Perfect Shadow

Page 8

"Done," Gwinvere said.
They were beating the boy when Gaelan arrived, landing on a neighbor's rooftop. He supposed that should have made it easier. The Marions' home, bamboo and rice paper with a steep slate roof, was in a nicer arean the southeast side of the city. The home itself was small, but had a large yard, surrounded by a high fence so their neighbors couldn't watch them train.
It was oddly careless for two wetboys, but then Gaelan supposed if you had a child, it was hard to move surreptitiously between safe houses. And any robber who accidentally came here would quickly wish he hadn't. And if someone knew he was attacking two wetboys and decided to do it anyway, he was probably powerful enough to find you regardless.
Still. Odd.
And it was the mother doing the beating. "Faster, Hubert! Pathetic. You disgust me." The boy was curled up on the ground, and she was punching him, her fist stabbing in past his blocks, efficient, crisp, remorseless.
Will you serve me in this?
~ What are you doing, Acaelus? ~
Serve me or abandon me, black heart. I'm going.
Gaelan leapt from the roof. There were good tactical reasons to do this-there were doubtless booby traps on the fence, on the wetboys' own roof, and at their doors-but really, he just wanted to get it over with.
Problem with jumping-you can't change course in midair. Jade screamed something just before Gaelan descended. Gaelan's sword was out, aimed squarely for Saron's back, going for the heart.
But Saron jumped instantly, and used his Talent to do so.
Gaelan's sword struck deeply enough that the blade stuck and was ripped out of his hands by the force of Saron's jump.
Gaelan hit the ground off-balance and rolled, popping to his feet and throwing a pair of knives at Jade.
She stood still, apparently stunned by his appearance.
The knives passed through her, and she popped.
Mirage! Of course. Jade was a master of illusions.
A door slammed. The back door of the house. Jade had already escaped.
The boy had risen. He was staring at Gaelan wide-eyed.
"Sorry, kid," Gaelan said. "Nothing to do with you." He jumped over the fence into the neighbor's much smaller yard-approximately where he thought Saron should have landed.
Saron was in the yard, standing on trembling legs, leaning against a sapling for support. Gaelan's sword had entered his back and exited below his belly button. The force of his jump had yanked it downward, but it hadn't cut all the way through his pelvis-so the blade was sticking out of his crotch, angled down. Blood dripped off the sword's point like piss dribbling off a penis.
"You won't get it," Saron said.
"Get what?" Gaelan asked, playing along.
"The red stone. The fire ruby."
The red ka'kari? What the hell? "You're dying," Gaelan said. "If you don't make your move soon, you won't have the strength."
Saron shifted, and a gush of blood and worse splurted onto the ground from his groin. A knife tumbled out of his nerveless fingers. He grunted, face contorted in pain. "Too late. Curse you."
"How much does she love you?" Gaelan asked quietly.
"What?" Saron's eyes suddenly showed a bit of real fear.
Gaelan lowered his voice further. "Because I want to know if I'm going to have to chase Jade down, or if she'll come back if I stand here talking to you long enough."
~ You're despicable, Gaelan. ~
Spare me.
"I'll kill you!" Saron shouted.
Raising his voice. Doubtless to cover the approach of-
Gaelan threw himself to the side.
A spear pierced the air where he'd stood a second before. A mistake. She should have attacked with projectiles . She thrust again immediately as he moved in. The blade cut his tunic as it passed between his torso and his arm.
Gaelan locked his elbow around the spear's shaft, trapping it as he twisted, bringing up his other hand and snapping the shaft below the spearhead before Jade could snatch it back.
Give her this. She'd been overcome by emotion for a moment-wanting to kill him immediately so she could tend to her dying husband-but she was cool now. She instantly lashed out again with the broken weapon, using it as a staff, unfazed.
Unarmed, Gaelan dodged behind the sapling where Saron was leaning, dying. Her strike rattled the whole tree, making Saron groan.
She stabbed at Gaelan, right past Saron. Once, twice. Gaelan dodged, dodged, then blocked, absorbing the blow and throwing her back. He ripped his sword free of Saron's back.
Jade was blonde, with appropriately green eyes, hard and skinny. A muscular beauty.
She began spinning the staff in great, fast circles, while she circled Gaelan widdershins. Saron was groaning again. He'd fallen to the ground, propped awkwardly against the little sapling.
Jade made no move to attack, her face a mask of intensity, stance low, staff whirling.
Gaelan would have been fooled if his eyes weren't so good, ka'kari aided. But there was a slight shimmer to Jade's figure. And that spinning staff made no noise as it cut the air.
Dropping low, Gaelan spun, attacking behind himself, his sword cutting a gleaming arc-batting aside a shadowy sword as the real Jade, shadow-cloaked, attacked from behind him.
Gaelan's lightning-fast riposte cut halfway through her neck. Jade dropped instantly. His blade had cut her spine. Arterial blood jetted over his face as his sword slid out of her neck. The shadows she'd wrapped around her body retreated. Disappeared.
The illusion of her-her distraction, her doppelganger-continued circling, whirling the phantasmal staff. Jade had split it off from herself when Gaelan had turned away to grab his sword. Then she'd wrapped herself in shadows, and had circled him the opposite way. Clever.
The illusory Jade circled all the way to Gaelan, intent on the staff.
At Gaelan's touch, the illusion fell apart.
When Gaelan turned again, Jade was dead. Her illusions had outlived her.
Not so different, are we?
The Marions' little boy, Hubert, came running into the yard with a little, child-sized crossbow in his hands, crying. "Father! Faather!"
Not ten paces away, wrapped in shadows, gathered in the arms of the night, Gaelan watched. With one hand, he rubbed his temples.
"Mother! Mother!" The boy, the orphan, ran to her corpse.
Gwinvere guided Gaelan to the basin, washed the blood off his hands. He knew he should snap out of it, but he was wooden, leaden, numb. Dead.
Jade, blond hair stained into a black halo around her head, neck cut at a sharp upward angle from collarbone to chin.
Jerissa, petite Cenarian with brown eyes, expression blank, never again to show her quirky grin, dress matted with blood from a single sword stroke through her heart.
Ysel, round Ymmuri face angelic, chest crushed, every rib snapped.
Lithel, kinky Ladeshian hair pulled into many small braids, eyes open, blackballed from the blow that had crushed the back of her skull.
Hannan, still a beauty at seventy, hair like ivory, smile lines by the dozen. The bruise prints of strangling hands around her neck.
Direla, her dusky Sethi skin fine, nose patrician, hair almost blue-black. The violence that had killed her hadn't left any marks-at least not on her face.

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