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*****


Quinsareth's shoulder pained him and the ancient shield on his arm vibrated in the presence of the sorceress. Bedlam hissed with the rain outside and growled with the thunder, but changed its tune to the subtler tones of Morgynn's heartbeat as her anger pulsed outward. The taste of blood filled Quin's mouth from the wound along his jaw. He moved away from the door, creeping along the wall to stand before a large column. Morgynn's voice barely scraped the surface of his thoughts. Watching her every move, he balanced Bedlam carefully, preparing to strike at a moment's notice. Wind from the corridor kicked up small clouds of dust from the pulverized floor as he adjusted his stance. Shadows curled through his body, darkening his eyes as he summoned them. Morgynn's chant flowed across her tongue and lips. The standoff broken, Quin sprang toward her. Dark violet flames coursed across her arms, gathering at her fingertips before bursting out in a blast of pure cold fire. As the energy met him, Quin saw a brief flash shimmer around the edges of his shield. The dark flames splashed across the shield, spilling around it in places but absorbing into the gleaming metal, leaving the aasimar unharmed. Stepping closer, he raised Bedlam to strike. Morgynn reacted quickly, stepping back on her right foot. Red scars along her collarbone flared to life at her touch and she raised her left arm as if to defend against his blade. Bedlam rang across her wrist as if striking steel. Seeing his moment of surprise, she batted Bedlam aside. Hissing another spell, she thrust her right hand forward. A wave of invisible force erupted from her body in a wide circle. The dust billowed from the scoured marble floor and sent Quin flying back to crash into the base of the column he'd charged from. Though aching all over, Quinsareth recovered quickly, forcing himself to roll forward into a crouch. Morgynn's voice was already reciting another spell. Wary and uncertain of the shield's abilities but emboldened by its power, he charged again. He knew he needed to reach the sorceress to have any chance of negating her arcane advantage. A few strides away from her, a gray fog materialized around him, enveloping him in a misty cloud that crackled with energy. Pain tore through his chest and legs as tendrils of fog lashed him, forcing him to stumble and fall to his knees. Quin cried out, squeezing his eyes shut and struggling to breathe, every inch of his flesh feeling as if on fire. When he succeeded in breathing, the mist entered his lungs and burned him from within, spreading through his veins and into his heart. Morgynn smiled at him and knelt. Through the haze of pain he watched as she studied the shield he wore. He realized she'd been surprised by its presence, another piece of Eli's legend come true: spellcasters could not see the shield's abilities until too late. The mist grew around him, struggling against the shield which could not consume all the magic that surrounded it.

Quin's stomach felt twisted as if his innards had declared war on one another. He felt brief moments of respite as the shield shook on his arm and spit bright globs of energy, but the artifact was unable to completely devour Morgynn's fog. "A spell eater," Morgynn said as Quinsareth fought to crawl out of the painful mist on his hands and knees, refusing to release his hold on Bedlam. "Well, then. We shall have to feed it." The darkness faded and Quin's muscles relaxed all at once, released from the wracking pain. Looking up, he braced his sword arm to stand, and Morgynn cast yet another spell. Blood spilled across her face in two thin lines. As it reached her lips, her hands drew circles in the air. The air around them became charged with acute heat. A ring of blackened electricity coalesced around her at arm's length, spinning as it sparked and rumbled. Quin choked on the scent of burning ozone as streaks of crimson wound themselves into the spell. Rising to one knee, he held the shield before him. Briefly, he wondered if the shield's last bearer, Ossian, had died in such a stance, and he dimly hoped the shield would protect him. Black lightning crackled into several bolts from the ring of magic and disappeared into the shield face. A palpable aura grew around the edges of the shield as it fought to consume the black bolts. The barrage continued until the shield's aura was nearly palpable. The dark energy of the lightning spilled over and seared Quin's flesh, raising bloody welts along his arm and neck. Quinsareth, numb with pain and moving only on instinct, tried to stand. The burning metal of the shield grew heavy on his arm as the last of Morgynn's bolts crashed against it. His only impulse was to keep going. His grip on Bedlam's hilt felt unbreakable, and all of his will was intent on bringing the weapon to bear, though his arm felt nearly useless.

Morgynn watched casually as he staggered to his feet. Cold air stung his wounds, bringing a fresh pain that threatened to fell him again, but he mastered his balance and cleared the chaos from his mind. He accepted the pain, but could not fathom the notion of defeat. This is all that I am, he thought, this is all that there is. Pain and bitter victory. She was right, I know what I am. "Prophecy's hero still stands," Morgynn purred and glanced at the oracles behind her. "I am only now aware of the treasure you are, pretty one. Your blood will consummate my victory here, finally serving a purpose for your wretched existence. You are nothing but another door, for which death gave me a key." He remembered her passage through Khaemil, recalled her blood merging with the canomorph's as she had disappeared. Her road was paved in blood, just as his was in shadows. The differences and similarities between them flashed in his head as patterns of Fate Fall tipped inexorably to their ends. The game was almost over and he was defeated. She would use his blood and he would watch the oracles die at her hands. Maybe this was meant to happen, he thought. Maybe I will walk away, my mission fulfilled. She walked toward him and he knew, looking into her eyes, that this was not true. He could blame the false security of prophecy for Morgynn's victory, but it had been her false prophecy that had brought him here. He clutched at the one option available to him, the only strategy in the Fate Fall that could make a difference. "I know what I am," he finally replied, his voice weak and croaking with pain. He slowly raised Bedlam and turned the blade inward, holding it to his own throat. His eyes, still darkened with shadow, dared her to move even if his painfully tortured voice could not vocalize the threat. "Death does not come so quick, Hoarite," she said menacingly, walking toward him and closing the short distance. "Not while I wish otherwise." She threw herself at him, her fingertips reaching for his chest to initiate the bloodwalk and bypass the oracles' barrier. He felt the pull of her blood and faintly heard her pulse echo in his ears, merging with the sound of his own. He gripped Bedlam and did not move. "You were right," Quin whispered as the shadows within him flared to life. His body faded into an airy nothing, ethereal and bloodless. Morgynn gasped, passing through him harmlessly and stumbling to her hands and knees on the rough marble floor. Hearing her fall, he dismissed the shadows.

Becoming solid again, he spun around, exerting the last well of strength he'd clung to. "I am a ghost." Bedlam sliced cleanly through the fallen sorceress's neck, leaving only a thin red line that refused to bleed for several heartbeats. She tried to cry out, but could not find her breath. Unaware that her voice had become merely a stain on Bedlam's blade, Morgynn's mouth opened and closed weakly. Her call to his blood was severed-only a fading echo of her pulse shuddered through his body. A single drop of her blood spattered to the floor, followed quickly by her head. He looked away as Morgynn's body slumped to the floor and, without emotion, faced the horrified oracles.

Glaring at each of them, his pale eyes rested longest on Sameska, who simply shook her head, avoiding his gaze. Bedlam's tip wavered as if he thought to raise it again, wondering if his work was not quite done. Turning around, he limped wordlessly out of the temple and into the dying storm.


***** | Bloodwalk | EPILOGUE