Perfect Shadow

Page 12

"That's really noble," I say. "Murdering someone to save your sister, I mean."
"I just listened to your story. You're the last man in the world who ought to preach to me."
~ He does have a point there. ~
Yvor stands and squeezes the red ka'kari in his hand. It covers his body with a slick red sheen. It burns away his clothing. He'll have to work on that.
"Fight me," he says. "I don't know how to get the ka'kari if you die while it's still inside your body."
I stand, wobble. Kids these days. "You poisoned the ale," I say. "You poisoned the ale?"
"Ironic, huh?"
I fucking hate irony.
He throws a fireball at me.
I bring up the black ka'kari in a shield. With a whoosh, it devours the fireball.
"That's not the Globe of Edges," he says.
"And I'm not Eric Daadrul." With a little sleight of hand, as if they're coming out of my skin, I produce five little metemptingic balls: blue, green, silver, white, gold. They roll uncertainly around the tabletop.
"You have all of the ka'kari?" he asks, terrified, but greedy too, not yet understanding.
"Counterfeits," I say. For just such occasions as this. I roll out my fake of the red ka'kari last.
Fear in his eyes, despite the suit of fire on his skin. Confusion. The Society only knows about six ka'kari-and what he's just seen doesn't fit any of them.
"You didn't lure me here to take my ka'kari," I tell him, sadly. "I lured you here to take yours."
A conflagration.
I'm hurled through the back wall of my safe house into the marsh surrounding it. I knew fire might be a problem. That's why I chose this place. No need to burn down the whole Warrens-not that they're much worth saving. I land calf deep in marsh mud.
The black ka'kari coats my body as Yvor comes out of the burning doorway.
Fireballs burn smoking, hissing trenches in the marsh. I dodge, flip, disappear.
He throws a fan of flames in a full circle.
A splash as I land behind him.
He whips around, throws jets of flame.
They curl around my torso, burning the night on either side of me. What hits me is mostly absorbed. The ka'kari burns blue iridescence at every joint and curve of my body as it devours the fire.
I ram two daggers deep into his chest.
The torrent of fire trails off, trickles down to nothing. His ka'kari drops into the mud, leaving him naked, mostly held up by my daggers. He looks me in the eyes and says, "I should have…"
He dies.
I let him slide off the daggers, drop into the muck. I pick up the red ka'kari from where it's hissing hot in the marsh mud.
There are no words. There is no light.
Nigh unto seven hundred years ago, there was a great fire in Trayethell. A light so bright it burned men to pillars of ash many leagues away. That fire was Jorsin Alkestes: mad man, savior, king. The war was lost long before that last battle was fought. But fight he did, teeth bared, laughing, incandescent. A light so bright that the great men and women of an age flocked to him like moths to a flame, and burned.
On the last day, Jorsin Alkestes, murderer and friend, took Curoch and Iures in hand at the same time. A lesser man would fear to touch one. But he, magnificent he, he bent the Blade of Power and the Staff of Law to his will.
As krul, the twisted un-men, swarmed over the last barricades and spilled through the streets, slaughtering women armed with little more than sticks and children throwing rocks, one man fled who had never fled in his life: Acaelus Thorne, unwanted treasure in his hands, left the fight. Under orders. He crept like a coward, outran the krul who chased him, stood among the corpses and filth and cowards at the mouth of the pass into the Fasmeru Mountains, and looked back. The krul were a black blankeheld tight over the face of the burning city .
A light bloomed from the castle's highest balcony. From a hundred points lightning cracked down. Every flying narokghul dropped from the sky, becoming a smoking, bleeding rain. The bleak clouds rolled back in an instant, as if shoved aside by giants' hands, and the light swelled ever brighter. Acaelus staggered up to a group of deserters, leaning against a granite wall at the mouth of the pass, catching their breath, weaponless, bloodied, their eyes dim, the eyes of the shamed and broken. But now those eyes reflected one sharp light. Those who had slumped now stood.
Titans rushed for the castle, smashing through three-story stone houses, stone shrapnel turned into dust motes dancing in the light of a rising sun. The earth heaved upward, just once, sweeping men and krul and titans and a hundred other kinds of monsters off their feet. Even Acaelus fell. Dogs whined. It was as if the earth herself were flinging her power into this enterprise. Into Jorsin Alkestes.
And then, just as they all stood again-obliteration. Light that blinded. Light that burned. Light that boiled the bloody river. Light that purified. Light that roared.
A rushing wind filled the blindness that followed, Acaelus knew only that it felt as if his very body were afire, veins burning inside his skin. Time shattered, scattered, thrown about and blown about. He came to himself, and the first thing he saw was his own blackened skin. Smooth, burnt perfect black, like he'd been dipped in tar.
Acaelus stood, feeling curiously whole, unconscionably strong. There were pillars of ash around him, howling winds already blowing away the remnants of what had been men. Against the granite wall, etched by light, shadows stood. Ghosts of the men who'd been vaporized. One shadow was different. One shadow stood, defiant, one fist raised, edges perfect, outline crisp-Acaelus's shadow. The others were dim, washed out. Bleached by a flood of light that had continued even after the men who had cast them were burned away. But through all the fire, one man had stood.
The black skin retreated into his body, unbidden, leaving him naked. His clothes and even his armor had been burned away.
Acaelus looked at leagues of wasteland. Nothing stirred but what was stirred by the wind. Death had taken the throne from Jorsin. A gleaming black dome huddled where once Trayethell had stood.
~ Acaelus. Mourn later. There is work to be done. ~
The voice came from inside his own head. The black ka'kari. It had saved him. It had been a secret gift from Jorsin Alkestes, who had told bull-headed Acaelus Thorne to flee, to live.
But Jorsin hadn't said he meant Acaelus to live forever.
I'll come back and take it off your hands, Jorsin had promised with his roguish grin when he'd given Acaelus the treasure. The liar. He was wan, washed out, but his eyes burned with a fevered intensity. He'd been spending every day fighting and every night with archmage Ezra, making…something. Never sleeping. Working on some last-minute salvation that Acaelus only slowly came to understand wasn't coming.
Jorsin Alkestes: emperor, genius, archmage, tyrant. Jorsin Alkestes was a light so bright he left shadows standing centuries hence. The semblances of men, burned onto granite walls. And one shadow was perfect above all others. A walking, breathing shadow. A shadow as flickering as the ghosts thrown by a candle, as mutable as a king's promises. A shadow who devoured light and life.
Light is, but a shadow undefined becomes simply darkness. And light had been too long denied the man who had been Acaelus Thorne. He was thin, fraying, a bowlful of smoke. He was becoming undifferentiated darkness.

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