“You would kill your own children,” Maakraig’s purr was slimy. “You see now that human and kobal are not so very different.”
“Sing to the vile heart,” Mag growled low in her throat. “Until it bursts.”
Maakraig snarled, his lips curling up over sharp incisors a hands-bredth long, and when he sprang forward it was with a speed that Cabriabanus could not follow. He had never thought a living object could move so fast, but somehow Mag was faster. She threw herself forward with a cry like a thousand voices speaking at once and Cab could only just barely leap out of the path of the monster.
Somehow the beast anticipated the move and Cabriabanus hadn’t time to cry out before he was snapped up in Maakraig’s great jaws. He gasped in expectation of pain that did not come and the beast held him in gleaming sharp teeth that did not pierce his flesh. He could only assume that it was Mag that had done it, saved him once more, thrown up some kind of protective barrier around him.
Maakraig shook his head in a violent rage and Cabriabanus clawed at the beast’s snout for purchase. He managed to get a grip upon one nostril and curled himself up around the snout, holding his body rigid and tight to keep from snapping into pieces.
There was a great booming, as of thunder in his head, and Maakraig was thrown across the room, Cabriabanus still clutched tight in his jaws. The beast landed on his side, but was on his feet in an instant, Cab’s head spun and he could hardly tell up from down. He took a deep breath, tried to clear his mind, to calm himself that he might think of some way to free himself, but there came a strange sound and the beast’s tongue jostled all the nearly-formed thoughts from his head. Maakraig was laughing.
“What do you care for this mortal?” Maakraig asked around the body in his mouth. “Do you love him so that you would spend all your power to save his pitiful existence?” The beast laughed as he turned and made to leap into the water. He would try to escape with Cabriabanus, a nice little bargaining chip, something to trade for the returned submission of his favourite Spilzock? Or would he simply attempt to drown the man, who was clearly the driving force behind her will to escape?
It did not matter. He got no further than to turn. With a momentous chorus of cracking, the temperature in the room dropped so quick that the water froze solid, crackling like a fire as it did so.
“You think I am only what you have made me?” Mag cried, her voice almost as loud as the forming ice. “You think I am a creature of fire and death because of you alone?”
Maakraig turned back to her, slowly, his hot breath billowing out of his mouth past Cabriabanus, in the now chill room. The trees around them drooped with the instant frost, the floor beneath Maakraig’s feet grew slick.
“I am the moon,” Mag boomed. “My mother is Mag Rand Am, the ocean, the storm queen. I am lightning and water and hard ocean winds.” With her words, a strong wind picked up and prowled the room, breaking frozen leaves off the trees and picking up shards of ice from the cracking pond.
“I was taught by a daughter of the dark lady of death.” She lifted her hands and bright sparks, electric blue lightning, crackled between her fingertips. The light in the room seemed to vanish, or perhaps it was just that Cab’s eyes were failing. A weight came with the darkness, a weight he had known and feared far too many times in the chill of dungeon cells. The weight of pain. The weight of Bella’s dark hand upon one’s shoulder.
Fear. It was fear filling the air and filling his lungs and Cabriabanus closed his eyes for a moment, but that only seemed to intensify the feeling, so he opened them again and focused on his shaking hands, still clutching the great beast’s nostril. He looked into the beast’s great yellow eye and saw that it was clouded over. Maakraig had hardly moved since turning, since the temperature had dropped. Perhaps he couldn’t. Hope rushed into the hollow spaces that fear had created within him and he released his grip, ignoring the stiff pain in his joints. He wrested the dagger from it’s sheath and as the wind rose and the trees swayed and cracked and broke, and Mag’s words, no longer intelligible to him, reached a crescendo he plunged the dagger into Maakraig’s eye. The beast screamed loud enough to shake the roof over their heads and Cabriabanus tumbled from his jaws, dagger still clutched in his hand, striking the floor hard. All the air escaped his lungs. Gasping, he tried to scramble away from Maakraig’s blind thrashing, and felt a pair of hands upon the hard leather breastplate. The hands took a firm grip and shucked his body across the icy floor like a branch down a river. He struck the wall beside the door, pulled in deep lungfuls of searing, icy air and watched as Mag stalked calmly toward the flailing beast, arms in the air, surrounded by crackling lightning and howling winds. Cab’s mouth went dry and he scrambled to his feet, heart pounding in fear for the girl. But before the urge to leap in front of her, to stop her, became action he heard her words inside his head, sing to the vile heart until it bursts.
The fastest way to end this, all of this, was through the door behind him. He turned and faced it, took a few deep breaths and attempted to sing the lock open. Nothing happened, he could hardly even hear his own voice, all he could hear was the quickening of his heart, as though it might burst. Anger and despair battled in his chest, the former scrabbling over the latter and he kicked at the door with all his might and frustration, crying out to the gods for help.
Sing, commanded a voice in his head, familiar and yet foreign. The note that burst from his throat before he could think of it, was joined from another that seemed to stem from his very thoughts.
The door shattered like ice and he leapt into the room, unprepared for the horror within.
It was a cold, dank room, windowless and bare, the walls obscured in shadow, but there was a pale, blue light that pulsed from a platform in the centre. Around the central light were objects that cast long shadows and obscured everything. Dread filled him from top to toe and his bones felt like they might shatter at a touch. He stepped cautiously forward until he could make out the objects more clearly. They were people, women, or had been. Now they were vessels covered in a sparkling frost, breathless, motionless, except for the beating hearts that filled their cavernous chests. The hearts of Ghamiscar and of some few Orscan. There seemed to be so many, it stole the breath right out of him and the only thing that broke through his horror was a pain-filled shriek from the other room. He shook the horror from his head, though it crawled across his skin. He marched forward, dagger still in hand, right to the central platform from whence the light came. It was blinding, pulsing and he knew, though he could not see, that it was Maakraig’s heart in the centre creating that light. He raised the dagger over his head and eyes shut to the light, brought it down upon the vile heart. It was like striking cold, hard stone; the dagger shattered and his arm felt the shock of the blow all the way into his shoulder. He dropped the useless hilt and clutched at his arm, crying out from the pain, his entire arm numb. Mag screamed again from without and Maakraig’s growl sounded of triumph. Cab’s heart pounded in his chest, in his ears, and he rubbed at his arm, desperately trying to bring feeling back to it. The heart before him beat out a rhythm that his body wanted to match. The light pulsed against his eyelids. And then a voice:
Sing! It commanded from within. Before the echo of the words had faded he was opening his mouth and the song rode over the beating of the heart, the cruel laughter, the screaming.
I saw a massive army raised, I saw my lady fair.
Behind the walls, in towers tall, she watched and did despair.
He faltered, not knowing where this song had come from. The tune was so familiar, but the words were foreign. Mag’s cries from the other room tried to pierce through the song, tried to end it before it had even begun. He pushed forward, not knowing the words that would leave his lips next.
Behind the walls, in towers tall, my lady in despair.
She watched the massive army come to tangle in her hair.
Mag’s screams had changed shape. They were still pain filled, but now they were harmonic. Now they seemed to flow with the words that escaped his lips. The pulsing behind his closed eyelids was slowing, flickering, and Maakraig was yipping discordantly, desperately, trying to break the melody. Cabriabanus couldn’t have stopped singing if he had tried. If an army had swept into the room and plunged their weapons into his body, if Rottdokk had slashed his head from his neck, still the words would part from his lips. He was a rock tumbling off a high peak, speed gathering, rending everything in his path. But he was not alone. The cold, flickering light, the puffs of song visible in the icy air, there were voices all around him, joining him in song.
She watched the massive army come, from tower walls so high.
She watched the lance that ran me through, she watched her soldier die.
The light faltered, dimmed, and Maakraig’s discordant death drone was desperate and weak. Mag’s voice had gained in power alongside his and the others. The others, which he realized, were coming from the mouths of the corpses around him, the gruesome beating hearts in their chests were slowing, but they sang on, an eerie chorus that should not have been.
She watched the lance that ran him through.
The light was dim enough now that he could open his eyes, he could see the vessel in which Maakraig had laid his heart.
But lo, she did not cry.
It was another Ghamiscar, twice the size of Maakraig, with skin almost black, covered in a hatch work of white scars; distinctly female, perhaps his mother. Had she been the last of the Wifiji, condemned to harbour the heart of her destroyer?
She raised the call from wall to wall.
The dim light was no longer pulsing. It seemed to spin. The song and the power it raised was palpable. He could have reached out and touched it, plucked it from the air. And as the last line burst from his throat, from the throats of the dead around him, the dim light expanded, grew brighter and larger and burst with a sound like an avalanche.
And burned the creatures nigh.
He was blinded, deafened, thrown through the air. He felt numb, until he struck a wall, and the breath escaped from his lungs once again. His head snapped back to strike cold stone.
A high pitched humming was the last thing he heard.
The noise eased away. He could feel again, but everything was pain. His head pounded and his movements seemed dim and far away. He could feel the beating of his heart as if it were in another room altogether. Fear swept over him like an icy river. He had failed. His heart was not beating in his chest, that heart beating was the sound of Arr-Ghamiscar’s. But no, now he could feel his heart in his own chest and he calmed a little. His ears seemed stuffed with fluff and the pounding of his blood. He wrenched his eyes open but there was nothing but darkness every where he looked. He managed to move his hand to his chest, to ensure his heart was still beating within and a moan of relief escaped his lips.
“Ban,” came a voice. Tears welled in his eyes at that name. But it was not his mother’s voice. It was that of Mag, her voice weak and dry.
“Mag,” he croaked in return. He lay atop some uncomfortable rubble, the air and the floor beneath the rubble was still icy cold. The cold pricked at his fingers, nose, the hollow of his throat. He was almost glad for the feeling, else all his feeling would be pain. There was more pain to come though, for he moved his sore bones, sat up and experienced the darkness swirling around him.
“Is he dead?” he asked, placing a hand upon the cold floor. He attempted to stand but his legs were weak and he could hardly get a bearing.
“Yes,” she breathed. Her voice was hardly there. Still he picked it out of the darkness and forced himself to move toward it. All he could do was crawl. The floor was slick and icy. His hands stuck to it and it ripped at the flesh at every movement. He found strength somewhere and soon his hands struck the cold dirt floor of the main room. He felt around as he carried forward, trying to force his mouth to speak to Mag, that he might find her by the sound of her voice. He could think of nothing but his own terrible blindness and it brought a weakness into his chest so that he had to open his mouth to suck in a loud breath. For a moment, it seemed that no matter how much air he brought into his lungs it was not enough, could never be enough.
“Be calm,” Mag’s voice came at him from not far away. Her words issued into his lungs and seemed to ease his breathing. He forced his hand forward once more and it struck against something he did not expect. It was large and warm and he knew it to be the scaly corpse of Maakraig. It was still as only the dead can be. He leaned his head against the massive form and breathed a sigh, which turned into a mad laugh. Tears streamed down his face and he might have carried on laughing for all eternity had Mag’s hand not reached out and gripped his forearm. He started for he had not expected her to be so near.
“Mag,” he said.
“Help me, Banus,” she insisted.
“Mag,” he repeated, placing his other hand over hers. “I am blind.”
His words were no more than a whisper and she gave a dry chuckle in response.
“You are not,” she said. “Magic fades. I can renew it. Come closer.”
He followed her arm with his fingers and leaned forward until he struck her forehead with his own. He mumbled an apology as she pressed her hands against his face, pushed him back and whispered the words she needed. Her hot breath upon his lips made his whole face tingle before the room bloomed into glorious being. The vine-like trees that had filled the main chamber were blackened to char and sparkled with frost. The air was cold and yet seemed to be full of settling ash. The massive form of Maakraig lay sprawled before him, mouth agape, tongue lolling, blood pooling around his head. Cab sat inches away from a heavy arm, the claws upon his fingers seemed so much sharper now they were frosted with ice. Mag lay with the beasts other hand clasped still tightly around her waist, pointed claws pressing into her flesh to leave little rivulets of blood running across her body and onto the floor. His heart flew into his mouth and he moved too quickly to try to help her, managing to nearly fall atop her instead.
“Easy,” she cried out as he steadied himself against the clawed hand that held her, pushing the claws deeper into her flesh by accident. He pulled away and attempted to pull the claw with him. He was weak and clumsy and managed to drag the claws across her flesh as he released her from her prison. Her face twisted in pain but she did not cry out. Instead, she pressed her hands against the holes in her body to stem the flow of blood. It seemed that he looked away for only a moment and she had already plugged the holes with her magic, though the blood still cooled upon her skin.
He breathed a sigh of relief and sat back against the corpse. The Heart-room lay in devastation before him. The heavy door was shattered upon the floor and within the room was littered with corpses, their hollowed chests open and empty but for blackened smudge. Some of the corpses faces had contorted from the blast of power, the edges of their dead lips curled up in a gruesome facsimile of a smile. He turned his gaze away. The chill was beginning to ebb and an odour most foul was rising.
“What happens now?” he asked. “The king and all his generals are dead.”
“War,” Mag said. Her words punctuated by a loud hiss as the corpse he leaned against released a stream of foetid essence. He gagged and crawled away, pulled himself, at last, to his feet. It was the sorceress who steadied him, though he could feel her muscles shaking with the effort.
“We must flee,” she said, her eyes wide with insistence.
“The children,” he remembered, and with their memory in his head he found he could stand on his own, found he had some remaining strength after all. He shook off the gruesome scene, the foul odours, the weakness and pushed the thoughts of all that had happened aside.
“With the Ghamiscar dead,” she said. “Those remaining Orscani will fight for dominance. We should go as quickly as we can, before the fighting overwhelms us.”