21 – In Which Marion Falls Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire
The Dark Prophet strode into the room, a trail of writhing shadows in his wake. Though his face was entirely encapsulated by the mask, Marion couldn’t help but feel a sense of unhinged amusement emanating from the shadow creature.
Allistar dropped Timothée and both brothers turned to face the Dark Prophet.
“Well, well, well.” Balthazar gave a joyless chuckle. “We finally meet. You’ve been the talk of Thraina these last three years, Dark Prophet.” His crafted golden gauntlets glinted in the lightening sky.
Dawn is coming, Marion thought. None of their magic will work soon enough. Though these three don’t need magic to kill us. She scrambled closer to her siblings.
“You know me.” The Dark Prophet’s voice was a gravely rasp beneath the mask. “I do love a spectacle.”
Allistar’s body reverberated, heavy black coat shaking. He grabbed a knife from a hilt at his waist and pointed it at the Dark Prophet “Silence! Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth, liar.”
The Dark Prophet circled the brothers. Shadows danced between his gloved fingers. “Heh. You call me a liar. Look at you. The Phantom Two turned hired dogs. You used to be part of the Prophet of Star’s princeguard. What jokes you have become.”
Balthazar grunted and slammed his foot down. The floor rippled with each massive step. “Imposter! You know nothing about us!” And then he charged. His golden gauntlets flashed as he surged forward, huge arms swinging for the Dark Prophet’s face.
Marion gasped. Covered her siblings’ bodies with her own. Whoever wins, we lose.
Balthazar’s fist swung through the Dark Prophet as if he were nothing but smoke. The Dark Prophet stepped aside, chuckling. “The Beast of Briarmere. As slow as ever. Maybe it’s time to use that head for once and look at the facts.”
Balthazar stumbled, caught himself on the glass wall. Snarled.
“The facts?” Allistar stalked forward. His voice was raw, destroyed. “You are not the Prophet of Stars. You don’t deserve to wear his armour. I’ll take it off your corpse!”
Allistar leapt, his dagger growing into a thin rapier. The Dark Prophet dodged, his shoulder becoming smoke, then reforming. Allistar lunged again and again, each time just barely missing the Dark Prophet.
With a cry, Balthazar charged and then both brothers flanked the Prophet, one thrusting with blade, the other pummelling with fists. But none could land a single blow.
“Hurry,” Marion whispered to her siblings. “We have to get out of here while they’re distracting each other!”
“How?” Timothée rubbed at his choker. “Without Setviren, we can’t use the transport. And he’s trapped in that thing!”
The stiff Celestial Knight’s suit of armour lay on the ground. Their professor was encased within, helpless.
Vivian whimpered and writhed. Her neck ran red from her own fingernails clawing at the skin. But she had done that herself. There was nothing physically wrong with her besides. It’s something with those brothers, Marion thought. She had to get Vivian away.
“There’s a staircase. Setviren mentioned it our first night here. They use it during the day when their magic is gone. We have to find it!” But as she said the words, her stomach roiled.
The three monstrous beings fought across the entirety of the room, bodies moving like flashes of lightning. Gold and silver glistened in the light of the waning moon as gauntlets and rapier flew at the Dark Prophet.
And yet still, they could not hit him.
But he did not fight back.
Marion sucked in a breath. Watching them battle like this, she realized how much smaller the Dark Prophet was than the other two. Even with the armour, he was shorter, slighter. And yet he moved with such confidence, such unnerving speed and precision.
The Dark Prophet brought up tendrils of shadow that snatched the wrists and ankles of the brothers, slowing their movements. “You two never were the brightest, were you? Who’s your new master? Were you so eager to abandon me?”
Allistar pulled back, rapier shaking in his hand. Though his face was hooded with darkness, his one yellow eye shone. “You mock him! The Prophet of Stars was a legend, and you are—”
“Pathetic,” Balthazar said. “Three years ago, all of Wolfhelm saw you get thrown from the castle by that boy prince. The Prophet of Stars would never have been defeated by the likes of him!”
“He didn’t defeat me!” the Dark Prophet roared. It was the first time his muffled voice was filled with emotion. “Darius Störmberg isn’t worth my time.”
Cold, ancient fear crawled over Marion. These brothers…they were talking about the Prophet of Stars. But he had disappeared centuries ago when Noctis died. If they used to work with him…
They were as deeply rooted in the threads of Thraina’s history as the gods themselves.
What hope did three little godlings have against such evil?
“Hurry,” she whispered to Timothée. “We have to find the staircase.”
He nodded, and together they grabbed Vivian, dragging her behind one of Lady Kassandra’s crescent moon bookcases.
Timothée squeezed Marion’s hand. “See if there’s a trapdoor by the transport. I’ll check for one by her desk.”
Marion squeezed back. “Whatever you do, don’t get in their way.”
Timothée scrambled off, keeping low and away from the three fighting monsters. Marion crawled to the transport, checking the floor for anything that might hide the hidden stairs. The sky was lightening to a burnished red, sun threatening at the horizon, spreading light and deep shadows over the floor. One by one, stars winked out.
Presently, the brothers paced before the Dark Prophet.
“Take off the armour!” Allistar screamed. Bloody spittle sprayed out of his hood.
“Oh, Alli,” the Dark Prophet crooned. One of his shadows laced up Allistar’s body. “Aren’t you going to buy me dinner first?” Then the shadow threw Allistar across the room, smashing him against Lady Kassandra’s desk.
Balthazar screamed and charged. He tackled the Dark Prophet. Shadows and glinting gold rolled over and over each other.
Marion’s heart thrummed. Timothée perched behind the desk, now shattered from the impact of Allistar’s body. His grey eyes were wide, cheeks expanded from holding his breath with hopes he did not capture the vampire’s attention.
Allistar pushed up to all fours, shook his head. Marion knew the exact moment he realized Timothée was there. She saw it in the sudden stillness of his head, then the sharp crick of his neck as he looked toward her brother.
“Noctis will never reign again,” the vampire snarled.
Three things happened in a single moment.
First, Allistar leapt over the desk, rapier drawn and thrust toward Timothée’s chest.
Secondly, Marion screamed her brother’s name at the top of her lungs.
And third, the Dark Prophet, grappled to the ground by Balthazar, turned at the sound of Marion’s scream. And every essence of darkness in the office came to life.
Shadows leapt up like hideous gargoyles, fangs made of gloom. The Dark Prophet roared, a hideous, rasping sound, and threw Balthazar off him. The entire tower shook. And the sun seemed to retreat behind the line of the horizon, if just for a moment.
Shadow whips snatched Allistar’s wrists, pulled him up against the glass wall. His rapier fell to the ground. More shadows grabbed Balthazar the same, the brothers held like prisoners.
“Timothée!” Marion rushed forward, not caring about the brothers hanging like puppets or the Dark Prophet. Timothée lay on his back, rubbing his chest. A thin red line lay across his collar bone.
“It barely scratched me,” Timothée said. He looked at the Dark Prophet.
The surging shadows…the shaking room…the complete darkness. With dawning horror, Marion realized just what the Dark Prophet was capable of. He truly had not been even trying with the brothers before. And the power he’d shown against Ser Dedont and Darius in the square…that was nothing. He had been toying with them.
If he wanted the Greywicks dead, he would see it done.
If he wanted anyone dead, he would see it done.
The Dark Prophet stared up at the brothers. “Do you doubt me still?”
Allistar and Balthazar looked at one another. They did not writhe against their bonds, nor try to escape. Allistar’s voice was broken, weak: “You…you died.”
The shadow bonds broke and the brothers fell to the ground. The Dark Prophet reached a hand down to each of them. “I was just sleeping. For a very long time. But I’m back now.”
There was a single moment of pause. And then the brothers took the Dark Prophet’s hands.
And fell to their knees before him.
“My prince,” Balthazar cried. His whole body shook. “I don’t understand. All this time, we thought you were dead.”
Allistar clutched the Prophet’s gloved hands like they were sacred. “I dared ask you to remove your armour. Take my life as retribution, my prince, I beg thee—”
“My prince.” The Dark Prophet laughed grimly. “I never could break the two of you from calling me that.”
Marion felt all the pies and candy of the night threatening to come up. With Timothée’s hand in hers, she motioned for them to crawl back toward Vivian, hidden behind the bookcase. “What is going on?”
“The Dark Prophet…he really is the Prophet of Stars from the legends.” Timothée’s eyes were wide, unblinking. “His shadows…they feel so—”
“Shush, be quiet. We need to make a move before those three remember they’re supposed to be fighting us.”
The vampire brothers and the Dark Prophet seemed much more involved in their reunion. The Dark Prophet pulled each to their feet, clapped them on the shoulders. He really is short for a murderer, Marion thought, noting how Balthazar and even Allistar towered over the shadow prince.
“Now tell me, friends, what are you doing here? Are you truly now mercenaries?” The Dark Prophet’s voice sounded so strange in normal conversation, not threatening world domination or the return of Noctis.
Balthazar looked down at the blue winged handprint on his chest. “Huh? Oh, our mission. It’s the Exalted One, my prince. Surely, you’ve heard of him. Been working in the underdark for the last three years. He’s got money, my prince. So much money. Had us organize this operation. Knew everything about the school, even about the headmistress’s office.”
“It wasn’t just the money,” Allistar said. “He promised vengeance on the ones that took you from us. Or so we thought.”
“And is your loyalty to this Exalted One?” the Dark Prophet purred.
The brothers looked at each other, and then in unison, placed their hands upon the blue mark on their chests. Using their matching starcraft, it shimmered away, and in its place appeared a crescent moon at the forefront of a four-pointed star. The same sigil that was inlaid on the Dark Prophet’s armour. The same sigil her brother had worn for All Hallow’s Eve.
“Our loyalty is to you,” Allistar said, voice thick with dark promise. “Until the stars fall from the sky.”
“Good.” The Dark Prophet turned and waved his hands. A swirling door to darkness appeared out of thin air. “Then follow me.”
Marion’s breath hitched. Could…could it be? Would they just leave?
“What of our mission, my prince? The school’s swarming with mercs. Should I call them off?”
“Your mercenaries can be left to face the Archpriestess’s judgment. Let this Exalted One know who he’s truly up against.”
Balthazar turned to Marion. She wondered what he and his brother looked like beyond their hoods. What else lay beyond the shadows with that single yellow eye? “What of them? The Exalted One wanted the girls unharmed. He was adamant about it. Do we just leave them in this place? With her?”
“And the boy?” Allistar’s voice was cold. “The Exalted One says he’s too dangerous to be kept alive.”
The Dark Prophet turned and stared at Timothée. Timothée stared back.
With purposeful steps, the Dark Prophet approached the Greywick children, who still sat huddled on the floor. Cold fear ran up and down Marion’s spine. How similar she felt to that night in the square, helpless and hiding. Such ancient power radiated off the monster. They’d been playing at this act of gods and Starlings for only a month. This being had seen the rise and fall of kingdoms.
She could hear his inhale of breath as he stared down at them. “There are a great many wonders in this world, Greywick children. And you are one of them. You will be hunted everywhere you go. Wanted for your power and your blood. Your friends may turn out to be foes. And your foes may turn out to be friends.” The rising sun splashed his cape with red. Marion could still feel the flicker of starcraft in the air. How much longer before it disappeared beneath the dawn?
The Dark Prophet turned back to his door of darkness. “If you’re tired of being a pawn to the Celestial Church, follow me.”
Marion’s breath caught. Does he think we’re stupid? That’d be like a deer following a wolf into the den!
Flanked by the Phantom Two, the Dark Prophet stepped before his swirling black door. He was leaving—
“Wait!” Timothée called out.
Marion nearly strangled him. “What are you doing?”
Timothée kept his gaze focused on the Dark Prophet. “Tell me, is my brother coming back? Is Noctis returning?”
A dark moment passed. Then the monster said, “No.”
A rush of relief passed through Marion.
“Your vision was wrong then.” Timothée sighed.
The Dark Prophet stood still as obsidian. “I have had hundreds of visions in my long lifetime, and every one of them has come to pass.”
Then the monster turned. Walked to Timothée. All remaining darkness in the room became a halo around him. “I have seen a vision: your school bathed in shadows. But it wasn’t Noctis beside me.” The Dark Prophet brushed a gloved hand along Timothée’s cheek. “It was you.”
Marion’s throat went dry. She wanted to scream, cry, throw herself at the Dark Prophet and strangle him. But she could do nothing but stare at her brother, his grey eyes like a stormy sky, looking up at the Dark Prophet. And the emotion on his face…was it fear? Or desire?
“G-Get away from him.” Vivian’s voice that cut through the silence. She forced herself up on shaky arms. “Now!” And then she hissed, lips pulled back revealing huge fangs.
Marion fought back a scream.
The Dark Prophet laughed and walked back to his door of darkness, flanked by his two vampires.
“Girl.” Allistar’s yellow eye was trained on Vivian. “You don’t have to live like this. I know what it’s like. The pain. The hunger. Come with us. I’ll help you.”
“Never!” Marion shouted at the same time as Vivian’s face softened and she said, “You can…help me?”
No, no, no. What was happening? Her family…being pulled away by these wicked creatures. No, no, they couldn’t believe them. These were killers. Vivian wasn’t a monster, she was just sick, and Marion looked after her. No one else looked after her. It was Marion’s job, her job to keep them all safe—
“Get out of here!” Marion screeched. “Leave! They’ll never follow you!”
But through tear-stained eyes, she looked at Vivian and Timothée. Vivian’s face was so pale, eyes encased with dark circles, those hideous gleaming teeth hanging over her lips. “Can you really help?”
“Yes,” Allistar said. “Trust me.”
“That’s interesting.” The Dark Prophet looked at Vivian, then Allistar. “It seems we have much catching up to do, my friend.”
Timothée stood, helped his sister up. Marion looked at them in desperation. “What are you doing? Stop it!”
“What if they can help Vivian? That’s why we came here, isn’t it?” Timothée said, voice blank. There was something strange on his face like terrible destiny had taken hold. “What if this is our path?”
And Vivian took a step by herself, her awful fangs disappearing, as if she had regained control of herself from her illness. As if Allistar’s offer had filled her hope.
Marion looked into that dark, churning door. It was like the embodiment of the space between the stars. Pure darkness. A new awareness entered her as she stared into the nothingness. Within that space, possibilities among possibilities were being written within the universe. And if only she stared deep enough, she’d see them all.
But she knew one thing.
Through the door was wickedness.
And she must keep her siblings from it at all costs.
“The time is now, Greywicks,” the Dark Prophet called. “The choice is yours.”
Timothée and Vivian, arms wrapped around one another, took a step toward the door.
What can I do? Marion thought, tears streaming down her face. What can I do against such wickedness?
And then, there was the smashing of glass and the roar of a propellor.
A panel of the glass wall was shattered upon the ground. And outside in the cold rising dawn, was a sky skiff, piloted by Khalid and Darius.
Darius grabbed his hand back from where the glass had been, now broken by his starcraft. His eyes blazed like a dying star. But he wasn’t looking at Vivian.
He was looking at the Dark Prophet.
Khalid had a bloody gash across his nose, and a black eye. He was still in his pirate costume, though his beautiful hat was gone. “Greywicks, we found you! Hurry, get on!”
Marion stared at Khalid, at his emerald eyes. He smiled at her. In all this darkness, here was something to hold on to. One piece of goodness, of light, amidst the nothingness. She let out a sob and scrambled up.
She yanked Timothée’s arm. “They’re here to rescue us. Come, come!”
But Timothée was still staring at the Dark Prophet. It was like nothing else mattered. As if he had looked within the nothingness and seen the paths Marion could not.
And Vivian looked from the sky skiff to the door to darkness.
“Come with me,” Allistar said.
“Get away from her,” a gravelly voice said. Darius Störmberg had left the sky skiff, and now stalked forward, his sword of stellarite shimmering.
Khalid’s eyes were wide behind him, hand outstretched. “Dare, no…”
But Allistar didn’t even spare the Prince a glance, his yellow eye fixed on Vivian. She looked between them and wavered on her feet.
“Darius—” Her voice was so weak.
Darius stepped between Vivian and the door to darkness. Then he turned his sword not to Allistar, but the Dark Prophet.
“I should have known you were behind this,” Darius snarled.
The Dark Prophet walked forward, let Darius’s sword touch the middle of his chest. He quirked his head. “What can I say? Disaster calls to me.”
Shadows swirled up and down Darius’s stellarite sword. He gasped and dropped the dissolving metal—black flecks fell like ash to the ground.
The Dark Prophet destroyed his sword just like that, Marion thought. If he could do that so easily, then why had he even bothered fighting Darius that day in the square?
Khalid’s voice rang in her mind: What of the world’s fear?
Khalid. She grabbed Vivian’s arm. “We have to get out of here!”
Vivian’s grey eyes were glazed. “I can’t leave…”
Because of Darius? Or that vampire? This dark creature couldn’t help Vivian; it was nothing but a trap.
The Dark Prophet laughed as he looked at the remains of Darius’s sword on the ground, then turned to his door of darkness. “Goodbye, little prince.”
Darius stood with a heaving chest, a black mark upon his palm from where the shadows had scorched him. Then he moved, quick as a falling star, and slammed into Allistar. He threw the vampire to the ground, grabbed the rapier, and slashed across the Dark Prophet’s stomach.
The sword broke the softer armour. Red blood spilled out from the wound.
Whatever the Prophet was, he was still mortal enough to bleed.
“Thrice you have tried to best me,” Darius snarled, blood dripping from the rapier. “Tried to take my castle, my kingdom, my school. But you will never win. You are nothing but a murderer.”
A thin line of blood dripped down the Dark Prophet’s gravastarium armour. The vampire brothers looked ready to retaliate, but the Dark Prophet waved them down. He quirked his head up at Darius.
Like in the square, their movements seemed to freeze the world around them, and Marion felt powerless. We must go, she thought but could not get her sister to budge.
“You want to talk about being a murderer?” An unsettling cadence sounded in the Dark Prophet’s voice. “Fine. I am one. I have killed for wars, for vengeance, for those who do not have the power to defend themselves. But I have never killed like you, little prince.”
Khalid shouted: “Darius, we have to go! The sun is rising. Hurry!”
“I wonder,” the Dark Prophet mused, and he walked closer to Vivian and Marion. Too close. “Does she know the path you painted to reach me three years ago? How the hero prince of Thraina truly defeated me?”
And Marion expected to see the prince swing the rapier, brandish words of contention, but he was shaking. Face blanched.
“Oh, that’s very interesting.” The Dark Prophet started circling Darius, like a lion to a gazelle.
“Dare, let’s go!” Khalid screamed.
And Marion found her feet, dragged Vivian closer to the window.
“I’ve had quite enough of your rambling for one night, Medihsan.” The Dark Prophet extended his hand, and shadows crawled up the side of the room, covering them all above and below, until it was as if they were suspended in the sky. Colours formed: stars and galaxies swirling around them.
Marion screamed, clung to her sister. She could still the shapes of Timothée, and the vampire brothers, and the Dark Prophet stalking around the Prince. But Khalid, beyond the window, was gone.
What space between the stars had this monster taken them?
“Let me take you back to the siege of Wolfhelm.” The Dark Prophet’s voice encapsulated all of her. “How many of my men did you slaughter to get to me, little prince? How many did you leave broken and dying on the ground, their blood seeping through the stone cracks in your castle?”
Images flashed in the stars around them: castle halls so clear it was as if she were there. And there was a boy, wild, covered in blood, sword shaking in his hand. If Marion didn’t see his blue eyes, she would not have recognized the Prince of Thraina.
Brutalized bodies littered the path behind him as he stalked down the hallway.
So much death…Vivian trembled beside her, a soft whimper escaping her lips.
“We are much more alike than you think,” the Dark Prophet snarled.
“I’m nothing like you,” Darius roared. “Those men were nothing but monsters without a soul.”
It was then Marion saw the sharp teeth on all the bodies. The dead…they were all vampires.
She felt her sister’s weight give out, and it was like Vivian was falling through space. Marion clutched her around the waist.
“Well, if it’s only monsters you killed that night,” the Dark Prophet said, his gaze cutting quickly to Vivian before flashing back to the Prince, “you missed one.”
The images around them changed, lightning flashes across the sky, until Marion saw the turrets of the castle. Darius Störmberg kneeled; blood and rain ran down his body. The Dark Prophet stood above him, unarmed, shadows coiling from his fingers like smoke.
“Your death would have been inevitable,” the Dark Prophet continued, “had the stars not chosen that very moment to intervene. They sent me a vision. Unfortunately for me, they’re a little incapacitating.”
Marion watched the image before her, how the Dark Prophet’s body stiffened. Then he slid, falling off the slanted roof of the castle and into the darkness below.
The prince the whole kingdom called hero…he had been lucky to survive.
“That is the true golden Prince of Andúrigard, of Thraina.” The Dark Prophet sighed. “Not the hero who vanquished me, but a fraud, a little boy drowning in the blood of all he’s killed and all those he could not save.”
The galaxy of stars snapped away as quickly as it had come. They were back in the Archpriestess Kassandra’s office, and Khalid was outside the window on his sky-skiff yelling for them.
“Darius—” Vivian croaked, and tears spilled down her cheeks.
The Dark Prophet stood over the Prince. Darius had fallen to his knees, lips trembling, eyes unblinking.
“There’s only a few minutes left of sunlight. It would take but a moment to kill you though.” There was twisted humour in the Dark Prophet’s words. “But it would be rather dull if there’s no one around to watch your fall.”
“Dare, you need to get up now,” Khalid was yelling. “Listen to my voice. I’m here.”
Darius blinked and dropped Allistar’s rapier. He rushed over to Marion and Vivian. And there was the slightest hesitation in her sister before she let Darius grab her arm.
Why aren’t the vampires attacking us? They’re just letting us leave? Marion wondered. But her mind was reeling too fast to think.
They ran to the window.
Cold wind rushed at them. The sky skiff—a haphazardly put together contraption with a propellor at the front of a covered engine, a stiff-looking wheel held tight by Khalid, two patched wings on either side, and a small standing space nearly filled by Khalid himself—seemed barely capable of staying in the sky.
Their feet tinkled on the broken glass. Darius jumped into the sky skiff then turned, holding out his arms. “Vivian.”
And Vivian hesitated.
“Go!” Marion pushed her forward and Darius lifted her into the contraption.
“Your turn, Marion,” Khalid called. “Mind the gap!”
Marion stepped to the edge of the tower. The roar of wind and the propellor sent her hair spiralling. She looked down. Oh. Bother. She’d known the Archpriestess’s office was atop one of the tallest towers, but to stand at the edge—
They were so high, she could see everything: the whole of the Academy, the Meadow of Shattered Stars with the mercenaries’ aircrafts ablaze, Selene Crescent now crawling with fleeing marauders, even the very edge of the Isle itself. The sky seemed close enough to touch, the sun blazing over the field, the last stars winking out.
“Come on!” Khalid called. “The halls are swarming with those mercs! They’ll find their way up soon enough.”
But she couldn’t go. Not yet.
Timothée was still in the middle of the office, staring into the darkness.
“Come with me, Timothée,” the monster said. “I saw it. We will stand together at the end. You belong by my side.”
“No.” Marion ran to Timothée. “He belongs with his family.” Then she laced her fingers through her brother’s and found his gaze.
There was darkness there too.
I’ll fight it for you, brother. I’ll fill the world with light if I have to.
And pulling on her brother’s hand, she sprinted for the window.
Darius yanked Timothée into the sky skiff. Marion turned around and looked at the enchanted suit of armour with Setviren still inside. He was safely hidden. If they made it out of here, they could send the professors to free him. But if they died, no one would ever know where to find him.
She stared at the gap between the tower and the contraption, the long fall. One day I will plant my feet on the ground and never leave.
The engine made a whirring noise. “It’s time to go,” Khalid called.
Marion gritted her teeth and leapt. Air and nothingness—and then Vivian, Darius, Timothée’s arms were around her, pulling her tight onto the skiff.
Marion shot a look back. The Dark Prophet stared at them, fists clenched. Then he turned and disappeared into his door of darkness. Allistar shook his head and then followed. Last to go was Balthazar. His yellow eye flashed. And Marion remembered the vow she had made to him: I will see you laid raw before me. Charred and broken.
She knew this was a promise she would keep.
And then he turned and disappeared.
At that moment, a trapdoor in the middle of the office swung open. A swarm of marauders poured out.
“And that’s our cue.” Khalid pressed some buttons beside the wheel and the sky skiff’s wings buzzed to life like an insect, careening them off into the rising dawn.
The contraption made a horrible sound, smoke rising from the engine. “What is this thing?” Marion cried.
“My sky skiff,” Khalid called over the wind. His hands flew from levers to buttons back to the wheel. “I built it myself!”
“I can tell!”
The five of them were huddled so tight together on the tiny contraption, there was no room to turn around.
“I’m going to take us across the Meadow of Shattered Stars and over the Enchanted Wood. Doesn’t look like there’s any baddies over there.”
“Are you sure we’re going to make it?” Timothée looked over the edge of the sky skiff. “Aren’t these things only supposed to hold two? I don’t think it likes all the weight.”
“She’ll make it!” Khalid called. The rushing wind blew his hair back.
Marion held her breath. Her stomach roiled. She wanted so desperately to close her eyes, but she couldn’t take them off the dancing ground below. They made it over the Academy, and were now flying toward Selene Crescent—
The engine sputtered and coughed. The wings whirred. Then stopped. The sky skiff lurched downward.
“Khalid,” Marion said. “Is it supposed to be doing this?”
He yanked hard on a lever. Nothing. Pressed a button. “Shit.”
The sky skiff plummeted. Wind rushed at them like a hurricane; they screamed as they fell and fell and fell. Her cheeks pulled with the force. Selene Crescent grew nearer: the cobblestone path and shoppes and the swarm of fleeing marauders.
And worse of all, they were heading straight toward that ginormous marble statue Darius had commissioned of the three of them for their birthday.
The force of the fall pressed her against the bodies of her siblings. She was buffeted by cold morning air. The sky skiff hissed and rumbled. And through her blurry vision, the hideous statue grew bigger and bigger.
Somehow, amid pure panic, Marion thought, This is how I die. Splattered against my own bloody face.
“Do something, Darius!” Khalid yelled.
And just as the skiff was about to crash straight into the marble, Darius cried, “Hang on!” He thrust out his hand. And with the magic of the very last stars, the statue shifted, marble changing into…
The skiff collided with the soft powder. Marion was engulfed by cold and wet and then she was tumbling, ice shivering over her arms and down her back, and she was rolling through it and then it stopped.
She shook her head, pushed herself up. She lay on snow-covered cobblestone. The sky skiff was in pieces around her. Quickly, she looked for her friends. Khalid was sitting on his bottom, still holding onto the detached wheel. Timothée was near her, groaning, but awake. And Darius pushed out of a huge pile of snow with Vivian in his arms.
The five gathered among the piles of snow.
“It’s disappearing,” Marion whispered. She touched her ears, looked at her hair. The enchantments that had been put on her for All Hallow’s Eve had vanished; her ears were round again, her hair back to its gold. Darius and Timothée too had lost their crafted features.
It was fully dawn, and there would be no more starcraft until the night.
They were entirely defenceless.
And as her vision focused, she stared around Selene Crescent.
They had crashed right amongst the marauders.
All around them were rough-spun clad mercenaries, baring the blue mark of the Exalted One. They did not need to wield starcraft, for they had swords and daggers and hatchets.
“It’s them,” one said, calling to the others. “The children Master sent us for. Kill the boy!”
Darius and Khalid stepped together in front of the Greywicks. There was someone feral in Darius’s blue fire eyes. He stalked forward with naught even a sword. “Stand down. I am…I am—”
“He’s the bloody Prince of Andúrigard!” Khalid yelled.
One of the mercenaries threw a hatchet. It embedded in Darius’s shoulder.
“Darius!” Vivian cried.
Khalid grabbed Darius in his arms as he fell. “Dare!”
His eyes rolled back, blood spurting from his shoulder.
“I don’t give no fucks who you are,” the mercenary said. “We may not be getting off this Isle alive, but I’ll damned well be taking that boy with me.” He held a rusty dagger toward Timothée. “The Exalted One promises us a heavenly end in the stars. But ain’t no end for anyone if that boy lives. He’ll smother all the stars one by one.”
Timothée backed up. “No, I wouldn’t—”
“You die.” More mercenaries sauntered up behind him. His red-rimmed eyes darted from Darius on the ground, head in Khalid’s lap, to Vivian and Marion standing shoulder-to-shoulder. “And anyone who tries to stop me will meet the pointy end of me knife.”
Marion felt Vivian’s heavy breaths. “I can’t let him do that,” she whispered. “I won’t let him.”
And Marion knew what Vivian was going to do. The only weapon they had. The ones in her mouth.
No, no, no. Protect them. She wouldn’t let this filth touch her brother, wouldn’t let Vivian sacrifice her humanity for them. Couldn’t. They were the Greywicks, damnit. It was them against the world. Always had been.
She thought of their little cabin, the smell of lavender, her father’s voice singing as he strummed on his dulcimer. Sitting with Vivian and Timothée by the warmth of the fire. How that fire had bathed them in its light and warmth, given them comfort and courage.
It wasn’t fair. All she wanted to do was sit by that fire with her family. She had asked for nothing and been given shit. A dead father. A sick sister. A cursed brother. Some stupid fate as some stupid god. Where was her damned fire?
No one gave her anything. So she would take everything.
There was heat. And a glow under her skin. A fever burning from the bottom up. And then it was all around her, covering her body: burning, bursting flames. Every piece of her ignited.
The ash in her turned to fire.
From the ashes. The Morning Stars’ words.
She looked to the rising sun: a brilliant red orb filling the sky. Starlings didn’t get power from the sun.
But I am the phoenix, she thought. I take my power.
Body writhed in flames, she brought her hand out before her, watched the fire dance across her skin. But it didn’t burn. I am made of flames. I do not burn; I ignite.
The mercenary before her stopped, sneered. Then charged with dagger drawn.
Marion raised her arm, fire flowing beneath like flame-tipped wings. With a flick of her wrist, an inferno of thermal pressure shot out. A blaze engulfed the mercenary, scorching skin from his bone. Where once had been a man collapsed a charred corpse.
“Marion!” Her brother’s voice. Distant.
She turned to the next marauder. The woman yelled and charged, axe raised above her head. Marion rose both hands: a whoosh of heat blazed forth. Only cinders emerged from the flame.
There were so many mercenaries. Some were coming toward her. Others were running away. But with each fling of her hand, flames and energy burst forth. No one will frighten me again, she thought as flame after flame surged before her. Not the Dark Prophet. Not the Exalted One. Not the gods themselves.
“Marion, enough!” Khalid yelled, cutting through the roar of flame.
Marion shook herself, felt the fever drip out of her body. As the air, wavy with heat, cleared, Marion looked before her. Charred corpses littered Selene Crescent, bodies black, screams seared forever on their faces. It smelled of burnt hair and…lavender.
Her siblings and friends stepped beside her. They looked afraid.
Laid raw before me. Charred and broken.
A vow she had made to one who had threatened her.
Here was proof she could keep that vow.
Here was proof she could lay the whole world before her if she wished it.
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