XXXII. The Star

In Deena’s dream, she walked out of the cave of ice. She stood on the surface of the ocean, gazing out toward the horizon, toward the sun. She reached for it, and the sun reached back, pulling her up and up into the sky.

She turned to look the way she had come. There was Rhiinas— the snowy peaks in the north, the winding coastline in the west, the verdant forests and fields, and the river that split the land in two. Taunsgrove was somewhere there, and south of that, there were the highlands that ended in cliffs that fell into the ocean. And past that, the ocean itself where Asterii had once stood proud.

She looked to the west, to the lands across the sea, then east across the mountains. She looked to Osgola, to Neben, to all the places she had never been but might someday like to see. She looked in on the people there, into their huts built in the tops of trees or carved from the red clay canyon. She watched them with their friends and families, the children dressed in robes or skirts or sometimes not at all. Some of them sang. Some of them fought. But all of them—all of them were alive.

She flew higher, and the world shrank away into nothing more than a little blue sphere. All of the richness of the world—all of the people, the places, the mountains and the rivers—could fit into the palm of her hand. A stabbing sensation in her palm brought her back down to earth, and she was in the North, standing before an enormous black spire. There was blood on her hand where she had felt the stab, and when she looked up, the tip of the spire gleamed red.

She woke to the sound of whispered arguing. “What do you mean you let her go by herself?” asked Avenel. “You could have woken us—any one of us—to go with her.”

“She insisted on going herself,” said Nicholas. “You don’t know her; there’s no changing her mind when she gets like this.”

“You could still have woken us,” said Avenel.

Deena rubbed her eyes. “What happened?” she asked.

“Izra’s missing,” said Flame. “She thought the archers who attacked us might have been on top of this ice, so she went to take a look.”

“By herself?” asked Deena.

Flame nodded.

“How long ago did she leave?” asked Garthniiel.

“I don’t know,” said Nicholas. He gestured helplessly at the sun. “I don’t know how to tell time in a place like this.”

“Nevermind,” said Avenel. “Find me another rope. I’m going after her.”

“There’s no need,” said a voice. “I’m back.”

They turned. Izra stood at the mouth of their little cave, covered in snow, but no worse for wear. And behind her, standing half a pace back and still holding her hand—

“I found Inoor,” said Izra.

Deena had expected Izra’s twin to look like her, but she didn’t. They had the same browbone, nose, and mouth, it was true, but Inoor’s skin was a burnished gold to Izra’s ashen white, and her hair was black as night. It hung in a loose braid down her back, and when the wind blew the loose strands across her face, she made no move to brush them away.

Nicholas took a step toward her. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out, just a choked sort of whimper. He cupped her face in his hands, brushed his thumb across her cheek, but when she turned toward him, she looked through him into the distance, not a trace of recognition in her eyes.

“She isn’t there,” said Izra. “It’s just her body.”

“But she looks just like her,” said Nicholas. Then, dropping his hands and turning away, “Of course she does.”

Izra didn’t answer.

“Can you undo it?” asked Nicholas. “Whatever it is he did to her?”

“The only way would be to kill her again,” said Izra. “A knife through the heart would end her like it would end anyone else, but…”

“But we need her to get off this ice,” finished Nicholas. “We need to use her, like he did.”

Izra closed her eyes. “She’s… weaker in her current state, without her soul, but with Avenel here, it should be enough to take us all to where we need to go.”

Avenel took a step toward them. She was looking at Inoor, her brow slightly furrowed. “That man, the one with the strange eyes. He told me to focus on where I want to go.”

“There’s a throne room of sorts,” said Izra. “It’ll be difficult, with so many of us, but with you here she’ll be able to do it.”

“What about their army?” asked Garthniiel. “They had enough men to set our ship on fire, and it can’t be an accident that you found her.”

“It isn’t,” said Izra, “but if you can hold them off for just a few minutes, it’ll be enough time for Deena to do what she needs to do.”

“W-what do I need to do?” asked Deena.

“It’s a throne,” said Izra. “You sit.”

“That’s it?” asked Deena.

“No,” said Izra. “The rest you’ll know when the time comes, but… it won’t take long.”

Deena swallowed. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, I think I can do that.”

Avenel turned to look at her, then at the crescent sun hanging low in the cerulean sky. The wind had died down, and the ocean was as calm and clear as a mirror. “Then let’s not wait any longer,” she said and held out her hand to pull Deena to her feet.

They stood in a circle: Avenel with her sword and Ephraim’s dagger at her hip, Izra holding Inoor’s hand with Nicholas on her other side, Garthniiel with his greatsword slung across his back, Flame and Frost with their bows and quivers at their sides. Deena stood next to Avenel, and the woman squeezed her fingers tight. They all linked hands, Avenel holding Garthniiel’s holding Flame’s and on and on until Izra reached around to take Deena’s other hand. The wind whipped around them—not cold, but warm like a summer breeze—and the ground dissolved beneath them.

They were spinning. They were falling. They were doing both, spiraling like a leaf caught in a gale. Deena’s hand began to sweat—her fingers slipped from Avenel’s—and she cried out but the wind tore the sound from her lips. Something cold and hard slammed into her shoulder, and it was only as the world stopped spinning that she realized it was the ground. There was a clatter as of many small somethings scattering across a marble floor and a thump of something larger.

Deena rose unsteadily to her feet. There was a ringing in her head loud as a storm. “Avenel?” she called. “Avenel?”

Avenel wasn’t there. There was only Izra, pushing herself up with one arm and clutching her ankle with her other.

“My—My bracelet,” said Izra. “It broke.”

“Where are the others?” asked Deena.

“I don’t know,” said Izra. She tried to stand but winced and sat back down. “My hand slipped.”

“Mine too,” said Deena. She looked around. They were in what had once been a stone corridor, but the walls were cracked or collapsed altogether. Rubble blocked them in on one side, and half the ceiling had caved in to let in the light. “What happened here?” asked Deena.

Half a dozen voices answered her question. “An earthquake, long ago,” they said in unison, and Deena whipped around to see the soldiers emerge from the shadows, from behind the piles of rubble, or descending from the hole in the ceiling. All had the same glazed look in their eyes as Inoor.

“Wh-who are you?” asked Deena.

In unison, the soldiers laughed, a cold, dead sound that set Deena’s hairs on end. “You know who I am,” they said. “You know these are merely my mouthpieces.”

“Noriiel,” said Deena. “You’re Noriiel.”

“Yes,” said a voice—not one of the soldiers—and Deena turned to see the speaker. He was tall and slim, his hands open in welcome, his features lit by a fire that did not exist. “I am the star who wishes to end this world. At last we meet, Harbinger.”

The ground materialized beneath Avenel’s feet, and she stumbled as the rest of the world came into being. The others looked just as disoriented as she was—Garthniiel, Flame, and Frost—and they found their footing and looked around.

“Where’s Deena?” asked Avenel.

“I thought you were holding her hand,” said Flame.

“I was,” said Avenel. “Something went wrong. We aren’t where we meant to go.”

“Izra and Nicholas are missing too,” said Garthniiel. “And Inoor. Well, Inoor’s, uh, body, I guess.”

“And where are the soldiers?” asked Frost. She already had her crossbow in her hand and loaded. “I thought we would be swarmed.”

“So did I,” said Flame.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Avenel. “We look for Deena.”

The room they were in was small and strangely empty, lit only by a crack that ran the length of the wall. Garthniiel gave it a push, then jerked back as a piece of masonry fell from the ceiling to crash at his feet.

“Maybe don’t do that before you bring the roof down,” said Frost.

Avenel put her ear against the only door in the room, an old wooden one that looked like it might turn to splinters at the slightest touch. When she heard nothing on the other side, she pulled it open to reveal a darkened corridor on the other side.

“Did anyone think to bring a torch?” asked Garthniiel.

Flame shook his head. “It was light out, and Nicholas was with us.”

“And Inoor,” added Avenel.

“Perhaps we should split up,” said Garthniiel. “We’ll find them faster that way.”

Avenel shook her head. “It’s more dangerous to be separated.” She hoped that Izra, on Deena’s other side, had still been holding Deena’s hand. She drew her sword. “Stay close. We’ll follow the wall.”

It had been a long time since Nicholas had been transported anywhere with magic. He had forgotten how it felt. The disorientation as he got to his feet was almost nostalgic; Inoor had always teased him for it.

She didn’t now. She didn’t say anything, only look at him with eyes so empty that they may as well have been made of glass.

“Where is everyone?” asked Nicholas, but of course Inoor didn’t answer. He was in a room—a library, from the fallen shelves and scrolls scattered across the floor. He picked one up, crumbling and faded as it was, and was greeted by the language of his people. Thoughts of home, unbidden and unwanted, flooded his mind.

“Do you remember the library we had at home, Inoor?” he asked. “You wanted to sort our books and scrolls by subject, but I wanted them by author. You won that fight, you know. For months, I couldn’t find anything that I was looking for, but eventually I figured it out.” He sighed and set the scroll back down. “We should find the others.”

He clambered over the broken shelves and between the piles of rubble to search for the door. It was strange, after so many centuries, to be confronted with the architecture of Asterii. He had grown so used to the rough-hewn stones of Rhiinas that the carvings on the walls with its familiar patterns felt like walking through a dream. Even broken and ruined, he could recognize the motifs in the carvings, the color palette, the texture of the stone.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” he asked Inoor. “A temple all the way up here, and we never knew of it.” He ran a finger along the wall, chasing its geometric lines, remnants of the paint flaking away beneath his hand. “It looks like home, doesn’t it?”

He found the door obscured by a broken shelf, which in turn was half buried by fallen pieces of ceiling. He pushed, but when the shelf seemed more likely to fall on him than to move aside, he had no choice but to first clear away the rubble. “Help me,” he said, and Inoor obeyed, using her magic to move the broken stones aside, piece by piece.

At long last, they finished. Nicholas pushed at the shelf, straining until it fell and crashed to the ground in a shower of splintered wood. He sighed. “This way,” he said to Inoor and opened the door, only to be confronted by a solid wall of rubble.

“Dammit!” swore Nicholas, punching at the stone. “Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” With a sigh he leaned back against the wall and slid down onto the floor.

Inoor looked down at him, expressionless.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Nicholas. “You were always the one to—to tell me, when you were alive. After you died, with the fall of Asterii, with Izra losing her mind trying to bring you back—So many times I wanted to ask you what to do, but you weren’t there. You—I was so lost without you. I needed you—still need you—but you were gone.” He put a hand over his face. “You don’t know what I’m saying, do you? Like Izra said, you aren’t really here, and this—for all that it looks like Asterii—isn’t home.”

The corridor was eerily quiet, magnifying the sound of each footstep, each rattle of Garthniiel’s sword belt or Flame’s arrows in their quiver. Yet for all the noise they were making, no one came for them. There were no footsteps but their own, no sudden strike from the dark. Avenel ran her hand along the wall—there were carvings in the stone, a decorative pattern, its angles worn smooth by time.

She stopped. Garthniiel bumped into her, and Flame and Frost into him.

“Why did we stop?” whispered Frost.

“The pattern,” said Avenel. “It’s different here.” She stepped aside for the others to feel it too. Where they had been following a tessellation of something abstract and geometric, here was giant sunburst, large enough that she could not reach the top. She tried to feel for the other side, but as she walked, her foot bumped into something large. She bent down to feel what it was, and her fingers met broken stone. Rubble. “The way ahead is collapsed,” she said.

“Do we turn back?” asked Garthniiel.

Avenel didn’t answer. She was still feeling the rubble, trying to find its edges. Something crunched beneath her foot, and when she reached down to see what it was, she found the splintered bones of a hand. She dropped it at once.

“I found something,” said Flame, somewhere to her right. “The corridor, it turns here. I think I see a light.”

Avenel followed his voice, reaching out her hands until it met the other wall. She followed it around the bend, and there at the other end was indeed a light, but so faint that she may well have imagined it. “Let’s go,” she said.

The wall carvings here were shaped like arrowheads, all pointing toward the light. It grew brighter as they walked, and soon, there was enough illumination to see by.

The corridor was curved—gradual enough that they hadn’t realized it in the dark, but now with the light from up ahead, they could see it clearly. A few steps more and they could see the source of the light, a giant hole overhead where the ceiling had fallen in to reveal the blue skies above.

The corridor ended in a doorway, though its door sat in splintered pieces on the ground. There was a snow-covered courtyard on the other side, and looking around, theirs wasn’t the only corridor that ended at this courtyard. At the center of the courtyard, pieces lying broken and buried by the snow, stood what looked to be remains of a spire.

The base of the spire was still tact. The large double doors, each made of solid stone and as tall as castle gate, stood ajar.

“I think that’s it,” said Avenel. “That’s the throne room.”

“Do you think the others are already there?” asked Flame.

“I don’t know,” said Avenel. She drew a dagger from beneath her jerkin, and behind her, she could hear Frost notch her crossbow. The openness of the courtyard made her uneasy—anyone could see them as they ran across—but there was no other way to the broken spire in the center. From where she stood inside the door, she could see nothing to suggest the presence of soldiers, no strange shadows or cleverly concealed alcoves, but then again, she could see very little at all from where she stood.

Perhaps they were wrong. Perhaps there weren’t so many soldiers after all. Or perhaps—Perhaps they had already found Deena.

“On the count of three,” she said to the others. “One—Two—”

They ran out on three, half expecting arrows to rain down from above, but there was nothing. There was only the unevenness of the snow and rubble beneath their feet. The doors of the spire were open just enough for them to slip through, and they did, and found themselves in the ornate hall within.

It must have been beautiful, once. Tall windows of colored glass lined the walls, bathing the rubble below in yellows and reds. There were the remains of statues, each larger than life, broken hands and faces lying half-covered by the snow. Sunbursts adorned the pillars that had once held up the roof, the beams inlaid with copper and gold. A pair of staircases lead up to the balcony that ringed the room, and at the other end of the hall, atop a dais ten feet tall, was a chair of jagged black stone.

“I’ve been here before,” said Avenel, surprised. “I—No, it’s Inoor who’s been here before.”

“That makes sense,” said Frost. “She was working for Noriiel.”

“No,” said Avenel, shaking her head. “I meant before, when she was alive.” She walked forward to the center of the room, to where broken masonry covered the floor. A scrap of faded cloth peeked out between the stones, and she reached down to pull it free.

She heard it before her fingers met the cloth: the telltale thrum of a bowstring. Instinctively, she ducked, and the arrow flew over her head. Too late, she saw them: figures hidden in the stone trusses beneath the balcony, obscured by the shadows and the strange red light from the windows.

“How many?” asked Frost as the soldiers descended from their hiding spots.

Avenel didn’t answer. Too many, she thought, enough that the number doesn’t matter, but there was no time for words.

Izra took a limping step forward, but two of the soldiers were quick to grab her by the arms.

“Don’t hurt her!” exclaimed Deena.

“I have no need to,” said Noriiel. “I only wish to speak with you without her interruption.”

“Don’t listen to him—” began Izra, but one of the soldiers clamped his hand over her mouth.

Noriiel continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “I am a man of my word, Harbinger. Answer my one question, and I will let her go. I will even direct you to your other friends.”

“Wh-what do you want?” asked Deena.

“Why do you wish to save the world?”

“Because I’m the Harbinger,” said Deena. “I have to. Izra said so.”

Noriiel smiled. “That isn’t an answer.”

There was a muffled sound of protest from Izra, then the sickening crack of bone. She had put her hands on the arms of the soldiers holding her, and those arms now fell away, limp. “Did you forget that I’m blood mage?” asked Izra, wiping a trickle of blood from her nose.

“How could I?” asked Noriiel. “After all you’ve done for me?”

“Done for you?” asked Deena. “What do you mean—?”

“Don’t listen to him,” said Izra. “He—” But more soldiers came to hold her back, three this time, pinning her arms behind her back.

Noriiel returned his attention to Deena. “Why do you wish to save the world?” he asked again. “Is it simply because you’ve been told to, and by a woman who lies, no less?”

Deena shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The soldier nearest Noriiel stooped and picked up one of the beads from Izra’s broken bracelet. “Do you know what these are?” asked Noriiel.

Deena looked at it. She remembered reaching for Izra’s bracelet at the inn, remembered the visions she had seen. “No,” she said.

“These are memories,” said Noriiel. “As a blood mage, Izra can manipulate the mind where it exists in flesh. When Ruuzael sent her to meet you, she took her own memories from her mind so you would not see them in your dreams. What is it, I wonder, that she so desperately wished to hide? Even now, with the fate of the world in the balance, what is it that she does not want you to know?”

Deena took a step back. “I—if it was important for me to know, I’m sure she would have told me.”

“Would she?” asked Noriiel. “She allowed you to believe that you were chasing the Harbinger, that the Harbinger would be responsible for destroying the world. What other truths has she withheld?”

“I—I don’t—”

“I do not ask you to take my word,” said Noriiel, and beside him the soldier took a step forward and held out the bead. “You are the Harbinger,” said Noriiel. “Memories are your birthright. You need only take it and see for yourself.”

Izra strained against her bonds. For half a second, she shook free of the hand over her mouth. “Don’t!” she called. “Deena, don’t—”

Deena looked at her. “That night at the inn,” she said, “when I touched your bracelet. Is this why you didn’t want me to tell anyone about what I saw?”

The hand was back over Izra’s mouth, and she shook her head as violently as she could, but it was no good. Three feet away, Deena reached out and took the memory from the soldier’s open hand.

For a while, Nicholas sat crying. It had been a long time since he cried—since the day Asterii fell, when he awoke to find himself the sole survivor of his race. He did not much remember the details of the days that followed, only the overwhelming feelings of grief and shock that someone he so loved could commit such an atrocity.

He stood and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “I don’t suppose you know another way to where I need to go?” he asked.

To his surprise, Inoor turned and began to walk away.

“Where are you going?” asked Nicholas.

Inoor didn’t answer, only kept on walking, moving between the shelves and broken stone.

Nicholas followed. On the other side of the room, Inoor put her hand on the wall—there was a low rumbling—and one of the wall shelves swung open to reveal a secret corridor.

“Am I—am I supposed to go in there?” asked Nicholas.

Inoor didn’t answer. Nicholas took that as a yes.

The corridor was small and narrow, barely big enough for a single person to pass through. Nicholas lit a fire in his palm to light his way. Fortunately, the corridor was short, and on the other side was a small room, sparsely furnished, but what furniture it did have were clearly of much newer construction than whatever had befallen the temple.

“Is this—is this where he kept you?” asked Nicholas, looking at a cot in the corner. Beside the cot, there was also a desk, a washbasin, and a lantern on the hook by the entrance. There were papers on the desk, but the handwriting was not one that he knew, and a small wooden box with ornate carvings on the lid.

“Wait a minute,” said Nicholas, picking up the box. “I’ve seen this before. Izra had this.” He turned it over in his hand. “How did it get here?” He looked up. Inoor had followed him inside. “Did Noriiel take this when he took you?” He walked over to the lantern and lit it, then placed it on the desk to free his hand. The clasp on the box had rusted shut, but a little tug and the box was open.

Inside, the box was lined with a rich yellow silk, and nestled in the folds was a piece of obsidian painstakingly shaped into a bird.

Nicholas picked it up. “This is a memory,” he said. “Whose?”

For the first time in centuries, Inoor spoke: “Yours.”

Like last time, the memories cut at her like red hot daggers, but this time Deena braced herself against the blow.

She was bound, hand and foot, in chains etched with runes. The light from the windows was blindingly bright, and she kept her eyes lowered to the ground. Around her, a ring of figures in crimson robes passed their judgement. “For the crimes of treason and blood magic, we sentence you, Izra Grey, to die.”

She didn’t move. Didn’t react.

The executioner, in his robe of black, stepped forward. “May your soul find mercy among the stars,” he said, and offered her the goblet of poison.

She took it, and in that same moment, the ground shook.

“No!” shouted a voice, and all eyes turned to the golden-haired man rising from his seat in the audience. Guards moved forward to restrain him, but he pushed past them, extending his hand over the barrier that separated him from her. “Izra, Izra don’t—”

She turned toward him. “Nicholas,” she said.

Cracks ran up the walls as the ground shook more violently. The guards struggled to stay on their feet as they moved forward to restrain her. It was too late. She reached for Nicholas—their fingers met—and all at once, the ground exploded beneath their feet.

The scene changed, and now she stood by a river on a moonless night, the stars obscured by the clouds.

All the stars but one.

He stood behind her, his bare feet not quite touching the grass, his face strangely illuminated. “Do we have a deal?” he asked.

She looked down at the dying man at her feet. He clung to her ankle, his breath a wet rattle, staring at her with one good eye and one a bleeding socket.

“What happened to him?” she asked.

“Does it matter?” asked the star. “You can find him another eye, if you wish.”

“And if I agree, there’ll be more like this?”

“An endless number of them, enough for all the experiments your heart desires.”

“That won’t be necessary,” she said. “I only need enough to bring back Inoor.”

“So do we have a deal?” asked the star.

“Yes,” she said and bent down to rip out the dying man’s soul.

Once more the scene changed, and she found herself descending the stairs to her laboratory. Three fresh bodies lay waiting on her table, the blood from their wounds still wet.

“I thought the war was over,” she said. “They won their revolution.”

In answer, the star gestured toward the bodies. “You needed more,” he said.

She didn’t ask for elaboration, and instead went to the bodies to examine their wounds. “What do you do with them,” she asked, “when I’m done with them?”

“I’m building an army,” replied the star.

She looked at him, then back at the bodies on her table. “I see,” she said and resumed her work.

The scene shifted again. In a rage, she flung her instruments off her table, glass shattering against the wall.

“Doctor Grey,” said her assistant, “you’re bleeding.”

Impatiently, she wiped the blood from her nose. “I was close this time, I know it. I just need to push further.”

“You’re hurting yourself.”

“There’s something stopping me,” she said. “No matter how many of the dead and dying he brings me, there’s something holding me back.”

“Your conscience, perhaps?” ventured the assistant.

She glanced down at the corpse on the table, at the neat stitches where she had mended the flesh. “Then I’ll need to cut it away,” she said.

“What?” asked the assistant.

“I’m a surgeon and a blood mage,” she said. “If there’s some part of me that’s preventing me from bringing back Inoor, I’ll reach into my mind and cut it away.”

Once again, the scene changed.

“Only one this time?” she asked as she looked down at the dead man on her table.

“This one is special,” said the star. “This one will be my vessel, the flesh and blood through which the others will be controlled.”

“Why this one?”

“I have my reasons,” said the star. “Will you do it?”

She nodded. “Anything,” she said, “so long as you help me bring back Inoor.”

“No!” screamed Deena, and the beads fell from her open hand. “No you can’t—”

“I can explain,” said Izra. “Whatever you saw—”

“No!” cried Deena again, stepping back from her. Noriiel was gone, but his soldiers—soldiers that Izra had created—remained. One of them grabbed her by the wrist, but she managed to pull away. She ran, leaving Izra shouting for her behind her. She didn’t know if the soldiers were chasing after her, but it didn’t matter. The sounds of fighting echoed up from somewhere below, the clang of metal on metal, and she ran toward it as fast as she could. The twists and turns of the corridor confused her, but she had to get there, had to get to Avenel and warn her before—

She ran out onto a balcony. The fight was below. She could see Avenel alongside the others, holding back the tide of the corpses turned soliders, but it was too late. The body from the memory—the one Noriiel had chosen to be his vessel, the commander of the others—was already there, and over the din of the fight he called out Avenel’s name.

Someone called Avenel’s name. She turned, and her dagger slipped from her fingers.

“Ephraim?” she asked.

Ephraim smiled, his arms open in welcome. “Avenel,” he said. “My ward and pride. Have you missed me?”

“No!” shouted Deena from the balcony. “It isn’t him! It isn’t him!”

But she was too far. Avenel couldn’t hear her, couldn’t see the blade hidden behind Ephraim’s back as she began to make her way toward him.

The dropped dagger lay forgotten at Avenel’s feet. She took a step forward. “How?” she asked. “I looked for you. I went back for you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Ephraim. “I’m here now.”

“I remember what you taught me,” said Avenel, taking another step forward. “I’ve always kept it with me.”

“I know,” said Ephraim. “You’ve done well.”

She smiled. “Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgement,” she said and ran her sword through his chest.

All around the room, like marionettes with the strings cut loose, the soldiers crumpled and fell.