Chapter no 22

A Darker Shade of Magic

It took Lila the better part of an hour to hack, slash, and saw herself free. By the time the wood finally gave way under her knife, the blade’s edge was irreparably dulled, a portion of the wall was destroyed, and she was desperately in need of a stiff drink. Her coins had not multiplied, but savings be damned: tonight she needed the drink.

She rubbed the pain out of her wrist, tossed the dulled knife onto the bed, and fetched her second, still-sharp dagger from the floor, where she had dropped it. A steady stream of oaths crossed her lips as she wiped Kell’s blood from the blade, and a steady stream of questions filled her head as she sheathed it, but she pushed them all down and dug her revolver out of the drawer, slotting it into its holster—if she’d had it on her at the time, she’d have blown a hole in Kell’s head.

She was still quietly cursing and pulling her cloak about her shoulders when something caught her eye. The sword, the one she’d summoned, was still propped up against the wall. The bastard hadn’t stopped to dispense of that on his way out. Now she lifted it carefully, beautiful thing that it was, and admired the glittering black hilt. It was everything she’d imagined it would be. Down to the details carved into the grip. The scabbard hummed beneath her fingers, just as the rock had when she’d held it. She wanted to keep the blade, wanted to keep holding it, with a strange, bone-deep sense of longing that she didn’t trust. Lila knew what it felt like to want something, knew the way it whispered and sang and screamed in your bones. And this felt like that, but wasn’t. An impostor of longing.

She remembered the way she had felt when she lost the rock, the sudden, gutting dizziness that followed, like all the energy had gone out of her limbs. Stolen when she wasn’t looking. In a strange way, it reminded Lila of a pickpocket, a sly piece of sleight of hand. That was the way it worked. A proper trick took two hands, one you paid attention to, the other you failed to notice. Lila had been so focused on the one in front of her face, waving something shiny, that she hadn’t noticed the other stealing from her pocket.

Bad magic, Kell had called it.

No, thought Lila now. Clever magic.

And clever was more dangerous than bad any day of the week. Lila knew that much. And so, much as it pained her to do it, she went to the open window and cast the sword out. Good riddance, she thought as she watched it tumble to the alley stones below.

Her gaze drifted up to the rooftops and the chimneystacks, and she wondered where Kell had gone. She wondered, but the question spawned a dozen others, and knowing she would never learn the answers to any of them, she slammed the window shut and went to find that drink.

* * *

A man stumbled through the front door of the Stone’s Throw and nearly fell down the front stairs. Tricky buggers, he thought groggily. Surely, they hadn’t been there when he entered the tavern only a few hours earlier. Or if they had, they’d gone and changed, rearranged somehow. Maybe there were more of them now. Or fewer. He tried to count them, but his vision blurred and he gave up, swaying on his feet.

The man’s name was Booth, and he had to piss.

The thought rose up out of the fog and there it was, bright as a light. Booth scuffed his boots along the cobblestones to the nearest alley (he had the decency not to relieve himself on the steps, even if they had come out of nowhere).

He half walked, half tumbled into the narrow gap between the buildings, realizing only then how dark it was—he couldn’t see his own hand, even if he’d been sober enough to look for it—but his eyes kept drifting shut anyway, so it didn’t really matter.

Booth leaned his forehead against the cool stones of the tavern wall as he pissed, humming softly to himself, a shanty about women and wine and … something else that probably began with w, though he couldn’t remember now. He let the melody wander off as he refastened his pants, but as he turned back toward the mouth of the alley, his boot caught something on the ground. It skidded away with a scrape before fetching up against the wall, and he might have left it there had a gust of wind not blown the nearest lantern on its hook, sending a flash of brightness into the darkened alley.

The shard of light glinted off metal, and Booth’s eyes widened. He might have been several pints along, but greed was a sobering thing, and as the light vanished again, he found himself on his hands and knees on the damp alley floor, grasping in the shadows until his fingers finally curled around the prize.

Booth struggled to his feet and toddled a few steps nearer to the lantern light, and there realized that he was holding the casing of a sword, the weapon still safe within. The hilt glittered, not silver or gold or steel, but black. Black as oil, and smooth as rock. He wrapped his fingers around the grip and drew the weapon from its sheath, letting out a low groan of appreciation. The metal of the blade was as glossy and dark as the hilt. A strange sword, and rare by the looks of it. Booth weighed it in his meaty hands. It would fetch a pretty penny. A very pretty penny. Only in the right places, of course. Couldn’t be thought stolen, of course. Finders keepers … finders sellers, that is, and such, of course.

Funny thing, though.

His fingertips, where they curled around the hilt, had started to prickle. That is a bit peculiar, he thought, in that calm and distant way that comes with thorough intoxication. He wasn’t worried, not at first. But then he tried to loosen his hold on the weapon and couldn’t. He told his fingers to let go, but they remained firmly around the sword’s gleaming black hilt.

Booth shook his hand, first slowly, then vigorously, but couldn’t seem to free his fingers from the weapon. And then, quite suddenly, the prickle became a jolt, hot and cold and foreign at once, a very unpleasant feeling. It spread up his arm, beneath his skin, and when he stumbled back a step, toward the light at the mouth of the alley, he saw that the veins on the back of his hand, over his wrist and up his forearm, were turning black.

He shook his hand harder and nearly lost his balance, but still, he couldn’t seem to release the sword. It wouldn’t let him.

“Let go,” he grumbled, unsure of whether he was speaking to his own hand or the weapon locked within it.

In response, the hand holding the sword—which did not seem to belong to him anymore at all—tightened on the hilt. Booth gasped as his fingers turned the blade slowly back toward his own stomach. “What the devil,” he swore, grappling with himself, his free hand fighting to hold the other at bay. But it wasn’t enough—the thing taking hold was stronger than the rest—and with a single clean thrust, Booth’s hand, the one with the sword, drove it into his gut and buried it to the hilt.

He doubled over in the alley with a groan, hand still fixed to the grip. The black sword glowed with a dark internal light, and then began to dissolve. The gleaming weapon melted, not down, but in. Through the wound, and into Booth’s body. Into his blood. His heartbeat faltered and then redoubled, steady and strong in his veins as the magic spread. His body shuddered, then stilled.

For a long moment, Booth—what remained of him—crouched there on the alley floor, motionless, hands to his stomach, where the blade had driven in, and where now, only an inky black stain, like melted wax, remained in its wake. And then, slowly, his arms slipped to his sides, the veins running over them now a true black. The color of true magic. His head drifted up, and he blinked two black eyes and looked around, then down at himself, considering his form. He flexed his fingers, carefully, testing.

And then, slowly, steadily, he got to his feet.

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