Anna stared at the thing that wasn’t Varden. He said something in the wrong voice altogether, in a language Anna didn’t know. The others were staring too.
“Varden’s Kesh now?” Jon asked, breathless. The light from his hand had tempered from blinding to merely brilliant.
“Looks like,” Djaren said, running both hands through his hair, and giving the room, and particularly the floor, a careful look. Anna felt that if he started off about inscriptions or dead languages right now she might have to smack him. He said nothing, though, just looked.
“But that was cheating!” Tam said. “If that was surrendering one’s will, I’ll be a, a . . . can he even do that?”
“Can any here stop me?” Varden said, in Trade Common this time. His gaze swept over Anna and the others before settling on Lady Hellin and Professor Eabrey. “I see that you confront me with a cripple, a female of the children people, and mere children’s children. There is no one here who can face my true glory.”
He smiled, and it wasn’t Varden’s smile. The little motions of his head and hands were wrong, too. Even the muscles of his face looked stretched and inhuman. Varden was being worn like a skin, and the young man Anna had gone to the Berdrach with and, yes, argued with and pointed a pistol at, wasn’t to be seen in his eyes or manner at all. How did one fix that? Professor Eabrey had said it was complicated. That meant it was possible though, didn’t it? Or was it permanent, because Kesh was no ordinary demon? Anna found tears in her eyes. Varden had been a bit of an ass, but no one deserved that.
A quick glance around the room provided her with more chilling recognition. Half the people here had been at the afternoon séance. They all wore hungry, cruel expressions that looked strange on the faces of the frayed academic, the soft-faced woman, and the man who’d been in mourning wear. None of them were themselves. Anna wondered if they could still see out of their own eyes.
“My lord,” Pumphrey was saying, “We have prepared a world ready for your rule. I have amassed great wealth and power for your new kingdom. Factories, trade routes, the ear of those who make kings in this new world.”
Varden—no, best to think of him as Kesh—looked at Pumphrey. “I commend you at least on having found for me a better host than the one you have chosen yourself.”
Pumphrey looked a little annoyed. “I have built the wealth of an empire with the resources of this host,” he said. “But yes, lord, yours is young and powerful, a rich and renowned scholar, of noble blood.”
“Mother says get up the stairs at once and safely into the circle,” Djaren whispered to Anna and the others. “Right now.”
Hellin shot them a glance that reinforced this, and Anna chose not to question. One set of curving stairs that led up to the balcony was quite close. Anna edged carefully toward it, around behind one of the large stone and steel braziers, placing her feet silently one after the other, the way her father had taught her when she was little. Tam’s gumboots, though, scuffed on the stone, and the movement of Jon’s hand set the shadows in the room dancing.
Kesh turned, and it was Jon he caught with his onyx black eyes. “You are not one of the guardians, child. How do you wield their tools?”
Tam picked up Jon and, all hope of secrecy gone, charged with him up the stairs. Anna followed, with Djaren just behind her. A sudden bright swarm of copper needles covered their retreat, swarming like minnows through the air.
One of Kesh’s hands appeared above the swarm, too high off the ground. He was rising into the air. He spoke a few strange words, and out of the corner of her eye Anna saw one of the groups of hieroglyphs on the ground light with blue fire. A deafening crack shook the room, and a shivering pillar of white heat obliterated a piece of the stairs before Anna’s feet. She was thrown backward, and she clutched the stair rail to keep from falling. Bright pins of copper rained down around her, onto the floor, but Anna couldn’t hear a sound.
Tam had been ahead of that blast, and he seemed unhurt. He scrambled up away from the burned hole in the stairs, and shoved Jon into Lady Hellin’s reaching arms. Someone grabbed Anna’s hand then, and she turned to find Djaren beside her, in one unburned piece. His lips moved, but she couldn’t hear his words. He reached forward and lifted a lock of her hair in front of her. The end was singed.
That had been too close. The stairs before her feet were ruins; no getting up that way to join the others. But there was another matching set of stairs on the other side of the room, if they could reach it. Djaren must have had the same thought, because he pulled at her hand. She spun along with him, to run behind the broken stairs and dart between the columns that held up the balcony. A curtain of falling copper hid them as they ran. Where the second stairway swept down to meet the floor, they crouched low beneath it and peered out between gilt iron balusters. Anna could feel her heart pounding and her breath coming fast and loud. At least she thought it must be loud. She tried to quiet it.
They were too late. Three Pumphrites were already climbing this stair, up toward Lady Hellin and the others. The one in front brandished an antique-looking stone dagger. None of the Pumphrites on the stair seemed to notice Anna and Djaren, though, and Kesh, still floating in the air, was not looking at them either, having turned to stare out through the great, curved glass roof at the nighttime city. They were safe for the moment, but trapped. If they ducked out from beneath the stair they would almost certainly be seen.
Anna turned to Djaren. “What now?” she asked, and found that she still couldn’t hear her own voice. Djaren was saying something, but he was talking too fast for her to try to read his lips. She shook her head. He nodded in understanding, and excitedly pantomimed drawing.
Anna wasn’t sure why he wanted it, but she fumbled in her bag for her small sketchbook. Djaren shook his head and made frantic circling motions in the air in front of him. Confused, Anna got out her box of charcoals and her favorite paintbrush.
“Yes! Yes, yes, yes,” she saw Djaren say. He took the charcoals and brush, and peered out from their hiding place. Anna, too, stole a glance around the room. The Pumphrites on the stair had found their way blocked by Tam and his mallet, and by Lady Hellin, who was directing her copper in a bright, protective whirlwind. Behind them, Professor Eabrey spoke to Jon, who seemed to be listening earnestly. Kesh was still up near the ceiling, looking out at the lights of the city. His expression was now intrigued and bemused, and still entirely unlike Varden’s.
“Is this the domain you have prepared for me?” he asked Pumphrey. Anna was beginning to be able to hear again, though the words sounded as though they were spoken far away.
“The world is changed greatly from the time of your rule, lord,” Pumphrey said. “Power is differently shaped, and new riches are to be had. I will tell you everything about what I have gathered, if you wish it.”
“You misunderstand. Is this my city?” Kesh turned his head a bit too far around to look at Pumphrey. Symbols on the floor began to light.
Pumphrey looked down at the symbols, and gasped. “Yes, yes it is, my lord, please do not destroy that which is yours. Let me first explain your assets and holdings.”
Djaren had crawled out of hiding, Anna noted with alarm. He was using her charcoal to scribble on the floor, and mucking her paintbrushes up with the stuff in the grooves, adding broad strokes that altered the shape of one symbol after another. He frowned with thought over one, then grinned feverishly, adding several new lines.
No Pumphrites were near them for the moment, so Anna crawled over toward Djaren, keeping an eye on Kesh. “What are you doing?” she whispered, or hoped she whispered.
“Testing a theory about words having power,” Djaren said breathlessly. He pressed a piece of charcoal into her hand. “See that little set of squiggly lines over there? Draw a line through the middle, and a moon shape sideways over it. Quick!”
Anna stared at him, but took the charcoal and began to do as he said. Djaren continued to scribble. One of the Pumphrites who had been standing quietly at the edge of the circle of hieroglyphs suddenly raised his head. It was the man in mourning clothes, from the séance. He darted toward Anna, with oddly bent legs and unnatural swiftness. Before she could react, a swirl of copper particles coalesced into a very pretty copper mallet and struck the Pumphrite in the head. He groaned and slumped to the ground.
“What do you think you are doing?” the voice that wasn’t Varden’s asked, ending the last of the muffled fog over Anna’s hearing. Anna added the last line of the moon frantically and rolled to the side, hoping she was getting out of the way. She glimpsed Kesh hovering directly overhead, the billowing lines of Varden’s greatcoat flying in a sudden wind. He spoke a word, and a sequence of symbols lit, beginning with one Djaren had altered. Window glass shattered above them and small wet objects began hailing down onto the floor, spattering against Anna’s arms as she raised them to cover her face.
Kesh made an incredulous sound. Anna lifted an elbow from her eyes to see what was happening. Little clumps of soft, wet, grain meal fell all around them, sticking to Djaren’s coat, and to her own hair. Djaren was half laughing, looking terrified but triumphant.
Kesh whirled and descended on Pumphrey, who was staring with horror at the falling clumps. “Which is it?” Kesh hissed, grabbing Pumphrey by the neck. “Do you seek to embarrass me, or have you forgotten how to inscribe runes of power?”
Pumphrey’s eyes rolled as he twisted in Kesh’s grasp. “I have not! I do not! I prepared everything properly! I have worked for centuries to create the time of your return, my lord. Surely you saw that it was not I, but these humans who altered the runes.”
“Can marks chiseled unchangeably into stone be altered by fools or children?” Kesh dropped Pumphrey in disgust. “Why do you think I built the temple as I did? But no, you in your wisdom drew the runes in—” He reached down and ran one finger over a rune, then touched the finger to his tongue. “This is not even blood. You took centuries to draw my sacred symbols in common paint?”
Pumphrey dropped to his knees. “Forgive me, lord. I am your most loyal servant.”
“Then repair your fault.”
Pumphrey turned toward Anna and Djaren and gave a terrifying scowl that showed his teeth. Anna shoved herself up off the ground, feet slipping in wet meal.
“Split up!” Djaren yelled. “He can’t chase both of us.” He took his own advice by dashing off behind one of the braziers.
Of course he hadn’t thought to ask her what she thought of the idea. No time now to be irritated. Anna dodged in the other direction, around the body of a fallen Pumphrite, and saw a metal spiral stair quite close. If she remembered rightly, this led up to the balcony where Ellea and Morly were. No one guarded this stair right now, so she dashed up it, climbing over yet another unconscious Pumphrite slumped on the steps.
She reached the top. There they were, two small bodies lying side by side. Neither looked hurt, though a chemical smell hung in the air around them. Anna tugged them both further away from the edge and knelt down between them. Unsure of what to do now, or how to help, she gathered Ellea up in her arms and brushed the hair out the girl’s eyes. Ellea was so light, so still, like a rag doll. “Ellea, wake up,” Anna whispered in her ear. “Your mother’s here, and the rest of us too.”
There was a shout from below. Anna leaned over to see what was happening. Djaren had reached the foot of the stair that led up to Lady Hellin’s balcony, but Pumphrey was close on his heels, dodging with unnatural speed between sudden copper scythes to grab at him.
Ellea sat up in Anna’s lap with a little gasp. Her eyes narrowed, and she looked down at Djaren and Pumphrey, then across to the balcony with the others.
Professor Eabrey’s voice sounded suddenly loud and clear in the air. “I see you, Urubil the scribe, and bind you where you stand!”
Four hollow copper tubes hit the ground at four points around Pumphrey, spilling splashes of pale sand in a circle around his feet.
Pumphrey hissed, and stared up at the landing. “Where did you learn my name?”
Djaren grinned up at Ellea and Anna, and saluted his sister.
“Are you well, dear?” Anna asked Ellea.
“No,” said Ellea crossly, making a little face. “I feel like I might be ill at any moment, and it’s very disagreeable. I don’t like chloroform, and the insides of demon minds are even nastier.”
Anna nodded. “I’d suppose so.” She lifted a hand to give Lady Hellin a “safe” sign over the balcony rail, and shifted Ellea gently off her lap into a comfortable sitting position. Anna reached over to touch Morly’s face. He showed no signs of waking. That was probably for the best, Anna thought. If he had to see his brother like this it would be terrible for him.
Down below, more Pumphrites converged on the hieroglyphs Anna and Djaren had altered. One woman bent and spat on Anna’s moon shape, which sizzled and smoked.
“That’s not fair!” Djaren cried, and looked momentarily as if he might dart back, past the now immobilized Pumphrey, to repair their handiwork.
“Never mind!” Anna shouted down at him. “Get up the stairs into your mother’s circle.” From her vantage point she could see the circle of sand up on Lady Hellin’s balcony, with Lady Hellin herself, Professor Eabrey, Jon, and Tam all standing safe within in. River sand, she knew, from the border of Shandor. Professor Eabrey said it was a handy thing to keep about, because of its protective qualities. Anna wished she had a vial of it right now, to draw a circle for herself and the two little ones.
Ellea rose to her feet and stood at the balcony rail, staring intently at the Pumphrite who was ruining the symbols.
“Azer the poisoner, I see you and bind you where you stand,” Eabrey called out, as copper struck around the feet of the spitting Pumphrite.
“You know their names?” Anna asked.
“I do now,” Ellea said, making that sour face again.
Kesh had been standing in the back, arms crossed, watching his minions at work. But now he looked suddenly thoughtful, his face for a moment almost Varden-like, which was worse than when he looked entirely wrong. He reached inside his coat and lifted Varden’s pistol. “How creatively destructive the children people have become,” he said. “I wonder who taught them that.” He raised and cocked the pistol expertly, pointing it directly across at Eabrey. “My host is full of useful skills,” he remarked. “Shall I grant you a final scar? Crippled guardians don’t belong on the battlefield.”
He fired. A glowing quicksilver swell washed up in a wide circle around the feet of the group on the landing, and the bullet bounced off a glowing splash of silver and light. Jon’s hand was fully at work now. Ellea clapped, smiling across at Jon, who looked frightened but determined.
“Shh,” Anna said, grabbing Ellea’s shoulder. “We don’t want to draw attention.”
It was too late. Kesh turned toward them, wearing that thoughtful expression again. Anna pushed Ellea around behind her and crouched down to be less of a target for his pistol. Hopefully Morly, still prone and unconscious, wouldn’t be a target at all. Copper swirled forward to screen them, but even if it could block bullets, it wouldn’t protect against lightning or meteors or any of the other horrible things Kesh could undoubtedly call down upon them.
But Kesh lowered the pistol, and just stood looking at them. Was that confusion in his face? Anna didn’t dare to hope, but she found herself hoping anyway. Varden wouldn’t want to hurt her, would he? And even if he didn’t care about some lowly sketch artist, he certainly wouldn’t want to hurt his brother. Maybe Varden was still in there somewhere, behind those blacked-out eyes.
“Varden?” she ventured. “It’s me, Anna. Morly’s here with me. He’s safe. I know you didn’t want this. I know you’re an honorable man at heart.”
His mouth twisted. “You understand nothing, human.”
“Say what you like, but your actions tell a different story.” Anna made herself meet his eyes. “You can come back, Varden, I know you can.”
He shook his head. “You misread my motivations. There was a bargain struck, between my host and I.” For a hideous moment his voice was Varden’s again. “I will do anything to protect my brother.” And then the voice was Kesh’s. “But he never said anything about the rest of you.”
With an insanely impossible flying leap he was on the balcony beside her, suddenly within arm’s reach. Anna lurched backward, away from him, pushing Ellea behind her, but he ripped Ellea out of her arms. He was horribly strong. He spared her a momentary smirk before tossing Ellea like a painting rag over the railing.
Djaren and Lady Hellin screamed at the same time, and every atom of copper in the room rushed in a stream of tiny particles to try to slow the small form already hurling too fast and far down.
Ellea’s body sank through a cloud of copper sand, hitting the floor with an unpleasantly hard sound. The glass of the roof rattled as rods of copper plumbing rose up through the cracking floor, twisting and creaking into huge ropes of vine and thorn shapes, all lashing out toward Kesh,
“No!” Anna screamed. “You monster!” She wasn’t sure if she was brave or stupid. She’d marked the inner pocket where he kept the pistol. Leaping, she grabbed at him, but his hand caught her wrist and his voice rang out with another strange word, as the copper vines twisted toward them. Anna felt suddenly dizzy and hot. She lost track of which way was up, and staggered, feeling suddenly as sick as she’d been two weeks ago, when she couldn’t lift her head from her pillow. Varden’s hand wasn’t holding her up any longer, so she fell. She didn’t even notice hitting the ground, because all the awful cramping aches were back a hundredfold. She curled, and retched, unable to see past her charcoal marked fingertips. Djaren was shouting, but she couldn’t hear his words. Everything was fading, lost in a rising fever, and a deep hot blackness that ate sight and sound and every sensation but pain.
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