Chapter no 45

A Darker Shade of Magic

The room went deathly still.

Kell’s hand slipped from Rhy’s ribs, and his body tumbled from the cot to the stone floor with a sickening thud. Lila’s ears were still ringing from the force of her head meeting the wall as she pushed herself to her hands and knees, and then to her feet.

Kell wasn’t moving. Wasn’t breathing.

And then, after a moment that seemed to last hours, he drew a deep, shuddering breath. And so did Rhy.

Lila swore with relief as she knelt over Kell. His shirt was open, his stomach and chest streaked with blood, but under that, a black symbol, made up of concentric circles, was branded into his skin, directly over his heart. Lila looked up at the cot. The same mark was scrawled over Rhy’s bloody chest.

“What have you done?” she whispered. She didn’t know that much about magic, but she was fairly certain that bringing someone back from the dead was solidly in the bad column. If all magic came at a price, what had this cost Kell?

As if in answer, his eyes floated open. Lila was relieved to see that one of them was still blue. There had been an instant, during the spell, when both had gone solid black.

“Welcome back,” she said.

Kell groaned, and Lila helped him up into a sitting position on the cold stone floor. His attention went to the bed, where Rhy’s chest rose and fell in a slow but steady motion. His eyes went from the mark on the prince’s skin to the mirrored mark on his own, which he touched, wincing faintly.

“What did you do?” asked Lila.

“I bound Rhy’s life to mine,” he said hoarsely. “As long as I survive, so will he.”

“That seems like a dangerous spell.”

“It’s not a spell,” he said softly. She didn’t know if he lacked the strength to speak louder or was afraid of waking his brother. “It’s called a soul seal.

Spells can be broken. A soul seal cannot. It’s a piece of permanent magic. But

this,” he added, grazing the mark, “this is …” “Forbidden?” ventured Lila.

“Impossible,” said Kell. “This kind of magic, it doesn’t exist.”

He seemed dazed and distant as he got to his feet, and Lila tensed when she saw that he was still gripping the stone. Black veins traced up his arm. “You need to let go of that now.”

Kell looked down, as if he’d forgotten he was holding it. But when he managed to unclench his fingers, the talisman didn’t fall out. Threads of black spun out from the rock, winding down his fingers and up his wrist. He stared down at the stone for several long moments. “It appears I can’t,” he said at last.

“Isn’t that bad?” pressed Lila.

“Yes,” he said, and his calm worried her more than anything. “But I didn’t have a choice. … I had to …” He trailed off, turning toward Rhy.

“Kell, are you all right?” It seemed an absurd question, given the circumstances, and Kell gave her a look that said as much, so Lila added, “When you were doing that spell, you weren’t you.”

“Well, I am now.”

“Are you sure about that?” she asked, gesturing at his hand. “Because that’s new.” Kell frowned. “That rock is bad magic; you said it yourself. It feeds on energy. On people. And now it’s strapped itself to you. You can’t tell me that doesn’t worry you.”

“Lila,” he said darkly. “I couldn’t let him die.” “But what you’ve done instead—”

“I did what I had to do,” he said. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. I am already lost.”

Lila scowled. “What do you mean by that?”

Kell’s eyes softened a little. “Someone has to return the stone to Black London, Lila. It’s not just a matter of opening a door and casting the object through. I have to take it there. I have to walk through with it.” Kell looked down at the stone binding itself to his hand. “I never expected to make it back.”

“Christ, Kell,” growled Lila. “If you’re not going to bother staying alive, then what’s the damn point? Why tether Rhy’s life to yours if you’re just going to throw it away?”

Kell cringed. “So long as I live, so will he. And I didn’t say I planned on dying.”

“But you just said—”

“I said I’m not coming back. The seals on Black London were designed less to keep anyone from going in, and more to keep anyone from getting out. I can’t strip the spells. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. And with the spells intact, even if I manage to make a door into Black London, the seals will never let me back out.”

“And you weren’t going to mention any of this. You were just going to let me follow you on a one-way trip to—”

“You said you wanted an adventure,” snapped Kell, “and no, I never intended to let you—”

Just then the door swung open. Kell and Lila fell silent, their argument echoing on the walls of the narrow stone chamber.

An old man was standing in the doorway wearing a black robe, one hand against the doorframe, the other holding up a sphere of pale white light. He wasn’t old in a withered way. In fact, he stood straight and broad-shouldered, his age belied only by his white hair and the deep creases on his face, made deeper by the shadows cast from the light in his palm. Kell pulled his coat around himself and buried his damaged hand in his pocket.

“Master Tieren,” he said casually, as if the informality of his voice could cover up the fact that he and Lila were streaked with blood and standing in front of the body of a nearly dead prince.

“Kell,” said the man, frowning deeply. “Kers la? Ir vanesh mer. …” And then he trailed off and looked at Lila. His eyes were pale and startlingly blue; they seemed to go straight through her. His brow furrowed, and then he began speaking again, this time in English. As if he could tell, with a single glance, that she did not understand, did not belong. “What brings you here?” he asked, addressing both of them.

“You said I would always have a room,” answered Kell wearily. “I’m afraid I had need of it.”

He stepped aside so that Master Tieren could see the wounded prince.

The man’s eyes went wide, and he touched his fingers to his lips in a small prayer-like gesture. “Is he … ?”

“He’s alive,” said Kell, hand drifting to his collar to hide the mark. “But the palace is under attack. I cannot explain everything, not now, but you must believe me, Tieren. It has been taken by traitors. They are using forbidden magic, possessing the bodies and minds of those around them. No one is safe

nowhere is safe—and no one is to be trusted.” He was breathless by the time he finished.

Tieren crossed to Kell in a handful of slow strides. He took Kell’s face in his hands, the gesture strangely intimate, and looked into his eyes as he had Lila’s, as if he could see past them. “What have you done to yourself?”

Kell’s voice caught in his throat. “Only what I had to.” His coat had fallen open, and the man’s gaze drifted down to the blackened mark over Kell’s heart. “Please,” he said, sounding frightened. “I would not have brought danger into these halls, but I had no choice.”

The man’s hands fell away. “The sanctuary is warded against darkness. The prince will be safe within these walls.”

Relief swept across Kell’s features. Tieren turned to consider Lila a second time.

“You are not from here,” he said by way of introduction. Lila held out her hand. “Delilah Bard.”

The man took it, and something like a shiver, but warmer, passed beneath her skin, a calm spreading through her in its wake. “My name is Master Tieren,” he said. “I am the onase aven—that is to say, the head priest—of the London Sanctuary. And a healer,” he added, as if to explain the sensation. Their hands fell apart, and Tieren went to the prince’s side and brought his bony fingers to rest feather-light on top of Rhy’s chest. “His injuries are severe.”

“I know,” said Kell shakily. “I can feel them as if they were my own.”

Lila tensed, and Tieren’s expression darkened. “Then I will do what I can to ease his pain, and yours.”

Kell nodded gratefully. “It’s my fault,” he said. “But I will set things right.” Tieren opened his mouth to speak, but Kell stopped him. “I cannot tell you,” he said. “I must ask for your trust as well as your discretion.”

Tieren’s mouth became a thin line. “I will lead you to the tunnels,” he said. “From there you will be able to find your way. Whichever way you need.”

* * *

Kell had been silent since leaving the small room. He hadn’t been able to look at his brother, hadn’t been able to say goodbye, had only swallowed and nodded and turned away, following Master Tieren out. Lila trailed behind, picking Rhy’s dried blood from the cuffs of her new coat (she supposed she would have had to get her hands—and sleeves—dirty sooner or later). As they made their way through the bowels of the sanctuary, she watched Kell and the way his gaze hung on Tieren, as if willing the priest to say something. But the priest kept his mouth shut and his eyes ahead, and eventually Kell’s step began to trail, until he and Lila were side by side in the head priest’s wake.

“The clothing suits you,” he said quietly. “Do I want to know how you came by it?”

Lila tilted her head. “I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re asking. I bought it from a woman in the market named Calla.”

Kell smiled faintly at the name. “And how did you pay for it?”

“I haven’t yet,” retorted Lila. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t.” Her gaze dropped away. “Though I don’t know when I’ll have the chance …”

“You will,” said Kell. “Because you’re staying here.” “Like hell I am,” shot Lila.

“The sanctuary will keep you safe.” “I will not be left behind.”

Kell shook his head. “You were never meant to go farther. When I said yes, I did so with the intent to leave you here, in my city, to deliver word of my fate to the king and queen.” Lila drew a breath, but he held up his uninjured hand. “And to keep you safe. White London is no place for a Grey-worlder. It’s no place for anyone.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said. “I’m going with you.” “Lila, this isn’t some game. Enough people have died, and I—”

“You’re right, it’s not a game,” pressed Lila. “It’s strategy. I heard what the queen said about the stone being broken in two. You need to dispose of both pieces, and as of right now, you only have one. The White king has the other, right? Which means we have our work cut out for us. And it is we, Kell. Two of them means there should be two of us as well. You can take the king, and I’ll handle the queen.”

“You’re no match for Astrid Dane.”

“Tell me, do you underestimate everyone, or just me? Is it because I’m a girl?”

“It’s because you’re a human,” he snapped. “Because you may be the bravest, boldest soul I’ve ever met, but you’re still too much flesh and blood and too little power. Astrid Dane is made of magic and malice.”

“Yes, well, that’s all well and good for her, but she’s not even in her body, is she? She’s here, having a grand time in Red London. Which means she should make an easy target.” Lila gave him the sharpest edge of a grin. “And I may be human, but I’ve made it this far.”

Kell frowned deeply.

It is amazing, thought Lila, that he doesn’t have more wrinkles.

“You have,” he said. “But no farther.”

“The girl has power in her,” offered Tieren without looking back.

Lila brightened. “See?” she preened. “I’ve been telling you that all along.” “What kind of power?” asked Kell, raising a brow.

“Don’t sound so skeptical,” Lila shot back. “Unnurtured,” said Tieren. “Untended. Unawakened.”

“Well, come on then, onase aven,” she said, holding out her hands. “Wake it up.”

Tieren glanced back and offered her a ghost of a smile. “It shall awake on its own, Delilah Bard. And if you nurture it, it will grow.”

“She comes from the other London,” said Kell. Tieren showed no surprise. “The one without magic.”

“No London is truly without magic,” observed the priest.

“And human or not,” added Lila sharply, “I’d like to remind you that you’re still alive because of me. I’m the reason that White queen’s not wearing you like a coat. And I’ve got something you need.”

“What’s that?”

Lila pulled the white rook from her pocket. “The key.”

Kell’s eyes widened a fraction in surprise, and then narrowed. “Do you honestly think you could keep it from me, if I wished to take it?”

In an instant, Lila had the rook in one hand and her knife in the other. The brass knuckles of the handle glinted in the candlelight while the stone hummed low and steady, as if whispering to Kell.

“Try it,” she sneered.

Kell stopped walking and looked at her. “What is wrong with you?” he asked, sounding honestly baffled. “Do you care so little about your life that you would throw it all away for a few hours of adventure and a violent death?”

Lila frowned. She’d admit that, in the beginning, all she wanted was an adventure, but that wasn’t why she was insisting now. The truth was, she’d seen the change in Kell, seen the shadow sweep across his eyes when he summoned that clever cursed magic, seen how hard it was for him to return to his senses after. Every time he used the stone, he seemed to lose a bigger piece of himself. So no, Lila wasn’t going with him just to satisfy some thirst for danger. And she wasn’t going with him just to keep him company. She was going because they’d come this far, and because she feared he wouldn’t succeed, not alone.

“My life is mine to spend,” she said. “And I will not spend it here, no matter how nice your city is, or how much safer it might be. We had a deal, Kell. And you now have Tieren to guard your story and heal your brother. I’m of no use to him. Let me be of use to you.”

Kell looked her in the eyes. “You will be trapped there,” he said. “When it is over.”

Lila shivered. “Perhaps,” she said, “or perhaps I will go with you to the end of the world. After all, you’ve made me curious.”

“Lila—” His eyes were dark with pain and worry, but she only smiled.

“One adventure at a time,” she said.

They reached the edge of the tunnel, and Tieren pushed open a pair of metal gates. The red river glowed up at them from below. They were standing on its northern bank, the palace shimmering in the distance, still surrounded by starry light, as if nothing were amiss.

Tieren brought his hand to Kell’s shoulder and murmured something in Arnesian before adding in English, “May the saints and source of all be with you both.”

Kell nodded and gripped the priest’s hand with his unwounded one before stepping out into the evening. But as Lila went to follow, Tieren caught her arm. He squinted at her as if searching for a secret.

“What?” asked Lila.

“How did you lose it?” he asked. Lila frowned. “Lose what?”

His weathered fingers drifted up beneath her chin. “Your eye.”

Lila pulled her face from his grip, her hand going to the darker of her two brown eyes. The one made of glass. Few people ever noticed. Her hair cut a sharp line across her face, and even when she did look someone in the eye, they rarely held the gaze for long enough to mark the difference. “I don’t remember,” she said. It wasn’t a lie. “I was a child, and it was an accident, I’m told.”

“Hm,” said Tieren pensively. “Does Kell know?” Her frown deepened. “Does it matter?”

After a long moment, the old man tilted his head. “I suppose not,” he said. Kell was looking back at Lila, waiting for her.

“If the darkness takes him,” said Tieren under his breath, “you must end his life.” He looked at her. Through her. “Do you think you can?”

Lila didn’t know whether he wanted to know if she had the strength, or the will.

“If he dies,” she said, “so will Rhy.”

Tieren sighed. “Then the world will be as it should,” he said, sadly. “Instead of as it is.”

Lila swallowed, and nodded, and went to join Kell.

“To White London, then?” she asked when she reached him, holding out the rook. Kell did not move. He was staring out at the river and the palace arching over it. She thought he might be taking in his London, his home, saying his goodbyes, but then he spoke.

“The bones are the same in every world,” he said, gesturing to the city, “but the rest of it will be different. As different as this world is from yours.” He pointed across the river, and toward the center of London. “Where we’re

going, the castle is there. Athos and Astrid will be there, too. Once we cross through, stay close. Do not leave my side. It is night here, which means it is night in White London, too, and the city is full of shadows.” Kell looked at Lila. “You can still change your mind.”

Lila straightened and tugged up the collar of her coat. She smiled. “Not a chance.”

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