Two days ago I had a minor operation on my toe. You’d think it was nothing – no big deal. The whole hospital and gowns and three surgeons and four nurses seemed like a bit of a mountain when you considered the molehill that was an itty-bitty ingrown toenail. But I was in the hospital for five hours. For a twenty minute ‘operation’.
Now, that in and of itself wasn’t a huge issue. More of a non-issue really. It gave me a couple of days off of work (very necessary) which normally would have been brilliant for my writing work but when one has an injury to their toe they have to sit with their toe above their heart. So blood doesn’t gush out of my toe, obviously.
This is an uncomfortable position to write in. My feet up up in the air, my back is propped up to facilitate me using a laptop. This is an uncomfortable position for anyone but I am extremely inflexible. Add to the odd posture the pain medication (and when I don’t take the meds, the pain itself) and it makes for a hazy brain staring at the ceiling kind of a day. Or few days.
So my writing has taken a backseat. It’s a bit like when I used to like sick days from school – not that I had many mind you – they were an opportunity to get things done that I didn’t usually have time for. On the down side, I was sick, so nothing got done.
This strange blast from the past (whatever the opposite of deja vu is) has made for the last few days to be relatively unpleasant. I don’t do well on my back all day (no jokes about that please) and every time I stand up, unless I’ve taken painkillers less than half an hour ago, I have a burning fierce pain in my toe, like someone is slowly filling it with hot lead.
Describing pain has become something of a hobby of mine. I am working on a project at the moment that is reaching down into the depths of my experience. It’s not my physical pain that I’m having to describe though; the project doesn’t have a name yet, it’s very amorphous around the edges but the whole thing has a very personal feel. I’ve spoken to another writer friend about it and he thinks that it’s possible I’m the only one who could write it. I don’t now if that’s true but it’s a flattering thought. It will be a journey of discovery, I have no doubt.
A group of retrieval experts are contracted by a rich woman to retrieve the body of her daughter, who has been thrown from the airlock of a space-cruiser by her father. The team decides to go private in order to help this woman get the closure that the sentencing and execution of her husband will not bring her.
It’s possible to read the first chapter in Books -> Searching for Stardust -> Read the First Chapter
“You’re going to have push now honey, come on, push!” Myrrdin’s voice was loud in my ears, but not as loud as the screams that filtered through my tired brain. What was going on? Someone should tell that person to be quiet so I could hear my mother.
“Alice? Alice! Come on, open your eyes.” Matt sounded so worried. Why was he so worried? There wasn’t anything to worry about, was there?
“She’s not opening her eyes Myrrdin, why won’t she open them?” I didn’t want to open my eyes; clearly whatever was happening was horrible, or whoever was screaming wouldn’t be making such a fuss.
“I remember this process well Matthew dear, opening one’s eyes is not the first instinct of the mother at this point.” Myrrdin’s voice sounded stressed and tired, but there was a bit of pride there too. What had I done that would make her sound like that? Something niggled at the corner of my mind and I tried to conjure it into a thought, but it eluded me.
“But she looks like it hurts so much. There’s nothing I can do to help?”
“Matthew dear, you should go wait outside with Darrian and Blake and the others. I think I can be of more help than you can at this point. Off you go. Shoo!” I could imagine the hand gesture that went along with that word, and in thinking about the dismissive wrist-flick I must have reconnected with something on the surface. My body came rushing through me and the pain hit me like a big red bus. My throat ached, everything below my ribs was on fire. My teeth hurt. How do teeth hurt? Had I been beaten up? I was just coming back, why did it hurt so much? I’d done this before and it had been confusing and bizarre and so many other things, but blindingly painful had never been one of them.
“Alice, you’re back. I know this is all very confusing but it seems something rather strange happened when your experiments backfired; I didn’t want to tell Matthew before I told you.” Her words meant absolutely nothing. I was panting for air and it didn’t seem to be there.
“Though, on the topic of Matthew, he’s a lovely lad. Very kind and caring, he won’t leave your side. It really scared him when you died. He seems like he really really wants to help, but he can’t.” I couldn’t respond. Where was the air? And why did I care that Matthew was nice?
“Breathe Alice.”Myrrdin’s voice was suddenly sharp and the shock seemed to shove air into my lungs. I gasped and rocked forwards, my whole body spasming. What was going on? I was lying down but I was so far from comfortable. Why was the hard ground the most comfortable thing about this moment?
I released a strangled sound from my throat and Mum’s hand smoothed my hair off of my face.
“You’re nearly there Alice. There’s a spiky bit coming up next, but you should be fine, come on, let your aura do all the work.” A spiky bit? What did she…. Oh.
Whatever was going on, the ‘spiky bit’- an exceptionally apt name – was pure agony. Rising from my thighs and stomach, kicking my heart and lungs and knocking all my wind away. It was wrenching pain, like nothing I had ever experienced. I screamed and my throat produced a rough scratchy sound that really sounded like a pathetic baby magpie crying for food. My aura was doing all sorts of crazy things; it was tracing over my skin healing me as injuries appeared. It was helping something out of me. Nothing was supposed to come out of me. What was this? Why was I going through this? What had that stupid picture frame done to me?
And then there was… Peace. Sort of anyway. A small prickly object began a slow slithery march up my stomach under my clothes, tiny pin pricks scattered across my body and I felt something hot touch my chin. I reached up gingerly and touched it. It was hard, bony and sharp but with two large gummy orbs on the front. A sound came from the thing and I retracted my hands.
“Oh Alice, I think it wants a hug.” What wants a hug? I looked down and nearly shrieked. The spiny hard sharp thing was a small head, no longer that my thumb. It was a little dragon, A little red dragon, with big green watery eyes and a curious flickering tongue. She looked like me, just really small and, obviously, not me.
*Hello mummy.* She was speaking to me.
*I’m sorry I couldn’t save you mum. I tried.* She was trying to save me. Of course. Because that made perfect sense.
“I know you did darling.” I reached up and stroked the crest behind her left eye, scratching lightly and watching my little baby’s eyes close in bliss. I had a little baby. How bizarre.
“You can talk to it?” Myrrdin sounded surprised. I looked up at her and I frowned a little. That was unusual?
“She’s a she Mum.” I didn’t feel like talking to Myrrdin right now; my little baby was so much better. “What should I call you? Do you have a name?” Myrrdin interrupted me.
“Alice, the point is that you name your own children.” I ignored her.
*What do you want to call me? I was thinking about something beginning with an mmmmm noise, but I don’t know. What do you like?*
“I like that kind of sound. Maybe we can work on thinking up the best possible name. In the meantime, this here is Myrrdin. She’s my mother and your grandmother.” I pointed up at the woman standing over us and my little dragonet stretched her neck its full eight inches to peer up, blinking hard.
*Hello Grandmother.* Myrrdin didn’t respond and my little one looked at me. Her mental tone was worried. *Does she hate me?*
“No, I guess she can’t hear you, that’s all lovely.”
“I can’t hear what Alice?” Myrrdin sounded more than a little miffed.
“You can’t hear her talk, can you?” Myrrdin looked mystified. That answered my question.
“Maybe it’s an acquired skill.” I looked down at myself and was horrified to see the mess; my aura had fixed whatever damage my dragonet had caused but that hadn’t removed the traces of the injuries. I washed it away with a wave of power and adjusted my clothes, changing them into my normal robes. I clambered up off the floor, one hand holding the little baby tight to my chest.
“You shouldn’t get up yet, it will take a while to recover Alice.” Myrrdin sounded like a frustrated teacher.
“I feel fine Mum, really.” I actually felt almost normal; there was something a little bit wrong maybe, at the fringes of my mind, but my body felt better than fine, and my sura felt alive and anxious to get to work.
“Where’s Matt and Blake and everyone?”
“Arthur found something outside; whales or fish or flying pigs, I haven’t the faintest idea. The boys are all very excited about it. I think we need to talk about how we’re going to handle the Last Descendants issue now you’re a mother.” Boring, but a very valid point. On one hand, a young anything is at more risk than an adult of the same species. On the other hand, my newly birthed spawn was a dragon. She didn’t feel very fragile; in fact, she felt robust and powerful. Her chest was full of fire and her eyes were bright and intelligent.
“I think it might be wise to hide away, and I think Matthew might be a good candidate as a sort of offsider. You will need someone who can handle everyday human stuff if you’re to hide away in a human abode. Darrian told me about City and Hollow Earth, and as safe and insulated as that sounds it really wouldn’t be as safe as just pretending to be human.” She was making a lot of sense. I didn’t mind spending time with Matt and the idea of playing house was like a bit of fun. On the other hand, how do you hide a dragon in a suburb? They get big, and even small they make sounds and damage things in a way most mortal creatures don’t. Matt could be really helpful in that respect; he might be able to hide her existence while keeping our cover strong.
“I think that’s a good idea Mum. I think it would be a good way to get away from the influence and work out how she factors in the prophecy. She’s red, if that means I’m no longer the last red dragon, then maybe that throws the whole thing into the water.”
“You have a good point Alice. I think I will send you and Matt on your way without out telling Arthur or Blake. Darrian is proving surprisingly useful, and seems happy to follow my orders rather than yours, if that’s okay with you?”
“I like both those ideas. Darrian gets on my nerves, he never sounds sincere. And I think it would be safer if fewer people knew where we were.”
“I was thinking one step further; I don’t want to tell Arthur about the little one at all. He’s been out the whole time and hasn’t been in since you reappeared. He didn’t realise you were giving birth and neither did Blake or Darrian. With Matthew in your presence, only you, he and I will be in the possession of the knowledge relating to her birth.”
“And he would never betray us, so we should be safe.”
“I don’t know why you characterise the chances as ‘never’, but I will trust your judgement there, on that count. I think you should leave in haste. I will clean up here;” I looked down and saw the mess I had made. The blood looked sticky and altogether unpleasant. I could smell it too and it made my stomach feel funny, like a mixture of raw egg and fresh meat. “And you will leave with your new companion; use the Library and let him pick the place. Go somewhere you’ve never been before and try and keep your profile low.”
“I think I should leave straight away. Could you go fetch Matt? I’ll wait here.” Myrrdin nodded and left. I stood cradling my newborn against my chest. She poked her head out and licked the underside of chin.
*What’s going on? Are we going somewhere?*
“Yes lovely, we will go with a man named Matt – and now, be careful, he’s not like either of us, his mother was completely mortal – and he will help hide us. Matt is like your dad, he would probably like it if you called him that.”
*What if he can’t hear me? Like grandma?*
“I don’t know love, we will work it out. I thought of a name for you too. A couple of really strong ones. Do you want me to list them then you tell me what you like?”
*I would love to hear ideas.*
“Well you like the mmmm sound, so maybe Maple? That suits your colouring. Or maybe Mab? That’s a very powerful name. Magnus? I know it’s more of a male name, but the name really reminds me of something grand; like the name you might give a storm or a natural disaster.”
*I would like to be a natural disaster.* That sounded odd to my ear. She wanted to be a disaster?
“I think you’re too lovely and sweet to be a disaster.”
*Well whatever you think, I think Magnus is a lovely name. I want that one. Magnus.*
“Okay Magnus. You’re my little Magnus.” She preened against me and the hum of her purrs were strong enough to make my ribs vibrate.
“Alice? Alice, you’re okay? Oh thank the… What is going on? I don’t know much about this whole childbirth thing but I’m pretty sure there’s at least a week of bed rest involved.” I opened my mouth to correct his assumption but my mother beat me to it.
“Matthew, that might be the case for human women, but spook females are surprisingly repairable. I feel the need to point out that she will be tired for a few days and you will both have a very new routine. Alice, I explained to Matthew everything he needs to know, I’ll leave you to make introductions, but I think we really ought to get moving.” I nodded. Matt did too; he looked really eager to get started on our witness protection-style scheme. “I think the best way will be for you three to come through my Library, don’t you Alice?” Why would it matter?
“That sounds fine, but Matt gets to pick the place we go to, and you’re not to know.”
“Agreed.” Matt sounded very firm and self assured. I wasn’t surprised to hear the tone, but aimed at my mother was a bit less than expected. How long had he known her? Long enough to be comfortable talking to her like she was somewhere between an acquaintance and a sibling?
“That’s settled then. Matt, I’ll introduce you to my little bundle of joy when we get there. First off, let’s go Mum.”
“Right, follow me then you three.” Myrrdin sounded a bit exasperated but she withdrew her key from the folds of her robes and walked to where someone had carved a doorway into the icy wall and made a slit that operated as a keyhole. Magnus stirred but I placed my hand over her head, keeping her secure and safe. We followed her to the door and she opened it, letting first Magnus and I then Matt through before shutting it behind her. She led us to a tall mirror about four feet wide and lightly let her fingers rest on the knob; I knew what it was, it would let us go wherever we wanted, and we didn’t need a key. It was like the portal I had shoved Sophie through, except I didn’t need a key to do it this time, and I wouldn’t be shoving anyone through.
“Just open this and step through, Matthew first as he will pick the destination. You know how this works Alice, don’t you?” I nodded and relayed the story of Sophie falling through mine. She smiled and chuckled. “That does sound amusing. A little worrying that she didn’t realise that the key wouldn’t help. She’s a spook, she should know about the mirrors.”
“You would think so.” I looked at Matt and smiled politely. He smiled back and I watched his eyes flicker between my face and the lump on my chest. I could tell he was curious about my child, but I wasn’t sure how he was going react when he saw her little scaley demonic face.
“Do you know where we are going Matt?” That was essential, I didn’t know what would happen if he went through the frame without having a clear idea of what was on the other side. Would we end up in the middle of nowhere?
“I’ve got a lovely little place in mind. Ready to follow me into the unknown?”
“Ready as ever.” I smiled and Myrrdin gave me a strange look, cocking her head and narrowing her eyes slightly as if trying to figure something out. What was so odd about what I had said? Was it too much for me to say that? Was I acting like a girlfriend or something? Was that the wrong thing to do?
“Good, so I just open this and step through?”
“Yes Matthew, just step through. I would hold his hand Alice, the door can shut pretty easily and you don’t want to end up in two different places. I could do that. I reached out and grasped Matt’s hand. He smiled at me and squeezed my fingers together in what I think was meant to be a reassuring gesture. It might have worked too, assuming I had needed reassuring. We stepped through the darkness and I felt my feet leave any solid surface for a moment. I tried to focus on the pressure on my hand but it seemed to fade into nothing. Then I was standing in the bright sunshine on a little garden path running between a quaint hedged lane and a beautiful cottage with climbing roses around the doorframe and potted carnations and violets in under the eaves. It was like the cottage Red Riding Hood’s grandmother lived in, only hopefully without the wolf in human clothing. The yard seemed nicely enclosed and the trees looked like something Magnus might like climbing in and flying between.
“Do you like it?” Matt sounded very hopeful.
“I love it, honestly it kind of reminds me of the place I grew up. How did you know where it was? Where are we anyway?” I craned my neck, searching for any landmarks.
“It was my mum’s house, after she moved away from the monastery. We’re in the middle of the north of England, I’m not sure what the village is called, I didn’t ever pay attention as a kid, but I guess we could find that out when we go for a walk later to see the sights.”
“Oh that would be nice. Would you like to meet Magnus now?” Magnus wriggled excitedly and automatically my hand clamped down on the back of her head, holding her still and keeping her safe against my skin.
“That’s the name she chose from the selection I gave her. She seemed to like it. I’m fairly sure it’s a boy’s name, but she really likes the sound it makes so she’s keeping it.”
“That’s very well then. Should you really be smothering her under all those layers?”
“I’ll introduce you two inside the house.” I ushered him down the path and he quickly took the lead, unlocking the door by tracing particular shapes on the brassy doorknob. He then held the door wide open and let me step across the threshold. I was temporarily distracted by the feeling of crossing into the house; I could sense the power coming through the runes on the door and it surprised me that a half-blood with no aura could control that kind of potential. I shook my head and properly paid attention to the house in front of me. I studied the inside of the room; it was warm, with a smooth off-white finish to the walls and a warm wooden mantle hugging a tall narrow fireplace. It felt immediately like home. What a perfect little place.
“Do you want to sit down? Babies’ heads are very heavy you know, their necks need all the support they can get.” He was adorable, lecturing me on the care of children. As if he assumed that a child I produced without actually sleeping with anyone would be ‘normal’.
“I wouldn’t say her neck needs help of any kind Matt. Come on Magnus, out you get.” I let my hand loosen and the little dragon slithered up to my collarbone, hauling herself onto my shoulder and wrapping around the back of my neck. She reared her head back and, after touching the rim of my ear with her tongue, she turned her cool eyes on Matt. I expected Matt to scream, to yell, something, but his silence was solid. His eyes roved over me and my daughter, the whites of his eyes were visible all around his irises. His pupils had become so big that they appeared to be trying to suck us both in; I could see Magnus’ enquiring eyes reflected in them. She was concerned, I could feel it through our link, and she was getting more and more worried that her dad was going to say he didn’t like her. I didn’t really know where she got the concept of ‘dad’ from but I didn’t feel the need to correct her. Her worry was all consuming and my heart rate started to rise as her fears touched me deeply. I didn’t want her to feel rejected; I never wanted my little baby to feel like she didn’t belong. When the silence had stretched for too long I reached up and cupped her head, pulling it gently to my cheek so I could feel the cool but warm scales rub the skin there. She felt so good, and her little tongue was rough like a cat’s, but dry. It touched the side of my nose and I turned away from our stunned companion to examine the furnishings. Magnus showed keen interest in the curtains and when I got within a foot of them she reached out, her talons extended to their fullest extent in a bid to reach for the lacey fabric. She probably wanted to climb them, so I pulled her away from them and began to wander towards the stairs in the corner. I could hear Matt following us but I ignored him. I climbed the stairs and Magnus flapped a bit on my shoulders, catching herself and maintaining her balance as my weight shifted from stair to stair.
*He’s following us. Do we want him following us?*
What an astute little critter she was. What a good question.
“I don’t know, I’ll ask. Matt, why are you following us?” I stopped midway up the stairs, two steps from the landing, and looked down at him. He was following at a distance. He looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights again and for a second I appreciated what a scary vision we must have been; a tall young woman garbed in robes of a forgotten era and a small but still frightening visage straight out of every seminal mythology. And Matt was just… Just him. He wasn’t any more interesting than when I’d first seen him; if anything he had gotten more ordinary looking. How could that be? I cocked my head and examined him more closely. Maybe he was dressed too much like a human. Maybe I was just too focussed on Magnus. I was a mother ultimately, right? I had a little one and she was wrapped around my shoulders and making rude faces at Matt down the stairs.
“Magnus, stop it, it’s not polite.” She ignored me so I wrapped one hand around her snout and held it still until she calmed down. She stopped whining after a few seconds and lay still. I let her go.
“Now. Behave. Maybe go check out upstairs. Avoid windows little one.” I lifted her awkwardly off my shoulders and placed her on the floor. She paused, looking up over her shoulder like a puppy seeking permission. I smiled and nodded and she scampered up the stairs, disappearing around the corner. “There’s nothing she could hurt herself on up there is there?” I began to walk back down towards Matt as I spoke. He backed down, his heels catching on each stair on the way.
“She’s a dragon what could possibly hurt her?”
“I don’t know, large boxes falling on her head? Particularly vicious owls? Let’s go down stairs. You didn’t exactly handle the big reveal the way I would have expected you to.” My voice was dismissive and a little cold but I didn’t care enough to apologise or soften my tone. I passed him and he hurried to follow me down into the living room. Matt sounded winded when he responded.
“It’s not like it was an expected surprise. My baby is a dragon, how on earth did that happen?”
“Your baby?” What was he talking about? He couldn’t lay any claim on Magnus, she was my dragon, my inner beast.
“Well after what, uh, happened, in the monastery, and then you died and then you were giving birth I just made assumptions that the baby was mine, but it can’t possibly be can it? I mean, there’s no dragon blood in me.”
“The dragon is a manifestation of my powers, you know the big scary caley thing I turn into from time to time? Well that is it. In a small, albeit weak form. She’s always existed, whatever he frame did just gave her physical form outside of me. And what do you mean? Nothing happened at the monastery. ”
“You seem to have a very good grip on this, and I distinctly remember you and I doing something. Well, at least, I think I do. ”
“I feel like I should, considering the circumstances. I’m not sure how I know, I just do. Magnus feels so familiar, and I can remember her calling me her mother and trying to fend off the power of the frame just before I died. She was doing a pretty good job but there didn’t seem to be much fighting it; the strength and intensity of it was too much for anything.”
“So the frame didn’t harm her? It just killed you?”
What an odd way to think about it. It hadn’t harmed Magnus in the slightest. It had forced us apart and made her into her own being, but apart from that she had fared a lot better than I had from the whole experiment. I wasn’t sure how to respond to his allegations surrounding the monastery incident; I wasn’t totally naive in the terms of intercourse and I knew sort of what he was talking about but I did not remember anything untoward occurring in the bedroom department at the monastery. We’d shared a hug of relief, and then he’d gone to sleep. Nothing that would have made a child most definitely. I decided to just drop it and maybe bring it up later when I thought it might be a better move to make. Or at least at a time that I had the energy to approach this clearly complicated subject. I was no longer a nanny, why did I need to have a ‘bird and bees’ talk with someone I was not babysitting?
“Apparently. Maybe me dying dispersed the energy or something, I don’t know.”
“I had this whole ruse planned in which we pretended to be a newlywed couple with a new baby and interacted with our neighbours and made friends and did all those normal human things. That’s not going to work if our newborn breathes fire in the creche and kills all the other toddlers.”
“I guess we need to come up with a new ruse then.” He was not wrong; and even if Magnus did not kill her creche mates, she was far from a human child.
“How big is she going to get? You were huge when you shifted but right now she could fit in a large handbag. And how fast is she going to reach that kind of size? It might be completely unsustainable to do anything at all to pretend to be normal if in a few weeks we’re going to have to explain a dragon the size of a house in our backyard.” He sure found the real questions. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to answer them.
I stood in silence, pondering those gravest of questions, and suddenly there was a giant crash upstairs. I turned and ran as fast as I could up the stairs, my arms spread wide and my hands balancing me between the wall and the railing to maintain my balance and speed. I flew down the corridor at the top and finally came to an old and dusty room with a distinct odour of ash and soot emanating from it. I braced myself for carnage and entered.
My head rolled back and collided with the wooden edgework of Blake’s armchair’s strongly built wings. When I tried to sit up properly to clear my head my body was greeted with searing pain across my chest, thighs, stomach and shins, all forming long bands around me and holding me still. Blinking rapidly to get rid of the fog of death from my brain I assessed the situation as best I could, I focussed on the bonds that wound around me like peeved constrictors; they were white and red like the stripes of a candy cane and appeared to be made of silk.
“You stole the tiebacks!” It just sort of burst out, but I was right, my captors had violated my Library – somehow, I wasn’t even going to start to think about that – and taken the beautiful spider-silk-fine wraps and used them to tie me to the wrong chair. I was disproportionately offended to have been placed in Blake’s chair too, it felt belittling, which I suppose makes me a bad person for feeling like I was more important than he was. Naturally my half sister ruined my brief moment of introspection, what else are siblings for?
“They’ll grow back sister sweetheart, everything grows back in a Library.” She sounded like the cat that had gotten both the cream and the canary and was about to combine the two into a delicious pie.
I wriggled as best I could, ignoring the scorching heat that traced every point at which the ties came into contact with me. Whether there was some spell attached to them or that was just what pain felt like I didn’t know, I’d never been tied up before.
“I think she’s uncomfortable Sophie, maybe the ties are too tight, we could loosen them a little.” I didn’t recognize that voice; I struggled again and managed to get my sore head to turn far enough to see my half sister and her companion standing by the reading table. It was her mysterious male friend who had spoken, he was tall and reasonably good looking I suppose, though I wouldn’t have picked him out from a line-up as anything other than another second rate accomplice.
“Don’t be ridiculous, she’s going to stay right there until we get what we want, aren’t you Alice?” Now Sophie wanted me to chime in that or the question was rhetorical. I may have missed that class when I skipped school that time. I remember watching a show about cops and stuff while I was in Australia that first time, and I think what they were trying to achieve was the infamous ‘good cop bad cop’ routine perfected by actors and parents since at least the dawn of time.
“That depends on what you want, Hag.” Okay, so it was a little immature, but what was she going to do kill me again? Come on, it was worth it to see how she would react. And again, what were siblings for?
“Being polite would be the best option for you to go forward and be free dear sister of mine, I would hate to see you stuck here for ever with nothing and no one to keep you company.”
As a side note, given I own this Library there’s no way I could be locked in indefinitely. Either she was stupid or she was playing a stupid bluff.
“Sophie darling, I have forever, and I’m stronger than you. Try me.” Again, I wasn’t sure whether that was true or not, I knew I had forever, but strength versus strength I didn’t know how we stood, and she had her mystery fellow too. As if on cue, he added his two cents worth.
“Alice, we don’t want to keep you here forever, we really don’t, but you need to help us, otherwise this is going to get messy and the cleanup could take years. Please help.”
So he was good cop. I thought so.
“You’ll need to be more specific about what you need help on, I’m not a great cook, so if you’re looking for a good caterer I’ll have to refer you to someone else.” I was beginning to feel a bit delirious, this whole situation was more surreal than the usual situations I got into, and I couldn’t think straight. And they were now double teaming me, which is totally unfair, don’t you think?
“We want Blake’s Lore sister, the whole thing. I’ve got his key. I just need his book. Now where is it? I know you and Blake share everything in this stupid room.”
Interesting, she didn’t know where the Lore was or how to get a hold of it. Fascinating. I’m assuming she used her blood connections with me to enable her to use Blake’s key to get in here, meaning I could probably get rid of her too. Maybe even the same way she got in. Though to be honest that was a lot of guesswork. I’m not sure, even to this day, how the whole thing works.
“I demand the Lore, it’s my blood rite to demand such information and aid from you, and you’re my flesh and blood.”
That was a lot of blood in one sentence. A little too much if you ask me.
And blood rite? I’d never heard of such nonsense, that’s not how the magic works, but I could use her error to my advantage I guess.
“I don’t know where Blake’s Lore is, it could be anywhere and I don’t know how to sort through this Library yet, it’s so difficult, Gwen was teaching me before I left, but we never finished our lessons.”
That got a rise in the male’s colour; maybe he didn’t know that I was associated with Gwen in any way, so Sophie wasn’t sharing everything. And it probably discredited Gwen to have been my tutor, the ‘enemy’s’ tutor.
“Well then, we’ll see about that sister.”
“What?” The male looked really confused now, he was looking between Sophie and I like we had suggested a wrestling match in jelly to solve our differences.
“She’s not my sister, she’s my half sister, we share a Father but not a Mother, didn’t she tell you that? Females can only have one offspring, for us to be sisters in the true sense we would have to be twins and then we would share a first name.” I took a breath and he looked at me with wide nervous eyes. “And we don’t.”
“Shut up Alice. Darrian, it doesn’t make a difference to the whole thing, we’re still related, and that’s how I got in here.” No, they used Blake’s key. Was she truly this stupid? Or maybe he was simple?
His name was Darrian. He must be her ‘friend’ whole lead us to finding Caul and getting me killed. Wow that took me back I was feeling almost nostalgic.
But I could use this to my advantage. I shook the past away and decided to spread discord in the present.
“Darrian, did you tell my dearest half sister where to find our Father by any chance? It would have been a long time ago now of course, but you would remember, wouldn’t you?” I wasn’t sure if he actually was or if Sophie had just used him as a scapegoat for luring me to my death, but it was worth a try.
Sophie rolled her eyes pettily but Darrian’s eyes got all serious.
“I delivered a message to Sophie Mailer many years ago from her father letting her know of his new residence, that’s true. I thought it was odd, because usually she’s the one who delivers the messages.” He sounded like he was having a major epiphany.
“Caul killed me when Sophie took me there Darrian. You’ve already been basically responsible for my death once, isn’t killing tiresome?” Okay, it was a stretch; but it got the reaction I was hoping for.
Sophie growled angrily and reached to grab Darrian’s arm. Darrian twisted away and stepped toward me, a frown growing on his lips and his eyes crinkling a little in confusion.
“Why would Caul kill you? He can’t kill anyone, he’s not allowed to. You’re lying.” Why did I get the feeling I was undoing some sort of brainwashing conditioning implemented by the Last Descendants? Or maybe he just had an IQ through the floor. Just because my Father’s name was ‘Peaceful’ didn’t mean he couldn’t kill; it just meant he couldn’t kill without a very good reason. I explained this and Sophie appeared out of no where right in front of me and slapped me, causing my ears to ring. Darrian turned to her angrily, to defend me or something I don’t know, but she didn’t give him a chance to do either because she smacked him in the head too, and used her magic, which was feeble at best in my Library, to throw him into my chair. My chair? Why mine? There was a perfectly good chaise lounge right there. He was tainting my beautiful chair!
“Shut up both of you. Listen to me.”
Okay bossy pants.
“Wow, a little attention seeking there sister, you can’t be the centre of everything you know.”
Wham! She hit me again. I’m not sure whether she hit me harder this time, but it hurt a lot more. Closed fist this time maybe.
“Give me your key you brat, if I can’t have Blake’s Lore I’ll have yours, and there’s nothing you can do about that, I have even more of a right to yours than his. Hand it over.”
She lost her temper quickly, for a messenger she had the patience of a teaspoon. What was that saying? Don’t shoot the messenger? Well this one deserved to be stabbed. Hard. An idea came to mind as I pondered the difficulties of ‘handing it over’ when I couldn’t so much as imagine thinking about moving a hair on my little finger; what if I gave her my Library key? She would turn it in a lock and fall out of the Library, wouldn’t she? I could conjure the key back to myself and she’d be stuck out there, with Darrian stuck in here because he couldn’t get out without me letting him out because he didn’t have a key. That felt like it would work. Assuming he didn’t still have Blake’s key… I decided it was worth the risk.
“I can’t move with all these stupid ropes wrapped around me.”
“You don’t have a choice. Give me the key.” She was being remarkably confrontational. And stupid. She hadn’t thought this through at all. Clearly I was the smarter sister. I levitated the key out of my mind and into the air in front of me, causing her to grin like the Cheshire cat and snatch it from my control. She did a little, very undignified, dance and moved toward the standing mirror in the corner with the whole on one side. It was supposed to be used as a suppository for all things you wanted to keep hidden, and the inside could take any form it wanted. I hadn’t used it, preferring to lock my Lore away in a box somewhere on the shelves, but I don’t know if Blake had used it yet. Or indeed if he knew what it was for.
I must have had a sly and beguiling look on my face because Darrian was staring at me, his mouth opening to warn Sophie that something was up. I used my aura to seal his lips shut and watched him struggle to make any noise, and then give up and just focus on breathing.
Sophie slid the key into the hole and twisted, pulling open the mirror to find a dark place. Chuckling she stepped in, the door staying open behind her. That just wouldn’t do; my aura sprung behind her and slammed the door shut, whisking the key away and back to my waiting pocket. I heard an echo of Sophie’s surprised and inelegant screech from the other side before it shut decisively and I was left alone with a suddenly very worried looking Darrian.
I could feel the Library almost sigh with relief. Sophie felt so wrong in here.
“Do you know who I am Darrian?”
He nodded violently, the bones of his neck actually clicking together.
“How much has Sophie told you? I am her half sister; she lied to you about that. Caul is my Father, but my Mother is from an altogether different lineage. Have you heard of the Dartonian and Arthurian Dynasties by any chance?”
He grew very pale and nodded, but this time much more slowly, as if not sure where this was going. At least he looked scared; he knew something.
“Well, there’s a story going around, I’m sure you’ve heard it, about a red dragon and a white dragon who are going to destroy everything.”
He nodded neck poppingly again. I really had his attention. The bones were getting a serious work out.
“Well, I’m the Red one. And this place is a really bad place to confront me about anything.” I triggered the transformation and let my Draconis rip through my skin and into the light, growling as we melded and split again, becoming once again a single unsurmountable being. Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier? The ties around my body split catastrophically and Darrian stumbled backwards, knocking my chair over and landing hard on his back, his legs in the air and flailing like a beetle overturned. I shook the last strips of ravished silk from my back and legs and stretched my wings as far as they would go. The Library seemed to stretch to accommodate my new size.
Darrian hadn’t made any noise yet and I remembered I’d silenced him. I walked towards him and in a couple of strides I was towering over his bloodless shaking face; I removed the spell and he spluttered and gasped, saliva running down his cheek and his eyes rolled backwards and forwards looking for a way out. Briefly his aura pressed against my chest as if trying to push me off, but it gave up quickly, feeling the full weight of my strength holding against his. I could crush him and he knew it.
“It wasn’t my idea.” I bet he was glad none of his male friends heard him say that; his voice was high pitched and breathy as he tried to bargain for his life. “It was Sophie’s, I’m supposed to be her assistant but she always makes me do the stuff she doesn’t like doing, like stealing the key, she made me do that because she doesn’t like London, if she had any say in the matter she probably fell through that door and straight into Boulder, Colorado. She lives in the mountains there, on her own; she’s a real loner like that. Please don’t kill me.” It took him that long to get to the ‘don’t kill me’ part? I bet the ‘I can be useful, I’ll do whatever you want’ bit comes next. I was right.
“I know a lot more about the organisation than Sophie thinks Alice, I can tell you everything. I will tell you everything. I’ll do whatever you want.”
I raised my paw above his head and he stopped talking, his sore back preventing him from assuming the foetal position, and his legs were so tangled in the legs of my chair that all he could do was shield his face from the blow he thought was coming. I wasn’t that stupid though; we might have Gemma, but someone truly willing to give up the Last Descendents’ plans would be invaluable.
We just had to remember that he would be just as willing to divulge our secrets.
“Okay then.” I dropped my paw and slid it under his bent and fragile spine, lifting him up and fixing it at the same time. The look of unadulterated relief on his face was almost comical.
“So, Boulder huh?” I expected to see something like fear or panic cross his face because of his obvious betrayal of trust, but instead he just nodded, nearly ruining my healing work with his vigorous agreement.
“Yes, she lives on the mountain side just above the edge of town, she says it’s really peaceful up there and there is a small tight-knit community of Spooks there that she can talk to and organize things with if she wants, they don’t know it, but they’re doing a lot for the Descendents.” I put him down and rocked back onto my hindquarters to used two paws to right my chair. He nervously paced around the backs of the reading table and study desk, not wanting to sit down but at the same time wanting to be as useful as possible to avoid being killed. I didn’t even know if I could kill him in a Library, Libraries are fixed zones after all, time doesn’t move.
I shifted back into my considerably less imposing self and settled my behind into my chair, feeling the leather mould perfectly to my shape, I looked at Darrian expectantly and he hurried over, kneeling in front of my chair and bowing his head as if this was a medieval court and I was the queen.
“I’ll do whatever you want, anything you need, every member of the Last Descendents are nuts, off their collective rocker so to speak. I know a bit about everyone, I’ve been their busy body for about a hundred and ninety years now. My full name is Darrian Bow, I live to serve, and it’s all I have.” He finished his little speech with a bowed heard and shaking shoulders, awaiting my judgment.
His seriousness bemused me, but I suppose considering the circumstances I could allow him some solemn expressions.
I could certainly do worse. Though it made me pause for thought that he was so fast to give up his masters’ secrets.
“Well then Darrian Bow, tell me, what do you know of Blake and I?”
“Caul Peaceful wants to kill you, well, he wants to kill one or both of you, preferably both of course to avert any disasters. You’re the only one who can carry the Red line anywhere, Myrrdin has already had her single offspring.” Like I didn’t know that.
I needed to ask something specific, like a test, something that might prove what he knew and how serious he was about giving up his former masters. I didn’t know exactly how to solve the second quandary but the first one would be easy enough.
“Why does he want us dead?”
“He believes, Caul that is, assuming that’s who you mean, that you two will end the world. I know that’s not what the prophecy says word for word, but I did say they were all nuts. Caul has taken it upon himself like some sort of public service.”
“I know he’s insane, he’s my Father. It doesn’t bother him that the person he’s trying to kill is his daughter?”
“He seems more adamant about killing you than he does Blake actually, I’m sorry to say it, but he’s almost fanatical about destroying you.”
That didn’t explain why he was so comfortable with killing me, his own daughter, but at least it helped me understand where he and I stood in the father-daughter relationship.
“I see.” I thought about it for a few minutes, pondering the potential fallout from bringing someone like this back to the rest of my group. Coming to my decision I stood up and dusted myself off.
“I’m going to leave you in here Darrian Bow, and I’m going to consult with the Spooks on my side, and then we’ll go from there. I don’t know whether to trust you, but hopefully they will.”
He was nodding before I finished talking.
The sound of his neck cracking nauseated me, I was happy to leave him here.
“Yes of course, that only makes sense, leave me here as long as you need to. Thank you Alice, thank you.”
I just nodded and stood up, smoothing the front of my dress and adjusting my belt. I drew the key from my pocket and turned it in the grain beside the mirror, stepping through the door and into the snowy waste in the mountains surrounding the cave we’d had before I’d died.
There’s no way to really describe the feeling I get when I die. Obviously it’s probably not the same feeling you will get when you die, but then again, you might not be around to report the sensation or indeed remember it at all. In my opinion, it’s very difficult to fully experience something without experiencing what comes afterwards. I die and then I rise again; it’s how it works for me, and I have to say I hated it.
Yeah, past tense, it doesn’t bother me so much now. But back when I was young . . . yes. Well. The first time the life drained from my body, I was barely twenty-one, a young woman working tirelessly for Mr Albert May as his children’s nanny. The death itself was a complete accident, I was escorting the eldest daughter – her name was Mellissa, and I could swear on the grave of the Eternal Mother that there was no one more beautiful – to her debutante ball. The other children were left at home, the boys laughing at Melissa for dressing, and I quote, ‘like a large French meringue’. The two girls were both younger and had stars in their eyes at the prospect of coming into society themselves. I’m fairly sure that, looking back on the whole business – a time so far in the past for me now – the girls were really just delighted with the idea of dressing up and dancing.
When we arrived, the small hall was almost swampy with frills and white lace. Flower petals, some broken and bruised others fresh and fragile, carpeted the cobbles from hundreds of corsages and posies. I remember even now the smells, perfumes chosen by eager Mothers and dutiful guardians, the first womanly scents worn by excited woman-children. The sounds of the band striking up their first number drifted through the chatter and din of young women, twittering like so many flocks of sparrows, and made me suddenly nervous. I didn’t know why, I still don’t, but the change in music, and the slightly shoddy finger work of at least one of the cellists, told me that something terrible was going to happen.
“I’m going to go in, Nanny. I think that’s a good idea.” I knew the pretentious remark was an attempt at sounding like Mellissa’s neighbour, Madame Kara, a truly horrid woman born low and enough of a cut-throat so-and-so to claw her way into such circles as these.
I dutifully followed Mellissa into the hall, stooping swiftly to gather the train of her frilly gown and carry it so as to prevent it being stained with lily pollen, as someone had had the rather natty idea to wind various big-flowered plants through the arbour over the doorway. The result was a fine carpet of pollen; many of the varieties present would definitely stain. I distinctly remember reminding myself to wash my own dress train as soon as I got home. When we were both inside, I dropped the train on the polished hardwood floor and observed the scuffmarks left by inexperienced heel wearers. My own heels were custom-made for me by Mr May’s own cobbler, each with a heel a little over four inches, and I could walk in them like they were my own bare feet. Mellissa was wearing a custom pair too, a touch under two inches, and the racket she made walking made me cringe. To be fair, she was by no means the loudest walker in the hall in that moment, but there were certainly more skilful individuals.
I touched Mellissa’s shoulder and indicated where I would seat myself, just under a window facing the great doors, where I could be assured of being both easy to find and having a plentiful supply of fresh – if a little chilly – air. I made my way over, smiling politely at the other ladies on the way. Of course, I must have stood out – peacock blue was not too common, especially as the tailor responsible for Mr May’s clothes had some special silk from India, which, instead of just being one colour, shifted from blue to purple to green, with every fold showing a swirling rainbow of colours – but by the time I’d made my way to the window, eyes had moved to the dance floor, and girls back towards their chaperones. The band started playing something gentle and relaxing; it reminds me now of elevator music, but of course we had no elevators back then. I settled myself beneath the window and felt the curtain edge tickle my shoulder.
Absent-mindedly I pushed it away and watched as Mellissa made her way over towards me. She really did look preposterous. The frills and lace didn’t become her somewhat well-rounded figure in the slightest, but then again, the whole affair was rather tasteless. Having grown up myself in a wild and green part of the world, in a secluded area in a wood a mile or so from the nearest village, I had never attended one of these events as a girl. My ‘coming out’ occurred when I moved here and got a job working for a gentleman named Mr Albert May. He was in his late forties and very handsome. His wife had died the year before, leaving the very busy man with three daughters – Elleanor, Elaine, and the eldest, Mellissa – and a young son, named Micha. Mellissa settled herself next to me and fixed her skirts about her to her liking. She smiled thinly at me – another habit she had learnt from Madame Kara – and then coolly eyed the males, who seemed to have positioned themselves in the centre of the room like a herd of nervous elephants. I didn’t blame them; not to be spiteful or anything, but my opinions of the appearances of some of the girls present left a lot to be desired. Poor things! And as time has gone on, in my memory, they seem to have become more cartoonish, the dresses frothier and the hairdos higher and more inappropriate.
Anyhow, the boys were still milling about, a mixture of pimpled, baby-faced, mature, gawky, and slightly fuzzy faces all agog at getting to hold and dance with a “proper” lady for the first time. Many had hair so shiny that the chandelier’s brightness was simply outdone, and the exact motifs from the arched ceiling were clearly reflected rosette by rosette. From somewhere within the stage a bell rang, and the band started playing with gusto and no small amount of skill. No more shoddy finger work there.
A couple of boys moved in pairs, like a leader and a wingman, towards the slightly jittery girls along the walls. A particularly handsome-looking individual made his way alone towards Mellissa, and she cast a slightly nervous glance at me. I gave her an encouraging nod and a small smile, and she rose elegantly, offering her hand. He accepted it, and they headed off towards the middle of the room, where the less courageous boys had now had to actually move closer to the girls to make room in the centre of the floor so that couples could dance. The hall now resembled a large target, with eligible girls, though admittedly the dregs – at least to the cynical eye – ringed around the walls, eligible boys – dregs and nervous mice – in another sort of circle just inside the girls and then the dancing partners, all the most beautiful and confident individuals, in the centre, in a constantly heaving and twisting mass.
The night progressed in very much the same fashion; Mellissa danced many times, her feet light and quiet compared to the less talented, more heavy-footed girls. It was clear to me also which boys had decided to – or been made to – have dancing lessons. Their steps were more fluid, and they weren’t following, they were leading.
It must have been Mellissa’s tenth dance, or maybe her twelfth, as it’s been a while since this night, when it happened. A sudden split in the music made everyone, including myself, jump in our seats. It was like half of that band just suddenly stopped playing.
I’m sort of glad I died that night, but in another way I’m not. If you’ll recall, I did explain a bit of the mechanics of the whole thing, about what makes us Spooks. And at this point, I hadn’t died yet, so I wasn’t so keen on trying it out. I was young and had a lot of time for that yet.
The other half of the band trailed off until there was a single off-key violin. It stopped abruptly as everyone turned their gazes towards the band stage, staring in awe and horror as a cello player keeled forward in slow motion, blood spreading rapidly across his ruffle-fronted shirt from his right shoulder. For a moment, I couldn’t help but admire the pattern it made, the contrast between the brilliant scarlet and the crisp white. Blood is such a beautiful colour. The next band member to go down was the young man with a flute. I couldn’t say what kind it was even if I could clearly remember what it looked like, something about the fact that there was a man standing behind the falling body of the flautist holding an elegant rapier in one hand and a length of cord in the other has made my memory of the events somewhat focused. The silence was absolute; it almost seemed to throb against one’s eardrums. I remember distinctly drawing my hands ever so slightly closer to my core, straining with all my being to control my aura. Mellissa was still standing in the middle of the floor, frozen in mid stride; her partner’s both hands placed now around her waist. With approval, I noticed that the boy had angled his body so that he was between the danger and the lady. I almost smiled until the voiceless man twitched the rapier through the air, sending a fine spatter of blood across the cowering musicians in the front row.
There was no space for smiling at this moment, but I did have such a knack for the inappropriate in that life.
I wasn’t really looking at it when it happened, but a window or two windows down to my right sort of exploded, then the one closer did too. I felt myself brace, my aura refusing to work properly as it should; I could feel it shrivel into my chest, a feeling akin to how I imagine a broken heart to feel. The window exploded behind me, and a huge sheet of glass came down over my head; I ducked to the side, and it missed me, breaking into several larger pieces, a few fine shards and a mist of powder all over the floor at my feet. Admiring the sparkles for a second, I almost missed the man climbing through the window two down from my position. The man by the dead flutist nodded to someone outside the second broken window, and he too climbed through, putting his boot firmly on to the shoulder of a chaperone leaning against the wall. Her cry of pain was silenced suddenly by a knife into the well of her left shoulder, causing her to slump forward and sideways across the lap of her ward. The girl’s childish cry of fear was met with laughter from the masked men; their satiny masks and steely gloves were in stark contrast with their blackened woollen clothes and scuffed boots. Horsemen, I thought at the time of course, with all the talk of watching where you went at night and women definitely not out after dark. When a man climbed through the window behind me, my aura came to life, projecting itself half an inch through my skin and into the surrounding air. The man’s boot was well soiled and would have hurt an awful lot if it had, in fact, come into contact by my shoulder, but through the shield, it didn’t even register as pressure. It smelt like something horrid too, not the clean smell of horse, like I expected, but more like . . . pig. Yes, pig . . . And maybe sheep with the stench of wet wool on his trousers, which made them poor horsemen – that made them more dangerous in my opinion. The man settled his feet on the dance floor and glanced back at me as if to question me on the sensation of being stood upon. I returned his glance with the coldest governess stare in my repertoire, a look that earned a slight rise in his colour. The ring leader – or at least that’s what I took him for – rose his voice slightly with his next statement, an action I thought odd, considering a whisper could have been a roar in the silent space.
“All right, all right. Now . . . Who shall it be? Now you’re a pretty lady, aren’t you?” The man turned his head and made eye contact. He had funny eyes, very blue and shallow – it bothered me unduly actually, blue eyes usually have depth, even when they’re like ice, but these were flat and without either heat or cold – his gaze was very focused, though, and I had no doubt that my lack of ladylike distress had singled me out for punishment. One man came forward and grabbed my wrist where it rested on my thigh and yanked me to my feet, dragging me towards the centre of the room. I could see Mellissa struggling against her suitor’s grip; damned girl was going to get me killed.
My aura sent needle-like spikes into the grasp of the horseman. He hissed and adjusted his grip, leaving a smear of blood on my wrist. His other hand shot out and slapped me across the face.
“No!” Mellissa forced her way out of his grip and made to launch herself at the man who had struck me. Her suitor managed to catch the back of her dress and reel her back, but the ringleader had already turned towards her and was smiling chillingly. “Do we have a volunteer? Now this is a surprise. A rich chit protecting her governess? That doesn’t happen. Well, come forward, chit.”
“Don’t you dare!” I knew it was stupid, and I definitely shouldn’t have done it, or at least, I should have thought of something else to do; I couldn’t let Mellissa be hurt, I served her. The ringleader slowly turned and balanced on his heel.
“Well, this is new. Back and forth, back and forth. If I wanted to watch a tennis match, I’d head to London. I’ll take the governess first, and we’ll keep the chit for dessert, aye?”
As he said it, I knew what was going to happen. If I was close enough, just maybe, to the whole lot of them, and enough of them attacked at once, then my aura could be overpowered, and I would die. However, if I used it to kill the whole lot of them . . . It would work, of course, it would. I stepped forward and threw my hand somewhat inelegantly at the man who had a grip of me. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked; my perfectly done nails sliced through the skin of his chin and tore the satin mask up to his eyes. His yell was explosive, and the blood that trickled down my slender fingers was a beautiful precursor to the violence that followed.
The man I’d attacked ripped his mask off fully so that he could see me, and I got a jolt of recognition through my gut. I’d met him, not three days afore, in the market when I was with little Micha. He must have seen a slight widening of my eyes because he drew a wicked blade from his belt and advanced with frightening speed. Contrary to his expectations, I moved towards him, pretending to myself, at least, on the surface, that this was all a dance. I spun sideways and felt his blade slide off the edge of my aura. Another man came at me, and I ducked and wove, managing to catch the eye of the suitor holding Mellissa May, and smiling quickly, I thought he was a beautiful lad, half-Arab perhaps, with refined features and soft smooth skin. Such a good match, I sincerely hoped that Mellissa’s father, my master, would approve. I tried my best to silently thank him for his efforts – I think he understood too. As the ringleader made to go for Mellissa, he gave the man a mighty one-handed blow across the face, full of knuckles. Predictably, the ringleader retaliated with a gauntleted fist to the man’s cheek, and the chain mail sliced the skin like a cheese grater. Before he could get another blow in, I used my rather pointy shoes to inflict damage on the back of his right knee.
That particular motion got me sort of in the middle of the group and at least three of the five had swords and rapiers of various kinds. Two went for me at once, and I managed to shield from them, but the third made it as far in as my ribs before being forced out. Another sword skewered my shoulder and came through the other side. I couldn’t really make a noise at that point because another man had attacked from behind and drove a fine blade between my shoulder blades at an angle. I felt blood fill my chest and heat began to seep from my limbs, climbing into the points where blades sliced deeply, as if trying to flee my slowly dying body. Another blade went through my back, broader this time, and shorter, and my aura had given up. There was no heat in my body now; my aura was condensing, pulling into itself more and more, and suddenly it was very hot. Heat, like liquid gold, spilled from the centre of my chest behind my breastbone and writhed down my limbs like snakes on branches.
One of the men began to scream as his sword began to glow. Another tried to pull him from my body, and his gauntlets were sealed to the hilt with heat.
And then I exploded. After the explosion, there was nothing. Ice cold, like plunging into a bath of the North Sea.
And then . . . Nothing.
That was the end of my first life.
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