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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Magnus understood the nature of evil sometimes a bit too well. There were times like these when he felt as though he had become a mirror for it, his own soul a distant reflection now as other things crowded it out. It was a thick and unwelcome feeling, a little too much like losing faith. At the very least it was a jaded perspective, and because of who and what he was, it simply would not serve.The priest took a breath and instead focused on the grim task at hand.
Magnus drew the sojourn blade he held in his scarred and callused hand over the carefully laid granite pentagons decorating the plaza. Sparks were shorn from its angular tip as he drew an arc of challenge before himself. Blade makers far and wide would have cringed at the rude misuse of the painstakingly crafted metal, but sometimes evil needed a special invitation. Magnus engraved this one in the granite before him.
“Anthran,” he called, his deep-throated voice echoing in the empty air around him, the wells and hollows of the stone surfaces of the buildings toying with the sound. The stark, abandoned feel of the place was, to his mind, strangely apropos. “Where do you think you can go that I cannot and will not follow, except into Light itself?”
And even there I would follow you. I would consign myself to burn in that hell if that is what it will take to ensure you are forever destroyed and can never harm another living soul.
Magnus’s voice built in power, the boom of it sending powerful echoes of intimidation out all around him. “What do you think you can gain from hiding when you can see the chase is clearly over?”
“Time, perhaps,” a disembodied but familiar voice replied. “Follow all you like, priest, but at least I dictate the path. Nothing can command me now.”
“Except me,” Magnus replied with a feral glare in his golden eyes as he scanned the vast emptiness for a shadow, a sign…
“Yes, always you. A dogged little soldier in Darkness’s doggedly righteous little army.” There was a dramatic, put-upon sigh from behind him, but Magnus knew better than to turn around. Instead, he glanced down into the blade of the sojourn, looking in its reflective surface and finding it empty as expected. He could hear the tinge of frustration in Anthran’s tone once his enemy realized his pathetic tricks wouldn’t work. “You run yourself ragged chasing me down, priest, and you never stop to question it. What does it feel like, being a mindless little lapdog for a god you have never met?”
“I do not have to meet my gods to know They are with me,” he reminded his Sinner.
“Darkness is just shadows, you fool! Light is just light! They are not heaven or hell, and not gods who are rule makers any more than I am a rule breaker. I am just like you, Magnus, a Shadowdweller, a being with special powers given to me by my genetics; powers I am meant to use to their fullest glory!”
“You, my unfortunate soul, are nothing like me,” Magnus countered. “This discussion is pointless. Come out and face me. Force me to hunt you and I promise to make you regret it. I will relish the penance I will earn when I make you suffer, just as your victims have suffered.”
“This discussion is for your benefit, Magnus, not mine. There are no victims, priest. I am just a dream. Whatever I do in this realm is made of fantasy just as easily forgotten as it is remembered. I am ether and mist.”
“If that were true, then you would have no cause to fear me. My blade would never touch you. But you know it is a lie, Anthran. You have illegally crossed into Dreamscape. You have stolen into the dreams of innocents and become their worst nightmares. You have used your Shadowdweller gifts against your own kin and become the worst kind of Sinner. For that, I will make you repent.”
“Blind faith is still blind, Magnus, and I don’t believe in your faith or your laws. You think you have the right to regulate Shadowscape, Dreamscape, and all the others? You appoint yourself and the rest of your religious house as militant protectors. Why? Because of Scripture? Ancient scribblings of our forefathers who might have been diseased or madmen? Or do you do this for those twin dolls you prop up prettily as our king and queen?
“Ha! You fool!” Anthran spat in contempt. “Is this what you sacrifice the pleasures of the mind and body for? It is unnatural, the way you and your eunuchs and those frigid bitches live. Maybe if you had a few real, lusty women to ride your cock, you wouldn’t be so quick to judge the desires of a real man. I have no wish to fight you, M’jan, only to guide you from the errors of your fanatical thinking.”
“Ah, but I wish to fight you,” the priest observed darkly, taunting his foe. “Come, come, Sinner. I will listen to your lecture so long as you give it to me with your sword in hand and sweat on your brow.”
Anthran came from nowhere, barely giving Magnus the chance to parry the ringing blow of his much heavier two-handed blade. The priest gritted his teeth as the feel of it reverberated into his bones, and then with a slide of metal on metal he shoved his opponent’s weight off himself. Once they were separated, the circling dance began.
“Not bad,” Magnus mused, “but not good enough.”
“I am learning this environment,” Anthran warned, curling a lip in arrogant mocking. “I am better than you think I am.”
“Thank you for the warning. However, you are but a babe in these woods. I have known the ways of Dreamscape for centuries. You cannot think to defeat my experience.” Magnus flung his blade around in a series of sharp sweeps, forcing his opponent into parrying at lightning speed. Once he’d tricked the other man into leaving himself open to it, Magnus booted him hard in the ribs. Anthran stumbled back, barely catching his balance and keeping himself from sprawling onto the granite and leaving himself completely vulnerable. He coughed, tossing back his black hair and grinning at the priest come to hunt him.
“Steel-toed boots,” he noted, taking a moment to stretch out his injured side. “You think small, clever tricks like that will turn the tide of a battle in your favor? Those are linear tactics. Realscape thinking. This world is about power and magic and the vast reaches of the imagination!”
Magnus pressed his advantage, refusing to let Anthran buy recovery time with his chitchat. His lighter blade moved fast, like a treacherous razor, but it wasn’t meant to parry a blade so much heavier. He was forced to use a great deal of strength to fend off his enemy.
“You might be fighting someone who is a perfect equal to you, M’jan Magnus!”
“Faith, Anthran! You ask me what makes me defend and fight so righteously, without proof of divinity? It is called faith! I believe with all of my heart…” He leapt in and crashed blades, dancing out of reach again with speed belying his impressive build. “…with all of my blessed soul that no universe would allow a vicious, low-born piece of filth like you to gain this kind of power and be allowed the freedom to glut himself on sin and wickedness at the cost of others. Not without providing the opportunity for balance. I am that balance. I am that covenant.”
“Covenant!” Anthran spat viciously as he swung his weapon in a crushing overhead blow. “Magnus, you are a brainwashed fool! Your faith enslaves you and you praise it! It oppresses you and you celebrate it! Death is the only way you will take this power back from me!”
“So be it,” Magnus stated roughly. He swung his weapon high, using the overhead swing of the blade to command all of his opponent’s attention as he quickly reached for the bolos in the hard leather pouch attached to his belt behind his left hip. He held on to one end. The silver ball fitted into his palm even as the second ball flew from his fingers and spun out a length of connecting razor wire between the two. The ball and wire nailed Anthran, wrapping around his biceps like a boa constrictor hugging its prey, and Magnus yanked hard and mercilessly to commit the weapon to its place.
Anthran bellowed in agony as barbs cut and tore, the ripping sound of flesh echoing without mercy. Anthran’s heavy weapon went flying, useless now that he had been caught with one arm crippled. The priest flung away the ball still in his hand and the freed end swung around Anthran’s waist, digging in and essentially tying his arm to his side.
Anthran shouted in frustration and then resorted to his only recourse. He closed his eyes and focused as swiftly as he could while Magnus’s deadly blade advanced. The priest sensed the attack a moment before it struck, and he hit the deck to avoid the swarm of throwing stars that whined past. However, despite his dodge, he felt two of them thump into his left shoulder, sinking into his flesh all the way to the bone.
Magnus ground his teeth together as he rolled back up to his feet. He had just lost full rotation in that shoulder, but it would not sway his course. He passed his blade to his opposite hand for the briefest moment and threw up his uninjured hand, using his fury to manipulate the power of Dreamscape to his will. Electrical fire jolted down from the sky in a bolt of jagged lightning, the strike hitting the granite right between Anthran’s feet. The Sinner was blown back, flying several yards before hitting the ground. Regardless of the distance, Magnus was there when he landed, kicking the badly singed betrayer onto his stomach so he could grab him and yank him to his knees.
Once he was kneeling, the priest laid his blade against Anthran’s neck, pausing only to draw a much-needed breath.
“Repent,” he rasped, ignoring the pain and the blood rushing down his back from his wounded shoulder. “Repent and I will recall myself from this course. Beg for mercy and say you will seek penance and guidance back to the path of your people. We understand temptation; we believe in reformation.”
“You are a concubine,” Anthran choked out, his dark eyes like pools of oil as he looked up to Magnus and let them fill with rage and contempt for all the priest held sacred and dear. “You are a whore and a slave to your stupid faith and the idiot children on the throne. I am free!”
“You will die as the law demands!” Magnus ground out, showing his depth of frustration for the first time. “For Drenna’s sake, Anthran, I beg you to come to your senses! Repent!” Magnus shouted as he braced his feet and swung up his blade.
“Fuck you and your law,” Anthran spat.
Magnus swung down his blade, committing himself to his duty. There was the sound of air being sliced, and the smooth follow-through of a blade so sharp, nothing barred its sweeping arc. Not even the neck of a man gone mad.
Magnus strode through the antechamber to Sanctuary temple, hurrying across the vast space to the courtyard on the opposite side. He cut through the peaceful rock garden with its ebony fountain and serene statuary until he entered the women’s dormitories. The students, who were the collective responsibility of all of the priests and handmaidens were separated to opposite sides of the complex according to sex, as wisdom and traditional sensibilities dictated. There were no males allowed here, just as no females were allowed in the halls of its counterpart. The teachers and guardians were, of course, the exception to that, although even then it was discouraged for propriety’s sake.But this was Magnus, the priest who stood closest to Darkness Herself and the most powerful and formidable defender at Her disposal. There was no corner of Sanctuary that could or would bar him.
He made his way to the next story and then back to the deeply secluded rooms in the rear reserved for students who, for whatever reason, needed to be removed from the rest of the population. Usually it was illness or injury or some extreme discipline problem that warranted this isolation.
Tonight it was something far worse.
Magnus did not bother to announce himself before walking into the room. The small area was spare and quiet, its lone occupants a handmaiden who quickly got to her feet from the chair at the bedside, and the young girl in the bed who did not so much as blink when he entered. She simply continued to stare blankly up at the ceiling above her, her covers tucked just as smoothly around her still body as they had been when she was brought there two nights earlier.
Magnus said nothing to the holy woman keeping watch, but she knew to back away into the shadows, leaving the priest alone with his student as best she could without exiting the room. Magnus quickly knelt on a single knee beside the bed and leaned over the vacant and dull child he had failed to protect in time.
“Miranda.” He addressed her in the softest of whispers, believing that his message was the one thing in the entire world she would want to hear. “Your monster is dead, little one. The one who stole into your dreams no longer exists.” Magnus raised his bloodied weapon above her staring eyes. “His head rolls upon the ground of Dreamscape even now, the hands that touched you in violence severed beside it. I speared his heart through with the tip of my blade until its blackness burst and was destroyed. He will never, never be able to harm you again.”
After the longest minutes, for the first time since she had awoken from the ultimate nightmare, the vulnerable young girl blinked. She moved, only a single hand, and reached to grasp the sword around the middle of its blade. Magnus did not flinch or draw away, though he knew how sharp the thing was. Instead, he let her take the battle-battered weapon down against her chest and watched as she slowly embraced the steel, as if it were a sweetly treasured pet. She turned away from him and he relinquished his hold on the hilt. She drew her knees up, hugged the stained sword with all of her heart, and began the slight rocking that seemed to always go hand in hand with the keening pitch of first-shed tears.
Except she was perfectly silent.
Hugging her new best friend.
Two months later…
Daenaira blinked in surprise when the locks on the outside of her room tumbled open sharply. There was almost the sound of confidence to it, which was equally surprising, but then there was a long minute of silence, and that made her smile darkly. The door jerked open and the rotund body of her aunt filled the frame of it.“Let’s go, girl. I’m finally to be rid of you.”