Flames gnawing at wood, cracking it, burrowing into its heart. I saw nothing but the crystal.
A crystal or an ember. The size of my fist, burning in the dark.
To touch it? Irresistible. To take it? How could I dare? Beauty dripped from it like gore. I ruined it by seeing it, ruined it further each moment. How could I draw it out from here? From this timeless place? How could I–
I reached out and touched it.
It was fire. It was life. Purpose. Passion. Everything I’d lacked, every hollow part of my empty soul. Music and splendor and beauty. Splendor, that was the word, not beautiful in the way where you feel ugly alongside it, but beauty that elevates.
I would have wept, if I’d had tears.
It looked back at me, and I looked at it.
I was dying.
Fondness. Familiarity. Connection. I swallowed, tasted the blood in my mouth. It didn’t taste like punched-in-the-face blood, either, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on the difference.
“You don’t have long.”
Resisting the urge to laugh. It didn’t hurt to laugh. Not here.
I held fire in my hands. I did not burn.
This isn’t right. I’ve got no crown, no title, no virtue. I’m a bastard, born of heresy and foreign blood. A killer and an unholy man, hateful and hated. There are others who’d wield it better. Use it wiser. I’ve got no grace. No breeding. No love to share the warmth.
And it was warm. So little was warm, this time of year. Each time She touched my hand I felt like I’d forgotten what it was to be cold.
Her face was marked like mine. A jagged, stained-glass-window scar split across her features and over one eye. The perfect skin had shattered like porcelain, and the skin beneath was alive, human, with little flaws and pocks and imperfections. On the perfect face, a blue eye. On the human face, an eye the color of a ruby. Gold hair, shot through with embers that crawled like kindling.
She smiled a lopsided smile, and a few fragments fell.
“This fire was meant for you. Will you take it?”
Lass…I fought to swallow. Blood was starting to ache in my belly, drive home the depth of the cut I’d taken. Why me?
“Does it matter?”
I looked into the fire. Poetry in form. Her hands landed on my shoulders one last time. “Dermot. My Dermot. Say my name.”
Hadn’t realized I was smiling. At least no one was here to see.
“I name you,” I said. “I know you.”
Words on a page. Symbols that read themselves into my mouth. Fire.
“We name you, Grannine, and we name you, Ksogra.” I said, to the fragment of something, to the piece of soul that looked back at me from the blood of the Inquisitor. “Succubus and seraph, I name you. I name you to steal you, and to seal you away.”
“Like you stole me from Finn.”
I pulled a fistful of light from the Inquisitor and made it Hers, radiant, so bright I saw it through closed lids and caked-on blood. I smelled smoke.
Blood scorched through my veins, boiling hot, agonizing. It coursed up my arm like I’d plunged my hand into a crucible. Fire struck my heart and turned it to coal, scorched my chest, white-hot.
The next heartbeat slammed the air from my lungs, struck into my chest like a bolt of lightning. My heart beat a second time, demanding, calling me up.
My eyes opened on the third.
I knelt on a cold stone floor in a blasted little church. My knees hurt. Snot ran in my throat, mixing with blood. Sulfur burned in my nose and mouth with each exhalation. A long, cold breath crackled in my lungs, almost a yawn, touched by smoke and sulfur and the smell of my own blood.
No fire without air.
My heart kept on pounding at the same pace. Never slowing. Never quickening. One beat after the next. Pain. Everywhere, pain, blinding, every sensation equally wrong. I was burning, boiling, skin melting, running, freezing, shattering, but when I looked down at my hands–
My left hand had turned black. Patches of red glowed in the palm, pulsing in time to the beat of a heart that felt like it was no longer mine. The blood in my veins was glowing, too, golden-red, turning the flesh translucent. The scorched tatters of a gauntlet hung around my right wrist, the right palm scorched to charcoal, same as the left.
I clenched my fists. Watched molten blood crawl in my veins.
Grannine let out a breath in my ear.
“Dermot,” she purred. “My own Dermot.”
I hear you, lass.
The Inquisitor screamed.
I didn’t rise to my feet so much as I was hurled to them. The air felt cold and stiff around us, as we pushed through it like it was treacle.
Fury leapt into my hand, a nail drawn to a lodestone. I choked up on the handle, up to the hilt.
The Inquisitor twitched. Stood slumped like, animal, broken, bloodless. He made a sound like no sound a man could make.
I recognized the look in his eyes. I’d felt it myself. Hate. Mad, witless hate, envy and fear wrapped up in it. A wild, wrathful madness too deep for anything that had been only a man.
A thing too lost to recognize the sound of Aidan, rising to his feet.
His spurred sword struck the Inquisitor full across the back. The force of his blow crushed it to the ground. It screamed again, terrible to hear.
Its head twisted around, and I heard bone snap with the motion. Aidan recoiled, made the sign of the Church, heart to head.
The Inquisitor was faster than either of us, even now, even broken. It scrabbled to its feet, swung the sword. Aidan countered, swaying to one side. The Inquisitor’s blow flung him back across the floor, and he put down a hand to catch his balance.
The broken thing rounded on me, jaw yawning wide, swung its sword two-handed.
I raised Fury, one hand on the blade, one high on the hilt, and took the impact into my shoulders, down my back, through the ground. My battered old boots skidded on sawdust and shrapnel. The edges locked together, grated on each other. His hideous face was close to mine, contorted, twisted out of comprehension, but we no longer had to hate him.
He is missing something. That’s all.
We swayed back and forth. It was strong, a wild thing, self-destructive, but I had height on my side, and I had a mind of my own. Two, actually, if I felt I fancied to count. I forced the Inquisitor down, one hand on the hilt, one hand on the blade, blood creeping luminescent through the veins of the back of my palm.
It screamed, dropped to one knee, threw back its head and screamed louder, without enough sense to run.
Behind the Inquisitor, I saw a spectre.
Blood ran down her throat, pooled in her footprints. A small, thin dagger glinted in her hand.
Her eyes were cold, colder than the rain, lightless, but they threw back the light of the hellfire crawling in my veins, pinpricks of scarlet in the brown of her irises.
When she breathed through her swollen throat, air whistled in the wooden hilt of the bodkin, its outer end splintered, snapped in half and driven into a hole she’d cut with the bloody edge of her knife.
If there was rage in the Inquisitor’s eyes, it paled in comparison to hers, the fey, dauntless stare of a fanatic. Shaking, covered in gore, at the threshold of the grave, and still defiant.
“Beautiful,” Grannine whispered, in my ear.
Mariead raised the bodkin and plunged it into the Inquisitor’s back once. Twice. Three times.
The Inquisitor flung one hand out and struck her across the face. She grabbed the red-panel shoulder of its coat and hung on, clinging to the knife in its back. Once her grip was firm, she drew the bodkin out again, slammed it home a fourth and final time before it shook her off. She fled out of arm’s reach, evading its broken grasp.
I kicked it in the chest. Twice. To be sure.
Its arm weakened. I forced its sword down and away, levered the point of mine around into its heart, and rammed Fury through.
Its eyes went wide, staring, blind and white. Spittle ran from the corners of its mouth. It lunged for my throat, clawing at me, climbing up the blade. I drove the sword down further its heart, used the crossguard to hold it at a distance like a boar. Its nails scrabbled on my oilcloth, but it held for them, where it hadn’t for the thorns.
It screamed louder.
Aidan wound back his sword in two hands. He cut across, separating the Inquisitor’s head from its body in one stroke.
It fell, twitching.
Aidan glanced to Mariead. His face showed a flicker of worry, but only a flash, a glint like drawn metal before he swept past me to the door—where the Penitents were fighting among themselves to flee.
He did not bother to announce himself, only smote one of them at the threshold. The loud crack of breaking rivets sounded their retreat.
I let out the breath I’d been holding, felt it slump my shoulders.
I smell smoke.
Fire was blooming. Mariead and Eris had done their task well—our wee bonfire at the altar had been broken into two pieces and spread to beams at either side of the room, and now it was crackling up the wall, biting deep.
The bloody nun swayed. I raised a hand to steady her. She flinched instinctively, nearly fell, but reached back in turn, taking hold of my arm to keep her feet. Past her, Eris was climbing off the floor, still trying to catch her breath. I looked over Mariead, bloody lip, greenish-black eye, bloody throat and all.
“You all right, Sister?” She made a horrible rasping noise, clapped a hand to her throat, coughed, and nodded. I shook my head. She shrugged, winced, took another rattling breath. “Minstrel?”
Eris shook her head negative, moving close to stand beside Mariead. She braced herself on her knees, fighting to breathe. Her eyes tracked past me to the door.
I pulled Fury from the corpse that knelt before us. It was bloody. I wiped it on the tail of my shirt.
Aidan stood alone on the threshold. He sheathed his sword.
Smoke was gathering in the rafters, threading in and out of the windows around the edge of the church, sinking into the aisle in a pillar. Aidan and I shared a look, only that. He nodded.
“See?” He said, a bit out of breath. He might have grinned, but it was disbelief, not joy. “All according to plan.”
I laughed, a bark of sound into the silence.
Mariead touched Eris on the shoulder. She said nothing, breath still whistling, but spoke with her eyes. Eris glanced at me. I jerked my head toward the altar.
We moved as a group to the back of the church with no words exchanged. The broken doorway was empty, and smoke from our fires blotted out the ruined pews. The air was thick and raw, hard to breathe. Mariead coughed, gathering up the bow and her five remaining arrows with pain clear on her face.
I sheathed Fury, turned, and sprang onto the edge of the altar, looking down into the dark. Lass.
“My Dermot.” Her voice was breathless with triumph, though she had no breath to spend. “I am with you.”
No time to plan. No time to discuss. We leapt into the dark. To safety. Together.