliance. Now, Heir of Night, are you ready

“I am,” said Malian and placed her right palm on the table. The surface was cool as flowing water, and she could feel the contrasting warmth of Kalan’s right hand, clasping her left. Her whole being was infused with light; she felt in-tensely and gloriously alive with it and could sense the Old Keep, with all its silent levels, rising above her. She shot up through them like an arrow burning through darkness, past the enormity of empty rooms and vast echoing corridors. The chill of long neglect numbed her but she forced herself on, coming at last to the tiled halls and wooden galleries of the upper levels. From there, it was only a very short journey into the New Keep with its lights and warmth and life, a life that was muted now in sleep.

Too much sleep. Malian could feel the silence of death and smell congealing blood. She was aware, too, of the dark malice of her enemies, regrouping now from the hunt and preparing to attack again.

The Fire in her mind drew her attention to the bronze gargoyles that leered down from every major door and gateway in the New Keep, forgotten through the long years and unseen by those who passed by every day. Now their leers had grown tortured, contorted beyond the grotesque into silent screams. Malian let her awareness settle on a verdigris-rimed gargoyle that crouched above the main entrance into the High Hall.

“ ’Ware,” she whispered to it. “ ’Ware foes, ’ware terror, ’ware treachery by night!” She felt it shudder, heard the faint shiver of sound that ran through it, but nothing more happened.

“You must try harder, Child.Malian felt the urgency of the Fire in her mind, and also its fear, matching her own.

“They are slaying your clan and your kin. Do not whisper the alarm—thunder it through the keep! It is in your hands, and yours alone, Heir of Night!” The Fire’s power burned along her veins, searing every nerve ending and flaring from her mind into the gargoyle, wreathing it in golden flame. Far down in the Old Keep, Kalan threw up his free arm to protect his eyes from the light that snapped out of her.

“Awake!” Malian cried at the top of her voice. “ ’Ware foes! ’Ware blood! ’Ware ruin in the night! Awake, Earl of Night! To arms, Keep of Winds!”

All through the New Keep the gargoyles sprang fiercely into life, yammering out her call to arms in a wild clangor that went on and on and did not stop. Malian heard the shouting and clatter of weaponry, the war cries and the rush of running feet as she swept through the darkness like a flame.

“Awake, Nhairin!” she commanded. “To arms, Asantir! Treachery and blood! Awake, Earl of Night!” she cried again, and felt the flash of her father’s mind, like a blade being drawn to cross hers before she sprang away. She heard the sudden outcry, and the clash of steel on steel, and knew that the intruders had been discovered at last.

“ ’Ware foes!” Malian shook the keep with one last call. She felt weary now, ready to return through the Old Keep to its heart, her place of safety.

Something  caught  at  her  mind  and  held  on;  a  suffocating darkness coiled itself around her. Malian felt a terrible hunger that sought to drain her soul and her power with it, down to the marrow—and realized that she had forgot-ten the Raptor of Darkness, was not even thinking of it as she turned away. It would have leached her to a husk in an instant if she had not been filled with raging wildfire and linked to Kalan in the heart of the Old Keep. Even so, she felt the protective link waver as darkness dragged at her soul, inexorable as an ebb tide.

Malian screamed and fought back, struggling to sear the engulfing darkness with fire while holding on to the link to Kalan. She heard Kalan scream, too, pouring his strength into hers and pushing back against that terrible, draining force. For a moment their resistance held, but Malian could feel the Raptor’s satisfaction and its greed beating in on her, and knew, in a blinding flash of terror, that it was far, far stronger than she was. Struggle though she would, she could not break free, and already her strength was fading. Kalan was cursing; she could hear him far down in her mind, while the darkness crept in and her last defences crumbled.

Is this how Yorindesarinen felt at the end, Malian wondered, with the Worm’s venom in her veins and her lifeblood draining away?

The thought of the hero rallied her, like a star blazing in darkness, and she clung to it like a spar. She felt her attacker pause, its malice and hunger hesitating for a single instant, and a new voice, calm and yet compelling, spoke in her head: “Hold on. Help is coming!”

Fire snapped back into her mind, flinging the darkness back. There was someone standing in the heart of the fire, Malian thought dizzily, as the image of a man scored itself into her brain; he seemed made of flame and lightning coruscated around him. Someone else stood in his shadow, as deep and cool as he was bright, but Malian was dazzled by the flames and could not see either figure clearly. The Fire roared, assaulting the Raptor’s power, and its voice rang out like a thunderclap: “Begone, Raptor of Darkness!”

There was more than one voice bound into that thunder, weaving in and out of each other and the Fire. Malian reached out to them through the conflagration and felt a touch on her mind that was gentle, luminous, and clear, like light dancing on water. Through or beyond it she sensed a hotter, deeper blaze, and then another touch that was cold, gray steel. There were other minds there, too, paler and dimmer again, but all were bound up into the Golden Fire, joined in battle against the Raptor of Darkness.

Malian exerted herself for one last effort, joining her strength to theirs and pushing back hard against the Rap-tor’s mass. It was still frighteningly strong and she could feel it hunting for weaknesses to exploit, but the Fire, too, was relentless. Slowly but inexorably, the Raptor was driven back. Gouts of golden flame burned into its darkness until it was in full retreat, dwindling before the onslaught and hunting for escape.

Done, thought Malian—and faltered, falling away from the firestorm. Out of control, she plummeted headlong, down through the Old Keep toward her crumpled body and the pinprick of light that she recognized as her own dwindling consciousness.

Collapsing in on myself, she thought with mild hilarity. She knew that she was falling much too fast and should feel frightened, and part of her did, but mostly she was too exhausted to care. Her body and the tiled floor were rushing up to meet her and she could hear Kalan cursing again.

The light—which Malian had thought entirely gone out—sparked, and she felt the touch of another mind, the one that was cool and deep as water, joining with hers. It held her up and slowed her headlong descent so that she was floating rather than falling, sinking gently back into her body. “Who?” Malian asked in bewilderment, but even that last touch was gone. Kalan’s frightened, tear-tracked face blurred above hers for one brief moment, then all light flickered and went out.

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