Author: Janice Cox PM
It's time for the 743rd Aperanian Tournament. Time for jousting, wine, women, song, and...black magic?Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Romance - Chapters: 11 - Words: 112,644 - Reviews: 15 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 05-26-05 - Published: 09-24-01 - id: 413938
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Getting to the infirmary had been harder than it looked. Men and women were fighting everywhere, and the floor was slick with blood and other things it was best not to think about. Darrell fell to one knee, then scrambled on all fours to avoid being trampled as two men staggered by, their hands wrapped around each other's throats. Now his hands were slick with the stuff as well, and Darrell wiped his hands on his tunic with a grimace of distaste before getting to his feet. The infirmary wasn't far now, he thought. He hoped.
If getting to the infirmary had been tough, getting inside was going to be even trickier, Darrell saw a moment later. Three zombies stood in the doorway, their backs to him as they hacked at someone Darrell couldn't see. He slowed as he got closer, hoping to see a way through. The door to the infirmary was shut, bad enough, but what Darrell saw next to it was enough to make his blood run cold. Princess Ariel Baaldorf, his king's only living child and heir apparent, was standing defenseless in front of the zombies.
Well, not quite defenseless. As Darrell watched an unfamiliar black-haired man cut down one of the zombies, which came apart in a shower of rotted flesh and blood. The man was naked to the waist, save for bandages around his middle that were stained and soaked with blood. One of the soldiers, then, injured but still able to defend his princess. Once again Darrell felt a stirring of pride for the men he was privileged to serve with. He cheered mentally as the man stepped between Princess Ariel and one of the zombies, running it through with his sword and forcing the thing back. Medical supplies momentarily forgotten, Darrell leapt forward, eager to join the fray and defend his princess.
Both zombies were completely focused on their quarry, and Darrell grinned in satisfaction as his blade bit deep into a zombie back. He twisted the blade as he'd been told, severing what should have been vital muscle and nerve, before pulling his sword free. The zombie didn't fall over dead, but then it was dead already, wasn't it? It least it staggered to one side, momentarily halting its attack on the princess and her brave defender. Darrell caught another glimpse of the soldier and frowned. The man looked familiar, but the more Darrell thought about it the more he was sure that he wasn't one of their own knights or soldiers. One of Greystone's men, maybe? That wasn't quite right, but it was close, Darrell thought. He ducked as the zombie turned and swung awkwardly at him, its sword arm nearly severed at the elbow. Darrell stabbed forward, but this time his blade slid harmlessly off the thing's leather armor. Distantly, he heard a man's cry of pain as Darrell ducked again, this time barely avoiding getting his head cut off. The thing might be injured, Darrell saw, but that didn't seem to bother it much.
Injured. That made him remember what had brought him to the infirmary in the first place. Maybe he and the stranger could take Princess Ariel back to the dais with them, he thought, along with Sir Hugh's supplies. She'd be safe there, and—
The princess' voice drew Darrell's attention. It was as sweet and clear as he'd heard, but also tight with worry and fear. Her protector was hurt, Darrell saw. With a groan of effort the man pulled himself erect, and as he did so the light dawned. Those blue eyes, set in a face terribly, frighteningly familiar, and set off by hair as black as midnight. As black as their family's souls. Geoffrey, she'd called him.
"Step away from the princess, if you wish to live." The words came out strong and confident, as commanding as any knight's, Darrell thought proudly.
And were ignored completely. It was as if he wasn't even there.
The princess was tugging on Blackpool's arm, her eyes huge with fear. She probably didn't know who Blackpool was, Darrell consoled himself. Why should she? Princess Ariel was pure and sweet, far removed from the uglier things in the world. The zombie he'd attacked chose that moment to grab at him, and Darrell was forced to defend himself or be torn apart. By the time he was able to look back the princess was gone, the door to the infirmary ajar. And where was Blackpool? Biting his lip, Darrell hacked at the zombie's leg, grinning tiredly as a lucky blow cut it off at the knee and sent the creature tumbling to the floor. That should slow it down. He hoped. He looked around for the thing's partner, and was forced to throw himself to the floor as a Greystone knight swung his broadsword, cutting the other zombie in half with a mighty blow.
The princess. Where was the princess?
Stumbling to his feet, Darrell turned to thank the knight, only to see that the man was already locked in battle with another of the creatures. He was alone. But Ariel wasn't, Darrell saw. Her graceful hat with its unmistakable trailing scarves bobbed back and forth in the air, just visible over the tall Blackpool prince's shoulders. She must have gone into the infirmary to get away from the zombies, or Blackpool. Or both, Darrell thought grimly. Blackpool was standing in the doorway, his back to Darrell. One well-placed blow, and Darrell could save the princess and strike a mortal blow against the family that had been his kingdom's enemy since before he was born. His gaze locked on the spot just beneath Blackpool's shoulder blade that led straight to his lying heart, Darrell took a soft step forward, and then another.
"Ariel!" Blackpool called out the princess' name, taking an unsteady step into the room. Good, Darrell thought. The princess must be getting away. Blackpool raised his sword. What was he going to do with it? He was holding it too high to attack with. In fact, he was holding it more like a javelin. He was going to throw it at the escaping princess! Caution forgotten, Darrell leapt forward, his blade aimed directly at Blackpool's miserable black heart.
Just as his blade began its final arc, Darrell's boot slipped in a pool of blood. His forward momentum sent him spinning awkwardly to the floor, his attack unfinished. The impact knocked the sword from his hand, and Darrell cried out in frustration as his sworn enemy released his own sword, sending it flying toward the princess. Darrell had failed. He closed his eyes and slammed his fist to the floor in hopeless frustration. He was too late. Princess Ariel was as good as dead.
She wasn't moving. Justin wasn't even sure that Tessa knew he was there. Electrical energy crackled all around him, humming in the air like a thousand invisible wasps and making his skin feel like it was about to jump off his bones. His sense of danger wasn't whispering now, but clamoring loudly that he needed to be someplace, anyplace, else. Now. Good advice, but not advice he could follow just yet. Deerborne might be dead, but Justin had a bad feeling that the danger to his kingdom—to the whole world—was still growing. And all of it coming from the small, fragile-looking girl in front of him.
"Tessa?" Justin reached out and brushed one fingertip across her cheek. His other hand held his sword, and he was desperately afraid he was going to have to use it. Traquill had said that the mixing of royal and magic blood would lead to disaster, and he was beginning to think the old man had been right. Wizards had to study for years to learn to manipulate magic, and then could only use it in very specific, pre-defined ways. Tessa, without any training at all, was able to throw lightning bolts around like candy and make the earth itself open up and eat somebody. Alone and unarmed, she'd stood up to a warlock that had been running circles around all of them, Traquill and Vector included, and had killed him dead. Given time and training, would there be anything she couldn't do? Justin was terribly afraid he knew the answer to that.
"Tess?" He turned his tentative touch into a caress of her cheek. Energy ran across his hand like water, but there was no response from the girl. "Come on, darlin'. Come back to me." Maybe it could still be all right. Maybe—
She took a shuddering breath and Justin froze. One wrong move from her, one wrong word, and he would run her through, he promised himself. And regret it for the rest of his life.
"Tess?" The word hung in the air for a dozen heartbeats. His heart sinking, Justin took his hand from Tessa's cheek. Was it already too late? Then she blinked, and his sword froze in mid-air.
"Don't call me Tess," she said softly, and bands around Justin's chest loosened just a bit. She blinked again and the storm clouds faded from her eyes, leaving in their stead pale blue eyes filled with confusion. "Justin? Is that you?"
"Yeah." With a sigh he felt all the way to his toes Justin sheathed his sword and reached for her. At his touch Tessa came readily into his arms, shaking like a leaf. "It's okay, honey. It's over now." But was it? His sense of danger sure didn't seem to think so, and the air around them still shimmered with electrical energy. But then Tessa's arms went tentatively around him and Justin forced the doubts away. "You're safe, Tess. He can't hurt you any more," he murmured into her ear.
"I can still feel him," she whispered. "Inside my head. I can feel everything, Justin. It's so loud."
"It'll be okay," he repeated. "Come on. Maybe you just need a little fresh air." As if that would mean anything to a girl who could cause storms at will, he thought grimly. She seemed so lost, so confused, leaning on him for support as they made their way slowly to the main doors. It was easy to tell himself that he was doing the right thing. Traquill's face, pinched with fear, rose up in his memories and Justin ruthlessly pushed it aside. Wizard or not, Traquill was an old man, and old men were prone to making more of things than there really was, Justin told himself. Tessa was no threat to Camarand. Hell, she could barely stand up by herself. Everything was gonna be fine.
"Here we go." He pushed the door open and took a deep breath, trying to steady his frayed nerves. The air did feel fresh and cool, and as it flowed over his skin Justin remembered how tired and sore he was. His hand still throbbed where he'd been touching Deerborne when Tessa had crisped the warlock, and it felt like every muscle in his body had been pulled, twisted, or bruised six ways to Sunday in the past couple of hours. It would be good to sleep for about a day. Hell, two days. With a certain pretty minstrel by his side. He took another deep breath and forced a smile he didn't much feel into his voice. "There. See? That's a lot better."
Tessa didn't reply, her pale face now still and remote. Justin gently squeezed her shoulders with one arm. His other hand had gone back to his sword hilt, and when he realized it he jerked the hand away, biting back a curse as he did so. No. That ain't gonna happen.
Please, he added, just in case any of the gods happened to be listening.
"It's beautiful." Tessa had turned her face up to the sky and was now smiling faintly. "Everything's alive, Justin. The trees, the grass, the soil. Even the air. It crackles with energy, like a thousand birds in flight. A part of me always knew that, I think. But I was afraid."
"Maybe you had good reason," Justin replied. "That's a pretty big stick you've got in your head, darlin.' Best be careful who you swing it at."
"I know. This power, whatever it is, it frightens me, Justin. It's so--oh!" She doubled over as if struck, and only his arm around her shoulders kept her from falling to the ground.
"What is it?" Justin looked back over his shoulder. The ground was still smooth and unbroken. But if this attack hadn't come from Deerborne, where the heck had it come from? They were alone in the stable. Tessa moaned helplessly and he wrapped his arms protectively around her. "What is it, Tess? Who's hurting you?"
"Mmm." Biting back a cry of pain she waved vaguely out into the courtyard, her lips compressed into a tight pale line. After a minute she pulled herself upright and took a ragged breath, an unhealthy flush coloring her formerly pale cheeks. "Can't you feel it? It's like maggots crawling over your skin." She pointed into the darkness. "There."
"I don't see anything. Hang on." Justin peered into the darkness. Through the rain he thought he could see movement. Hear something, too. A few seconds later and the first cries reached his ears. "It's just more of that Deerborne guy's zombies. Looks like the got themselves chased out of one of the barracks." The battle had spilled out into the courtyard, and from here it was impossible to tell who was winning.
"Zombies." The naked loathing in her voice brought Justin's attention fully back to Tessa. Her lips had curled into a grimace of horror, and he saw with growing disquiet that her hands had tightened into fists. She was as pale as he'd ever seen her, with an unnatural flush to her cheeks that made her eyes sparkle madly.
"Hey, now, nothin' to worry about. Our guys will take care of them." That was the plan, anyway. But if they were still fighting them here, what about back at the main hall? Justin felt a familiar pang of guilt at the thought. He'd been supposed to lead the men back there. Had any of them even made it that far?
"They're an abomination." Tessa spoke softly enough that Justin almost missed her words entirely. "A festering sore. It's wrong. Wrong…" she trailed off.
"Yeah, they're none too pretty, all right. But we're taking care of them, Tess." He patted her on the shoulder, not much liking the expression on her face or the tone of her words.
"No. You can't. They'll just keep coming, and coming." Tessa shook her head, her lips a thin, determined line. "But I can." She took a step forward and he hastily released her as a surge of energy crackled over her skin like fire. "I can make it stop. Make it clean." Tessa reached out with one pale, dirty, hand, seeming to tug at the clouds far above them. The response was immediate.
Lightning exploded in the sky, followed instantly by thunder so loud it shook tiles from the roof and sent the horses behind them into wild peals of terror. One bolt left those flashing across the sky and lashed down, striking one of the fighters with spooky accuracy. The man, or zombie, or whatever he was, exploded into a shower of burning flesh and cloth. Tessa laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. She snatched at the clouds again, and a shower of lightning bolts roared down from the sky, forcing Justin to close his eyes or be blinded. But he didn't need to see to know what was happening, or to know what he would see if he could look into her eyes.
Tessa was gone. The thing that stood in her place was powerful almost beyond imagining. From the sound of the wild laughter that alternated with sobs of fear with each new attack, it was also completely insane. And it's my fault, he thought bleakly. I should have known. He staggered back as the ground shook. I should'a finished it when I had the chance. He pulled his sword out, hoping it wasn't too late to put it all right. He loved her, he knew now. But for all the time he'd spent running from the fact, he knew something else, as well. He loved his kingdom. Loved it enough to do anything to protect it.
I'm sorry, Tessa. I swear to you, I didn't want it to end this way. The ache in his chest made it hard to breathe. So this is what a broken heart feels like, he thought, as he lifted his sword for the killing strike. Feels like I'm the one about to die, darlin.' But I'm not.
"Aren't we done here yet? Man, I tell you, these things seem to go on for days." Marko sighed heavily, his bulk moving with less than its customary speed as they circled, back to back, fending off five of what seemed to be an unending supply of zombies. These were especially rancid, and were probably from the original group of Deerborne soldiers that had set off the spell in the first place, Erik thought. He wished fleetingly that they dared risk opening the main doors and all of the windows. These things were ripe.
"I know, I know. Diplomatic dinners are always such a bore." Erik feinted and then thrust forward, skewering his undead opponent. He twisted his blade and nodded in satisfaction as the thing tumbled to the ground in pieces. "You know, I think I'm getting the hang of this." The older the zombie, the more easily it came apart if you hit them right, they had discovered.
"Yeah. Sort of like getting the cork out of a wine bottle without leaving any of that brown stuff inside. I hate when that happens."
"Justin says that's one of the five deadly sins." Erik ducked and a blow sailed easily over his head.
"Five? What happened to the other two?"
"I think he gave them up for lent."
"Um, Erik? I don't think it works like that." Marko reached out and snatched a zombie out of the air as it launched himself at him. "Oh, yeah? Come here, you." With a grunt that was half growl he threw it at another of their attackers, sending them both to the ground in a shower of pieces. "Okay. I'm ready for something new now."
"You are so hard to please. I mean, here we are, in the fight of our lives. Ballads will be written about this day. Undead enemies, evil wizards, rabid Hell Hounds running around, and you're bored." Some of the men nearby were grinning at their exchange, and Erik allowed himself a small mental pat on the back. The arrival of Tronin's men had revitalized their forces, both in terms of physical strength and of morale. Things were far from over, but they were looking up. The surviving women and children were now under protective guard, as were what was left of the royal families. From the dais his father was directing the attack, surrounded by their most capable knights. Baaldorf and Tronin were there as well, providing moral support if not much else.
"Speaking of Justin," Marko began.
"Yeah, I know. You think he really went after Deerborne?" The Tronin knight's explanation had included a reference to that, improbable as it sounded.
"He also said something about a girl. That sounds more likely, doesn't it?"
"He is awfully fond of this latest one," Erik granted, most of his attention on his opponent. Was it his imagination, or was it getting quiet in here? They weren't having to shout to be heard, and he could actually see open space in front of him. The loudest sound was the crackle and roar of the worst summer storm he'd ever heard, right over their heads. Fresh air, he thought longingly. Erik pulled his thoughts back to the matter at hand. "But, I don't know. He's been acting really strange lately. You think maybe he's turning over a new leaf?"
"Justin? Erik, the stars will fall from the skies before that guy changes his spots."
"I think you just mixed two different metaphors." His muscles aching, Erik parried and then slid his sword beneath his enemy's defenses, neatly severing its sword arm at the shoulder. A burly man in Stormhold livery decapitated it, and two more men grabbed the still-struggling thing and started dragging it toward the main doors. Erik took a deep breath and let himself lean back against the wall, savoring the brief moment of peace. Where was Justin, anyway?
Marko chuckled, his broad shoulders making the wall shake as he collapsed back against it. The vassal began wiping his blade clean with a none-too-clean piece of tablecloth, his eyes following the battle in front of them. "You know, I was just thinking. It's crazy, I know. But Justin has been acting funny. So has Ariel. Jumpy, secretive…kind of crabby. You don't think that the two of them…?" He trailed off, glancing at Erik out of the corner of his eyes and raising his eyebrows suggestively
"Marko! Come on. Ariel is my betrothed. Even Justin wouldn't, wouldn't… And she's not his type, anyway." Two fighters were headed their way, one living, one…not so much. The living soldier seemed to have the upper hand. Good. Erik told himself he wasn't quite ready to sell his soul for five minutes' rest. Not quite.
"She's breathing, isn't she? And it's not like she's homely. Okay, she's not much of a dancer, but a lack of rhythm in one area doesn't always preclude rhythm in another." Marko's face was carefully neutral as he said the last to the air in front of him. Only years of friendship let Erik see the mischief hidden in the man's face. Erik didn't know whether to laugh or be offended.
"I can't believe we're even having this discussion. Ariel is not having an affair with my brother." Laughter won out. Still, Marko was right, Erik acknowledged. Ariel had been acting awfully strange lately. He looked over at his vassal. "You don't really think…"
"Nah," they finished together.
"So you sent Ariel up to Cassandra? That was smart. Man, I'd hate to think of her down here in this mess. I can just imagine the screaming. You know, if one of them got that rotting stuff on her dress." Marko shuddered expressively.
"You should have heard her when I spilled a little punch on that blue dress of hers last spring. For a moment there my life passed before my eyes." Erik paused, the smile slowly fading from his face. "Wait a minute. I thought you said you sent her upstairs."
"I said I would if I saw her. Then everything went all zombie-crazed and I kind of lost track of her. I checked the dais a little while ago, and she wasn't there. If she was still out on the floor we'd have seen her, right? You couldn't miss that hat," Marko replied.Ariel's fondness for elaborate headgear was legendary, but tonight she'd outdone herself. The hat was easily three feet tall, with three points that each held elaborate silk scarves which hung past her shoulders. Marko was right. If Ariel had still been in the Hall, they'd have seen her.
Unless someone had knocked that silly hat from her head. The thought of Ariel at the mercy of one of Dearborn's zombies made Erik's guts clench. How could he have been so careless? Marko has apparently followed his train of thought. The bigger man had pushed himself off the wall and was settling his shoulders, his hand clenching and unclenching around his sword hilt. When he spoke the good humor had completely left his face.
"Guess we'd better find out."
He wasn't good enough.
That was far from news to Geoffrey Blackpool, but never had it hurt him more than it did now. Through the gray haze that clouded his vision Geoffrey watched as his sword went wide, missing the zombie that held Ariel and clattering harmlessly to the stone floor. Ariel let out a cry of disappointment, which quickly turned to a choked cry of pain as the thing jerked her off her feet and began to strangle her with one massive, rotting forearm. Well's there's a big surprise, Dirk's voice said snidely from its place within his head. Once again my little brother fails to come through when he's needed most. The room had gotten cold and now rocked from side to side disorientingly, making it hard for Geoffrey to stay on his feet. At least the pain seemed to be going away, he thought blurrily, even as the fog that filled his vision grew thicker. From far away he could hear the ringing of chimes. Then again, anyone who needs you to protect them isn't really worth saving, are they?
"Don't say that," Geoffrey muttered thickly. "Ariel's worth more than—"
"Princess Ariel! I'll save you!" A voice came out of the fog, cutting off Geoffrey's muddled train of thought. That's good, he thought blearily. Someone really should save—
"Ariel?" She needed saving, Geoffrey remembered. And where was she, anyway? It was so hard to see through all this cursed fog. Geoffrey took a step forward, then blinked in dull surprise as something hit him from behind, sending him careening forward right into the lady he'd sworn to protect. "Ariel?" Geoffrey asked blurrily.
"Geoff—mmph!" The zombie had her, Geoffrey remembered. He had to rescue the princess. Geoffrey struggled to bring his hands up, but someone had tied weights to them, it seemed. He grunted with effort, breathing in the zombie's rank stench and just a hint of ariel's sweet perfume.
"Get away from her!" It sounded like a boy, but the hands that pulled at Geoffrey pulled with a man's strength. Enough strength to pull him away from his princess and send him careening across the infirmary to crash painfully into a table. Geoffrey landed on the stone floor amid a rubble of wood and shattered pottery, blinking up at the ceiling and trying to pull his tattered thoughts back together. What thoughts, Dirk sneered.
"Shut up," he told the voice, his own voice sounding weak and far away. Where was Ariel? Geoffrey tried to get up, to go to her, but nothing seemed to be working right. Now even the fog had weight, and after a moment's struggle he lay back, knowing that Dirk was right. Ariel was going to die, and it was all his fault. He just wasn't good enough.
He had done it! A spear of pure triumph shot through Darrell as Prince Blackpool crashed to the ground, safely away from the Princess Baaldorf. For a moment Darrell thought that the evil prince might come at the princess again, but after a moment the man lay back in the rubble where he fell and was still. He looked dead, Darrell thought with satisfaction, pale and coated with blood too fresh and red to be anything but his own. Darrell imagined beginning able to report to Sir Hugh that one of their greatest enemies was among those killed tonight. It might make up, in some small way, for all of their own terrible losses. Maybe Sir Hugh would even smile and pat his shoulder when Darrell returned with not just the bandages he'd been sent for, but a rescued Princess Baaldorf and good news besides.
"Ack!" A not very lady-like sound brought Darrell back from his pleasant daydream. Princess Ariel stood before him, her face an interesting shade of bright red, her eyes as bugged-out as any clown's. She made the funny acking sound again, and Darrell saw with a start that she wasn't exactly standing. Or breathing, for that matter. Ariel's slippered feet beat helplessly against the shins of a massive zombie whose leering face suggested that it was enjoying choking the life from his king's only daughter.
"Princess Ariel!" Darrell leapt forward, his eyes only for the tortured face of his princess.
And was met by her delicate, slipped feet, which didn't feet at all delicate as they slammed into his right temple. Darrell had time to realize that the thing had swung at him with the only thing it had to hand—Princess Ariel. He shook his head, trying to clear it. He only needed a moment, and then he would—
The moment never came. With a guttural roar the zombie slammed Princess Ariel's legs against Darrell's left temple, sending the squire careening toward the floor and unconsciousness. He never felt the impact, nor saw his beloved Princess' face as it, like a summer sunset, began turning from bright red to a deep and dusky purple.
The world was a storm.
Energy whirled around Tessa in gusts and eddies of color so bright that they hurt her mind to look at it. That same energy thrummed through her body like a plucked lute string, leaving vibrations that were a sweet song of power in its wake. A small stain appeared in her world of color, and without conscious thought she sent out a small tendril of energy in its direction. The stain that her rational mind knew to be a zombie exploded into nothingness and she laughed delightedly. The world hummed contentedly around her, the balance restored.
The world was a storm. A storm of power, with her at its center. Though it was getting harder and harder to think at all, Tessa knew that she was seeing the power of the earth itself. The power that turned a seedling into a towering tree, the power that could send showers of molten rock high into the sky. The power that sent wind and lightning to scour the ground clean. All of it was hers. Hers to do with as she wished.
I never wanted this, she protested faintly, even as another zombie exploded in a shower of sparks and a part of her shrieked in delight. I just wanted to be safe. To be free. To sing, to play music, to fall in love—
Justin. He'd been a part of that life, that dream. She'd been wrong about him, Tessa thought sorrowfully. He had come for her at the end, back when she was still mortal enough to need it. How brave he had been, standing in front of the animal Deerborne with nothing but a steel sword in his hand. The warlock should have destroyed him easily, but somehow Justin had prevailed, hurting Deerborne badly and providing the distraction she had so desperately needed. Fear and pain had opened doors inside her head she hadn't even known were there, but Deerborne's spell had trapped her inside herself, those doors only partially opened. Justin had caused the warlock's iron control to lift just enough.
Was Justin still there? Tessa was vaguely aware that her physical body stood in a courtyard, soaked to the skin by the pounding, punishing rain. She tried to reach for him, to feel his welcome presence, only to pull back as power crackled warningly across her hand. Yes. He was there. A part of her awareness that touched every life, great and small, told her that. But to touch him now would mean his death. The thought of that made her stomach clench, and brought Tessa back toward the world she had left behind.
No. Not that. Never. With a pang of longing she wished he could hold her, just once more. But that part of her life was behind her now. With only a glimmer of regret she turned her attention back to the storm, and the enemies in it.
I'm sorry, Tessa.
She was never sure if the words were spoken aloud, or only in her mind. Could spoken words taste of regret? Her slow and confused thoughts were still pondering that when cold steel sliced through the power flowing over her skin and bit into her flesh.
Power slapped out of her without thought and without warning. It lifted her attacker into the air, where he jerked like a drunken marionette, before tossing him out into the courtyard. His limp body hit the cobblestones with an indescribable thud and rolled perhaps a dozen paces before coming to rest.
"Justin?" Her voice was small and still in the sudden silence. The storm itself seemed to be holding its breath. "Justin?" Rain dripped slowly from rooftops, and she could hear the distant sounds of men in battle. But no easy laugh came from the still form, nor even a low moan of pain. Tessa fumbled out with her newfound awareness. Death was all around her, like a cloak she couldn't shake. She grieved again for Martha, and Gregory, and Talmor. All dead. All because of her. But not Justin, she told herself. Not him. Even the raindrops seemed to freeze as she reached out and touched him.
No breath. No life's pulse. He was dead.
She had killed him.
End of Part 11
Author's note: I know, I know. I said the end was in sight sometime last year, didn't I? Well, here we are, at last. Expect another couple of chapters, but hopefully we'll be at the end of this journey within the next week or two. Thanks to everyone who has stuck by me this long.