Legacy of Light is the spectacular conclusion to Matthew Ward’s acclaimed Legacy series – an unmissable tale of war and intrigue that combines the imagination of George R. R. Martin with the gritty realism of Bernard Cornwell.
The horsemen came at dusk, as they had the day before, and the day before that. Dark shapes hunched against Wintertide’s cold night, spears held high. Flickering blue-white ghostfires set to ward against weeping, unhallowed things did little to cheat the mist. The world beyond felt distant. Unreachable.
And perhaps it was. Forbidden Places brushed the face of the divine, and none were more forbidden than this. Darkmere, ruined capital of Malatriant, the Tyrant Queen.
Though the gate was long gone to decay and sickly black ivy clung between the parapet’s rotten teeth, the boundary wall was thick, and the gateway narrow. A dozen men could have held it. Rosa Orova had nearly as many Knights Essamere to hand, hawks glinting gold on hunter’s green shields. And on the walls, the Drazina knights of Viktor Droshna’s personal guard, black tabards drawn tight over banded leather and chamfered plate, the old Akadra swan repurposed. Named for the folk heroes of the old kingdom, they offered a rare glimpse of poetry in the Lord Protector’s sombre soul. Just as his taking of the Droshna name – one born of Hadari fears, and now wielded as a weapon against them – spoke to old wounds gone unhealed.
A slow exhalation marked the end of Viktor’s contemplation. He stood a head taller than Rosa, a brooding mountain, dark-haired and dark-eyed. The swirling sea- gold flames etched into his armour shifted as he folded his arms.
“How many today?”
“Maybe fifty. Why? Are you tempted to surrender?”
“To a mere fifty?” Viktor’s mouth twitched, pulling at the old scar on his cheek. “Time was, you’d have settled that many alone.”
Rosa suppressed a shiver. Five years, she’d tried to leave that day behind. The day she’d become something more than human, and also far less. That cursed woman belonged to history.
Five years ago, Viktor would have considered it poor taste to remind a friend of her failings. But neither of them were who they’d been. She was better. Not redeemed, exactly. You moved forward as best you could and hoped fresh deeds counted more than the stale. Rosa welcomed the moments of stiffness that presaged middle age. Ephemeral humanity wrested from eternity’s clutch, though not without price. Ash-white hair was only part of it.
Yes, she was better. Viktor?
Viktor, Rosa worried about.
“They don’t really want any part of this miserable place,” she said. “But they can’t look the other way with the mighty Lord Protector traipsing their territory. Pride paves strange roads.”
He scowled away the title’s formality. The air crackled with frost. It did that a lot around Viktor, lately. The shadow in his soul rising with his temper.
The northern reaches of the Greyridge Mountains weren’t Hadari territory. Not by right. Like the rest of the Eastshires, they chafed beneath the white stag of Silsaria, one of the Empire’s many kingdoms. Redsigor, the Hadari named it. Contested Lands whose conquest Viktor had sworn to undo. A rare failure in a life thick with success.
Pride paved strange roads.
Friendship paved stranger ones. Rosa had gladly followed Viktor to Darkmere, though Sevaka hadn’t approved. She’d not said as much to Rosa. Not aloud. But five years of marriage eroded a wife’s secrets as surely as the wind. Anything to escape the Essamere chapterhouse; the empty chairs and faded escutcheons where once song and mirth had hammered out. Roslava Orova, who’d so nearly been the Queen of the Dead, had instead become a mistress of ghosts in an ailing fortress.
There were others. Memoralia stones raised in every village stood stark reminder of empty houses, silent fields and borders desperate for defenders the Republic no longer possessed. Viktor had promised the expedition to Darkmere might change everything. Of the few truths Rosa yet clung to, one outweighed all: if Viktor promised a thing could be done, it would be done.
“We’ve come a long way to be here,” she said. “Shame if it were all for nothing.”
“My thoughts also,” Viktor replied.
Three riders broke ranks in a muffled clatter of hooves. Steeds’ snorting breaths fed the mists. Golden scale shone as they advanced beneath the city’s wind-blasted walls and empty windows. Two Immortals trotted at the fore. One held a furled rust-coloured banner aloft. A naked blade, inverted in the tradition of parley, gleamed in the hand of the second.
The third rider was a slender man of Rosa’s age, his armour dotted with glittering black gemstones. Where the Immortals wore close-fitting helms, he was bare-headed, his thin, olive-toned features twisted in distaste. Prince Thirava Tirane, Regent of Redsigor, seldom stirred beyond the comforts and walls of Haldravord. If he’d come so far south . . . ? Well, the estimate of fifty Hadari looked smaller and smaller all the time.
“They want to talk,” said Viktor.
“Nice for them,” Rosa replied.
“I could kill him.” Once, the words would have been a joke, the unthinkable breach of honour framed by grim smile. But after years of tending the Republic’s wounds, Viktor had little mirth to spare, and especially not for the Hadari. Nor, were she honest, did Rosa.
“You do that, could be we’ll none of us get out of here alive.”
“Then we’d better listen to what he has to say.”
Viktor clapped Rosa on the back, hitched his claymore’s scabbard higher on his shoulders and strode to meet the riders.
“You choose a strange place to partake the glory of Redsigor, Lord Droshna.” Thirava spoke the Tressian low- tongue with an easterner’s harsh accent, and measured politeness. The legend of Viktor Droshna had spread faster in the Empire than in the Republic. Tales of the dead raised, and impossible victory seized while gods warred. “Tell me, what fate would befall me, had I trespassed your land?”
Icy air prickled Rosa’s lungs.
“That would depend on your reason,” said Viktor.
Thirava narrowed his eyes. “And what is your reason, Lord Droshna?”
“My business is my own.”
“In Redsigor, there is no business that is not also mine.” Thirava’s words hung heavy with the resentment of a man whose father clung to life and throne a little too resolutely. The captured Eastshires would never be the equal of the sprawling Silsarian heartlands. A prince in exile remained an exile, whatever titles he claimed and however many spears he commanded. “If you depart at once, you may live.”
“And if we stay?” asked Rosa.
“Then you will find my hospitality equal to the task.” Thirava’s tone cooled to threat. “I lost kin at Govanna. I’ve not forgotten the dead.”
Viktor’s breath frosted the air. The ruins’ shadows crept closer, black rivulets trickling over stone. The banner bearer flinched, then stared stoically ahead.
“Nor I,” said Viktor.
Offering a tight nod, Thirava hauled his horse about and rode away, companions close behind, until the mist swallowed all.
“I doubt we’ll live out the moonrise.” Rosa shook her head. “I’m not sure why he bothered to talk at all.”
Viktor grunted. “To show he’s not afraid. I do have a reputation.”
A small smile accompanied the words, an old friend glimpsed beneath the Lord Protector’s dour mantle. The air lost its chill, the encroaching shadows receding as Viktor’s mood improved. Then smile and friend were gone and the Lord Protector returned, like a helm’s visor lowered for battle.
“Maybe you should have killed him,” said Rosa.
Rosa followed him back to the gateway, running the tally of blades. Thirava likely had hundreds. She’d thirty knights at the gate that protected the now-ruined inner city. Another twenty deeper in. Rosa knew herself equal to three or four. Viktor was worth at least a dozen – more, with his shadow loosed.
Not enough. But when was it ever?
Drazina knights stiffened to attention as they passed beneath the gateway.
“Captain Jard? Have everyone fall back to the temple.” Viktor beckoned to his left. “Constans?”
The dark-haired boy emerged from a patch of shadow. “Father?”
Rosa stilled a twitch. Constans Reveque had a knack for moving unnoticed, a skill learnt while breaking parental curfew. Like Viktor – like all Drazina – he wore the black surcoat and silver swan of the vanished Akadra family, though he favoured frontiersman’s dark leathers over steel plate.
Fifteen summers old and with Viktor as his patron, Constans would soon be granted a knight’s plume. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. For all that he was becoming the mirror of his long-dead blood father – not least in his precise movement and brooding eyes – Constans lacked Malachi Reveque’s contemplative manner. Too often angry. Selective in authority acknowledged and respect shown.
He’d been quietly ejected from Chapterhouse Sartorov a year earlier – long before Grandmaster Rother had severed ties with the Republic and declared Fathom Rock an independent principality. That Viktor had taken on the boy as both squire and adoptive son – Constans’ relationship with his previous adoptive father being only a hair less strained than his relationship with Rother – had struck Rosa as the wrong message. But as a man with few friends, Viktor remained unflaggingly protective of those he did possess. Malachi and Lilyana Reveque lay five years beyond his aid, but their son . . . ?
“Keep watch,” said Viktor. “If the shadowthorns come, I look to you for warning.”
Constans’ eyes shone. A long dagger twirled about the fingers of his left hand and slid into a sheath on his belt. “At your order.”
Ruined and overgrown streets fell away, the distant weeping louder as night thickened. A brazier hissed and crackled, then burst to blue-white flame as ghostfire caught anew in a waft of sweet- cented duskhazel.
The once-grandiose temple was more imagination than perception, buried by the collapse of its upper storeys and the windblown detritus of centuries. The entire western quarter was simply . . . gone, crushed by the collapse of clocktowers and galleries. The north fell away into a jagged precipice of broken tile and jutting sarcophagi. The centre, and its cracked altar, was clear only through recent labours. A great spiral stairway descended through the fitful glow of firestone lanterns. A handful of Drazina, stripped to shirtsleeves, formed a work chain on the outer spiral, toiling with baskets and broken stone cleared from below.
Rosa stared away from the leering, bird-headed grotesques that stirred so many old memories, her eyes lingering on burial niches, stale and silent. Some were cracked, others ajar. Yet more lay empty, their sarcophagi plundered by the same degenerate prizraks who wept and howled their hunger beyond the ghostfire perimeter.
The frontrunners of Jard’s picket line set to work heaving sarcophagi to barricade the gateway. One cracked against the ground, spilling cloth-tangled bones across the nave.
Viktor peered into the spiral stair’s lantern-lit gloom. “Master Shalamoh. What progress?”
No reply issued from the depths.
“Master Shalamoh?” Viktor rapped his knuckles against a lantern’s metal crown, setting the light dancing. “A horde of shadowthorns gathers. You choose a poor time to test my patience.”
A thin face appeared at the staircase’s inner curve, accompanied by a voice too rich and deep for the speaker’s cadaverous grey robes. “A horde? That’s most unfortunate.”
In the fortnight since departing Tressia, Rosa had witnessed nothing stir Eldor Shalamoh to excitement that had not been buried a century or more. He projected calm as readily as the very best of soldiers, his young man’s vigour – despite his swept-back grey hair, Shalamoh was some years Rosa’s junior – suppressed behind seemly facade.
“That’s one way to put it,” said Rosa.
He slid a pair of wire-framed eyeglasses from his nose and polished the lenses against a cuff. “Perhaps you should drive them off, Lady Orova? That’s why you brought these brutes, isn’t it?”
“If only we’d thought of that.”
“Have you found the sanctum?” said Viktor.
Shalamoh’s lip twisted. “I’ve found a door. Fascinating petroglyphs. But whether it’s the sanctum or not, I can’t say.”
“We can’t get it open. Hammers, crowbars. Nothing works. Not even a crack.”
Viktor started down the stairs. “Let me—”
“Father!” Constans burst through the temple gate, out of breath and cheeks flushed. He mantled the sarcophagus-barricade without slowing, boots skidding across stone. “They’re coming.”
War drums boomed beyond the walls. The fanfare of Thirava’s courage found . . . or more likely, of his reinforcements arrived.
Viktor froze. “How many?”
“At least three hundred spears,” gasped Constans.
“Mount up!” shouted Rosa. “We’ll fight our way clear.”
The labour-chain broke apart, men and women running to their tents in search of armament. Others ran for the makeshift stables beneath the canted eastern roof.
“No.” Viktor snatched a lantern from its hook. “We can’t lose this chance.”
Drums crashed to crescendo, and faded to nothing. Defenders froze, wrong-footed by sudden quiet and contradictory orders. Beyond the walls, a lone prizrak sobbed its hunger to the skies.
Rosa stepped closer and lowered her voice. “If we stay, we die.”
Viktor turned on his heel. The air crackled with cold. A deep breath, and his features softened to something approaching friendliness. “Rosa, please. Trust me.”
“That’d be easier if I knew why we were here.”
He drew himself in, eyes imploring. “This is not pride, but necessity.”
Grubbing around in forbidden Darkmere? Guided by an upstart scholar and the pages of an outlawed text? Five years before, it would have made for a special kind of madness. But Rosa scarcely recognised that world. So much of what she’d thought myth had been proven real.
But one truth remained. Whenever she’d doubted Viktor, others had paid the price.
“We’ll buy you as much time as we can.”
His hand found her shoulder. His eyes, hers. “I know.”
Then he was gone beyond the curve of the stairs, Shalamoh in tow.
“You heard!” shouted Rosa. “We hold!”
Knights gathered to the barricades. Midnight black and hunter’s green. Commander Tanor stood tall among the latter, a veteran of Govanna among untested Drazina.
Rosa drew closer. “Spread our lads and lasses out, Zephan. Let Essamere stiffen the line.”
A ghost of a smile tugged at worn, Hallowsider’s features. The Drazina were acclaimed as knights, but they weren’t the equal of the old chapterhouses . . . and certainly not Essamere.
“I’ll watch over the right, mistress. You the left?”
The left end of the barricade faced both the temple gateway and one of the navigable window arches. Where the fighting would be thickest, in other words. “You want the grandmaster’s circlet that badly?”
The smile returned. “You’d rather you were bored?”
“The sisters shine for you, Zephan.”
He straightened, pleased she’d invoked Lunastra alongside her radiant sibling. Hallowsiders didn’t look to Lumestra alone to keep them safe. “Until Death, mistress.” He strode away along the barricade of sarcophagi. “Gennery. Tolsav. Prasiv. You’re with me.”
The drums crashed back. Dust spilled from stonework. Rosa unslung her shield and took position with the Drazina at the gateway.
“The Lord Protector commands we hold, so we hold.” She let her voice blossom beneath the approaching drums. Solidity. Certainty. Leadership was more than a bloodied sword. She’d been years learning that. Some never did. “Stand together. Do the dead proud, and—”
Ragged shrieks tore through the thunder of the drumbeats, and billowed madly into the night sky. Terror that shivered the soul without decency to first encounter one’s ears.
To Rosa’s left, Captain Jard paled beneath his helm. “Blessed Lumestra . . . What was that?”
“I doused the outer ghostfires.” Constans’ voice arrived at Rosa’s shoulder, swimming in self-regard. “I thought it’d make things more interesting.”
Shouts echoed beneath the screams. Bellowed orders. Rosa’s mind’s eye glimpsed the horror Constans had unleashed. Pallid, scarecrowtatter prizraks falling upon the Hadari with tooth and claw, eyes burning like coals beneath thick red tears. Her stomach coiled in disgust.
“Reveque. You’ll take position on the left, and your lead from Sergeant Danarov.”
“I’d rather stay here.”
She met the truculent stare head-on. “I didn’t ask.”
Eyes threatened refusal, but at the last he blinked. “At your command.”
Screams faded, the prizraks slaughtered or driven back to the shadows. Drums regained dominance, their rumble louder with every heartbeat.
A hundred voices washed over the ruins. Running feet thundered beneath.
“Here they come!” shouted Rosa. “Death and honour!”
“Death and honour!”
The gateway crowded with golden scale and rust-coloured silks. Swarthy faces roared challenge from beneath close-set helms. Ghostfires ripped and flickered.
An Immortal barged Jard’s sword aside with his golden shield and vaulted onto the barricade. He died there, swept away by a slash that juddered Rosa’s arm to the shoulder.
Others pressed behind, howling and screaming. Hammering at helm and shield. A young Drazina collapsed to Rosa’s right, gasping for breath an opened throat couldn’t claim. An Essamere shield took the woman’s place, ramming her slayer back across the sarcophagus and into the press of bodies.
Spears stabbed across shield and stone. A thrust ripped Rosa’s surcoat and skittered across her pauldron. Another scraped between the plates at her flank, rousing flesh to fire.
Details blurred, lost in red screams and ragged breaths. The judder of the parry. The bite of steel on flesh. The hot stink of death rising through the mist.
A war hammer struck Rosa’s helm and set her world spinning. Reeling, she ducked the Immortal’s second swing. His third strike crumpled the upper edge of her shield. She let it fall. Gauntleted fingers about the hammer-wielder’s belt, she dragged him down behind the barricade. Her sword, now tight in both hands, crunched through armoured scales to split his spine.
Rosa screamed the words and reclaimed her place at the gore-slicked barricade. A fur-clad Silsarian clansman shied from her onset, and died before his sword touched hers.
Lumestra, but how she’d missed this! Even with her head ringing. Even with skin hot and clammy with sweat and blood. Even with the fire of jarred bones and bruised flesh leaping through her veins. Battle brought bleak vigour.
She scraped a parry and sent another shadowthorn screaming into Otherworld. Her fist closed around a hank of filthy hair and slammed a helmless head against stone.
Why had she ever forsaken this? Allowed herself to become a tutor to recruits? To exchange the soldier’s sword for the mistress’ mantle? This was where she belonged. It was what she was for.
Then, as the fighting lulled and she sought an unbroken blade, she saw him.
He sat on a fallen keystone, hands folded behind his back and black goatee twisting quizzically below a mask of dark feathers. Tall, and yet with a suggestion that his true presence was vaster still; his coat rumpled and his tall hat scuffed.
Breath staled in Rosa’s throat. The temple receded into grey, as did those who strove within, their clamour muffled beneath her stuttering pulse. The Raven. Had she drawn him there, by forgetting the lessons of times past and losing herself in slaughter?
“No . . . ”
She blinked and found no sight of him in a world restored to sound and colour. The patch of rubble on which he’d sat was empty.
The whistle of arrow and the scarlet hammer- blow in her shoulder came as one.
A crunch of knee on stone warned Rosa she’d fallen. The clang of steel that her sword had slipped from her grasp. A gasp sent fire raging through her lungs.
“Shields!” roared a voice.
A parapet of shields topped the makeshift barricade. The air clattered with cheated bodkins. The duller, wetter thump as others found flesh. Gaps showed in the shield wall. Fresh screams rang out.
Gold gleamed in the night.
Brow slicked with cold sweat, Rosa gripped the arrow tight, straining for leverage to snap the shaft. Her shoulder screamed and her hand fell. Shaking. Useless.
It wouldn’t have been so, not so very long ago. She’d have ripped the arrow free without blinking. But that woman had been eternal, endless. Now she was ephemeral. Mortal.
Black uniforms vanished beneath a rush of gold. A brother of Essamere slumped across the barricade, his helm crushed and a spear in his belly. Abandoning her useless battle against the arrow, Rosa closed her good hand about her sword.
An ear-splitting crack shook the temple. The ground heaved.
Stone plunged from the upper storeys, pulverising the dead and shattering flagstones. And the sensation . . . Not cold, not exactly. Cold was the mirror of heat. This was something else. Not the flipside of the coin, but another coin altogether. It felt old beyond words.
Drums fell silent. The Hadari bled away into the night, babbling their fear. Rosa stared towards the spiral stairway, giddy mirth spilling from her lips. “Took you long enough, Viktor.”
But Viktor was nowhere to be seen.
Retreating footsteps faded. Survivors stirred to aid the fallen.
Hot blood rushing against cold skin, Rosa levered herself upright, her shoulder more heavy and numb than raw.
It had to be Viktor. He’d pulled similar tricks before; loosed his shadow to blind the foe and set them to flight. Granted brief life to the dead, if a boneless, puppeteered existence could be considered such.
lways on the brink of disaster, as was ever a saviour’s wont.
So where was he?
Leaving the barricade behind, she stumbled towards the spiral stair.
“Roslava.” The familiar voice. Clipped and gravelly. Weary. Mocking.
She found herself face to face with the Raven.
“You promised to leave me alone!”
For the first time, Rosa saw the old temple in all its glory. The oncebare stone whorled with silver and gold; the roof restored and polished statues presiding over all, their arms outspread in welcome to supplicants shuffling about her like a rock in a stream.
Or so it might have seemed, but for the pervasive green hue and the inconstant, insubstantial nature of the crowd. Not living men and women, but drifting, empty-eyed ghosts, vaporous beneath the waist and indistinguishable from the ever-present mists.
Of the Hadari – of the knights – Rosa saw no sign. She heard nothing but the slowing, pulsing double-thump of her heart.
“I have left you alone,” said the Raven.
“And yet here you are.”
“No.” He scowled. “Here you are. One foot in my world. One foot in Otherworld. Close enough to hear me.”
He’d distracted her. Lined her up for the arrow, all so he could speak with her. She was dying, and the Raven had killed her. The revelation called for anger, but all was leaden – thought, emotion and being.
“Stop him,” said the Raven. “You’re the only one who’ll listen to me.”
“Your friend. The Lord Protector. He interferes with something he should not.”
“He’s doing what he must.”
“No. He’s doing what he thinks he must.” Pain flared as he seized her shoulders, his tone darker, urgent. “I once told you that I’d been privileged with a glimpse of coming days. A future bleak beyond my taste. Though the details have faded like smoke, I know one thing: this is where it starts to go wrong. For us all. But for Tressia most of all. What is buried here must remain buried. Stop him.”
Rosa pulled free, and nearly lost her footing. “Stop him yourself.”
“I pledged to cease meddling. Breaking that promise won’t prevent disaster – it will only alter its nature. But you . . . ?” He sighed. “Have I ever lied to you, Roslava?”
She yearned to say yes. But the Raven had never lied, though his truth was often poison. He’d even been kind, when she’d deserved nothing of the sort.
The double-thump of her heart ebbed. The space between the beats crawled to turgid agony.
When she doubted Viktor, others paid the price. But was that truth, or merely excuse for inaction? Viktor’s triumphs always levied a price.
The Raven stepped closer. “Talk to him if you can. But stop him.”
“How? I’m dying.” It all seemed so distant. Unimportant.
Levity entered his voice for the first time. “One foot is not all the way. Let me give you a nudge.”
Palms against her shoulders, he shoved her. She fell backward into the mists.
“Mistress?” Zephan crowded close. “Lady Orova?”
Mist thinned. Rosa found herself with legs splayed and a cracked pedestal at her back. The temple was again forlorn, the false splendour of Otherworld scrubbed away. Bodies lined the inner barricade. Some moving. Too many not. Those knights who remained bound one another’s wounds and stared out into the darkness, waiting for doom to befall.
Good shoulder wedged against the pedestal, she edged upright. Her shoulder throbbed, the arrow’s weight tugging at sinew. Oozing blood darkened her torn surcoat.
Zephan steadied her with a hand against her good arm. “Rosa?”
“Don’t shout, Zephan. I’m not deaf.”
“No, mistress.” He winced. “It’s better you don’t move. The physician’s coming.”
For all the good that would do. Sevaka had begged her not to come to Darkmere. If only she’d listened. “I’m sorry, love,” Rosa breathed. She refocused bleary eyes on Zephan. “The Hadari?”
“Gone. I’ve set Reveque to watch for them.”
“Good.” Every breath woke new fire, but pain was better than Otherworld’s creeping numbness. “Snap the arrow.”
He braced one hand against her punctured breastplate, the other about the shaft. A flash of pain and it was done. Through bleary eyes, Rosa stared at the splintered stump. Better.
She gripped Zephan’s forearm. Should she tell him? No. He’d think her mad. Maybe she was. Maybe it was all born of lost blood and fleeting soul. “If shadowthorns return, hold them as long as you can.”
“What about you?”
“I have to find Viktor.”
“No. I can’t—”
Rosa transferred her grip from forearm to shoulder. “You can. You will.”
With an unhappy twist of the lip, Zephan stepped back. “Until Death, mistress.”
Rosa limped towards the stairs, fighting to conceal a growing tremor. By the time she reached the first step, she abandoned all pretence, her good shoulder propped against the curved wall and the bad screaming as the arrowhead shifted in her flesh.
Down she went, knees buckling with every onerous step.
This is where it starts to go wrong.
She forged on. Clung to the Raven’s words as mantra.
Halfway down, the drums sounded again. By the time she reached the piled dirt and broken stone at the pit of the stair, the sounds of battle raged anew. The Raven’s words drove her on.
Mist shimmered in the lantern light of the half-excavated passageway. Alcoves yawned from the walls, the columbarium grander than in the temple above. Gold glinted, grave- hoard and offering. The not-cold sensation grew.
Great slabs of black stone emerged from the mist. One, split in two, lay flat upon the rubble. The other sat canted against the wall, its petroglyphs of piercing eyes and spread wings gleaming gold. The sanctum door, unbreachable by mortal toil, had yielded to Viktor’s shadow. The force of its breaking had set the Hadari to flight.
Shalamoh scuttled to bar Rosa’s path. He flinched at her bloodied aspect, then gathered himself to stillness, save for an outstretched, shaking hand. “Lady Orova—”
“Where’s . . . Viktor?” The words ripped free, more gasp than speech.
“I caution against going further, lady.”
This is where it starts to go wrong.
Rosa shoved him aside. Three more steps, and the mists swallowed scholar and shattered doors as if they’d never been.
There was no lantern beyond the doorway. The only illumination came from wisps of diffuse, whitish light that danced past her and vanished into the drifting shroud. Weary eyes glimpsed curved walls and a low, vaulted ceiling. Corvine faces leered from every pillar.
Stone skittered from Rosa’s boot and into an abyss edged with broken tile and the remnant of a descending stair. No impact echoed up from the catacomb below.
She staggered across a gaping floor more collapsed than intact, past ancient tombs, the bas- reliefs familiar in style, and yet not. The stale scent of yesterdays grew stronger. White-green mist tinged with writhing black.
Viktor stood with his back towards her, shadow a shifting cloak about his shoulders. His hands rested on a glassy, black orb. Even looking at it hurt. As if it didn’t belong in the living world. The orb, in turn, sat upon an ornate pedestal. Pale green cracks pulsed in time with the wisps dancing like glimmerbugs about his shoulders. Opposite, beyond the remnant of a frayed carpet, an empty archway loomed above unbroken stonework. A door leading nowhere.
What is buried here must remain buried.
Wisps bobbed past Rosa and joined the dance about the orb. Those that touched it vanished, swallowed by glimmering green. She shuddered, wracked by horrified recollection of her torment as the Queen of the Dead. Soul sparks, freed from those who fought and died above. The last gasps of the dying, drawn to the orb . . . and to what?
This is where it starts to go wrong.
“Viktor . . . ” Speech was an excruciating effort now. “What are you doing? What . . . is all this?”
He didn’t turn. Didn’t move.
Two ragged breaths crept by, each accompanied by an unsteady step through coils of mist and shadow.
“I’ve found it,” he said, his voice a rumbling, reverent whisper. “I hear them. I can reach them. This is where everything changes.”
The last words, so similar to the Raven’s, scattered Rosa’s last doubts.
Galvanised to one final effort, Rosa shouldered Viktor aside and shoved the orb. It toppled free of the pedestal, struck the floor and shattered. A burst of viridian light left dark splotches on Rosa’s vision. Glassy fragments spilled across the gaping floor and into the abyss.
“No!” Viktor spun about, eyes blazing. His shadow pulsed, hurling her against the empty arch. He bore down, face inches from hers. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
Ragged heartbeat slowed. Fire faded into numbness.
Viktor’s brow softened, anger yielding to despair. For the first time since she’d entered the chamber, Rosa had the sense he recognised her. “Rosa?”
She tried to speak, but found neither words, nor the breath to give them licence.
Closing her eyes one last time, Rosa clung to the memory of Sevaka’s face, and wondered if the Raven would be waiting for her in Otherworld.