Chapter no 53

A Darker Shade of Magic

Kell shivered, the strange calm settling over him again.

It was heavier this time. And then someone called his name, just as they had moments earlier, and he looked up to see Lila clutching her shoulder as she half ran, half limped down the stairs, bruised and bloody, but alive. Her black mask hung from her bloody fingers.

“You all right?” she asked when she reached him.

“Never better,” he said, even though it was taking every ounce of his strength to focus his eyes on her, his mind on her.

“How did you know?” she asked, looking down at the rubble of the queen. “How did you know she wasn’t me?”

Kell managed an exhausted smile. “Because she said please.” Lila stared at him, aghast. “Is that a joke?”

Kell shrugged slightly. It took a lot of effort. “I just knew,” he said. “You just knew,” she echoed.

Kell nodded. Lila took him in with careful eyes, and he wondered what he must look like in that moment.

“You look terrible,” she said. “You better get rid of that rock.” Kell nodded.

“I could come with you.”

Kell shook his head. “No. Please. I don’t want you to.” It was the honest answer. He didn’t know what waited on the other side, but whatever it was, he would face it alone.

“Fine,” said Lila, swallowing. “I’ll stay here.” “What will you do?” he asked.

Lila forced a shrug. “Saw some nice ships on the dock when we were running for our lives. One of them will do.”

“Lila …”

“I’ll be okay,” she said tightly. “Now, hurry up before someone notices we’ve killed the monarchs.”

Kell tried to laugh, and something shot through him, like pain but darker.

He doubled over, his vision blurring.

“Kell?” Lila dropped to her knees beside him. “What is it? What’s happening?”

No, he pleaded with his body. No. Not now. He was so close. So close. All he had to do was—

Another wave sent him to his hands and knees. “Kell!” demanded Lila. “Talk to me.”

He tried to answer, tried to say something, anything, but his jaw locked shut, his teeth grinding together. He fought the darkness, but the darkness fought back. And it was winning.

Lila’s voice was getting further and further away. “Kell … can you hear me? Stay with me. Stay with me.”

Stop fighting, said a voice in his head. You’ve already lost.

No, thought Kell. No. Not yet. He managed to bring his fingers to the shallow gash across his stomach, and began to draw a mark on the cracked stone. But before he could press his stone-bound hand against it, a force slammed him backward to the ground. The darkness twined around him and dragged him down. He fought against the magic, but it was already inside him, coursing through his veins. He tried to tear free of its hold, to push it away, but it was too late.

He took one last gasp of air, and then the magic dragged him under.

* * *

Kell couldn’t move.

Shadows wove around his limbs and held like stone, pinning him still. The more he fought, the tighter they coiled, leeching the last of his strength. Lila’s voice was far, far away and then gone, and Kell was left in a world filled with only darkness.

A darkness that was everywhere.

And then, somehow, it wasn’t. It drew itself together, coiling in front of him, coalescing until it was first a shadow and then a man. He was shaped like Kell, from his height and his hair to his coat, but every inch of him was the smooth and glossy black of the recovered stone.

“Hello, Kell,” said the darkness, the words not in English or Arnesian or Maktahn, but the native tongue of magic. And finally, Kell understood. This was Vitari. The thing that had been pulling at him, pushing to get in, making him stronger while weakening his will and feeding on his life.

“Where are we?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“We are in you,” said Vitari. “We are becoming you.”

Kell struggled uselessly against the dark ropes. “Get out of my body,” he growled.

Vitari smiled his shadowy black smile and took a step toward Kell. “You’ve fought well,” he said. “But the time for fighting is over.” He

closed the gap and brought a hand to Kell’s chest. “You were made for me,

Antari,” he said. “A perfect vessel. I will wear your skin forever.”

Kell twisted under his touch. He had to fight. He’d come so far. He couldn’t give up now.

“It’s too late,” said Vitari. “I already have your heart.” At that, his fingertips pressed down, and Kell gasped as Vitari’s hand passed into his chest. He felt Vitari’s fingers close around his beating heart, felt it lurch, darkness spilling across his tattered shirtfront like blood.

“It’s over, Kell,” said the magic. “You’re mine.”

* * *

Kell’s body shuddered on the ground. Lila took his face in her hands. It was burning up. The veins on his throat and at his temple had darkened to black, and the strain showed in the lines of his jaw, but he wasn’t moving, wouldn’t open his eyes.

“Fight this!” she shouted as his body spasmed. “You’ve come all this way.

You can’t just give up.”

His back arched against the ground, and Lila pushed open Kell’s shirt and saw black spreading over his heart.

“Dammit,” she swore, trying to pry the stone out of his hand. It wouldn’t budge.

“If you die,” she snapped, “what happens to Rhy?”

Kell’s back hit the ground, and he let out a labored breath.

Lila had recovered her weapons, and now she freed her knife, weighing it in her palm. She didn’t want to have to kill him. But she could. And she didn’t want to cut off his hand, but she certainly would.

A groan escaped between his lips.

“Don’t you fucking give up, Kell. Do you hear me?”

* * * Kell’s heart stuttered, skipping a beat.

“I asked so nicely,” said Vitari, his hand still buried in Kell’s chest. “I gave you the chance to give in. You made me use force.”

Heat spread through Kell’s limbs, leaving a strange cold in its wake. He heard Lila’s voice. Far away and stretched so thin, the words, an echo of an

echo, barely reached him. But he heard a name. Rhy. If he died, so would Rhy. He couldn’t stop fighting. “I’m not going to kill you, Kell. Not exactly.”

Kell squeezed his eyes shut, darkness folding over him.

“Isn’t there a word for this?” Lila’s voice echoed through his head. “What is it? Come on, Kell. Say the blasted word.”

Kell forced himself to focus. Of course. Lila was right. There was a word. Vitari was pure magic. And all magic was bound by rules. By order. Vitari was a creation, but everything that could be created could also be destroyed. Dispelled.

“As Anasae,” said Kell. He felt a glimmer of power. But nothing happened. Vitari’s free hand closed around his throat.

“Did you really think that would work?” sneered the magic in Kell’s shape, but there was something in his voice and in the way he tensed. Fear. It could work. It would work. It had to.

But Antari magic was a verbal pact. He’d never been able to summon it with thought alone, and here, in his head, everything was thought. Kell had to say the word. He focused, reaching with his fading senses until he could feel his body, not as it was here in this illusion, this mental plane, but as it was in truth, stretched on the bitterly cold ground of the broken courtyard, Lila crouching over it. Over him. He clung to that chill, focusing on the way it pressed into his back. He struggled to feel his fingers, wrapped around the stone so hard that they ached. He focused on his mouth, clenched shut in pain, and forced it to unlock. Forced his lips to part.

To form the words. “As An—”

His heart faltered as Vitari’s fingers tightened around it.

“No,” growled the magic, the fear bold now, twisting his impatience into anger. And Kell understood his fear. Vitari wasn’t simply a spell. He was the source of all the stone’s power. Dispelling him would dispel the talisman itself. It would all be over.

Kell fought to hold on to his body. To himself. He forced air into his lungs and out his mouth.

“As Anas—” he managed before Vitari’s hand shifted from heart to lungs, crushing the air out of them.

“You can’t,” said the magic desperately. “I am the only thing keeping your brother alive.”

Kell hesitated. He didn’t know if that was true, if the bond he’d made with his brother could be broken. But he did know that Rhy would never forgive him for what he’d done, and it wouldn’t even matter unless they both made it through.

Kell summoned the last of his strength and focused not on Vitari trying to crush his life, or on the darkness sweeping through him, but on Lila’s voice and the cold ground and his aching fingers and his bloody lips as they formed the words.

“As Anasae.”

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