Glossary of terms:
- Fyrnen (feer-nen): weapon derived from the wielder’s body; power depends on body and soul, said to link the two; damage to a fyrnen means grievous harm to the wielder
- Raiko has a fyrnen that takes the shape of a scythe.
- Black thread: a soul bond
- Temeer: a magic user whose power is imbued directly into their body, giving them preternatural strength, speed, and (rarely) the use of a fyrnen. They have long lifespans.
- Raiko: a powerful temeer
- Yoli: a girl who can see spirits, but has no detectable magical ability
Premise: In the midst of their escape from the realm of Death, Yoli and Raiko are separated and forced to confront powerful, merciless foes.
A searing shock raced down the link. Yoli gasped and crumpled, clutching her chest, and Death’s hands steadied her. Tears blurred her vision.
“Raiko,” she gasped. “He’s—he’s hurt—”
“Don’t think of the intruder,” Death murmured. Yoli could think of nothing else. Something was wrong; the black thread juddered with the force of it. She could no more forget it than she could a severed limb.
“Let—let me go,” she said. She tried to shrug off Death’s hands, but he held firm. “I need to go to him.”
“Forget him. He is a living being, bound to the world above. He has nothing to do with you.”
“He…” Yoli grasped for the black thread, desperate to soothe the hurt reverberating into her. “He’s my… he’s half of myself.”
Death tightened his hands around her shoulders. Shock cut into his tone. “A black thread. You two are bound.”
Yoli stood. The chair legs screeched against the polished floor. “Where is he?”
“He is no longer any of your concern.”
She rounded on him, twisting out of his grip. “Tell me where he is.”
Death watched her in silence. He raised one hand and a dagger knitted into being. The hilt was simple pewter, the blade long and viciously sharp.
“It seems,” he said, “that you have two flaws to cut away.”
Yoli turned to run, but Death was before her in an instant, fingers closing around her throat and bearing her down to the floor. She choked and flailed, then lay wheezing while the dark god maneuvered her onto her front. She was an inanimate object, a doll to move as he pleased. The floor was cool on her cheek as the blade slit down the dress. There came a tearing noise. Gooseflesh raised along the skin of her back.
“Bring out your wings,” he commanded.
She coughed. Darkness nibbled at the edges of her vision. “No.”
“Very well.” A pinprick pressed into the flesh of her shoulder, drawing a droplet of blood. “Then I will carve them out of you.”
She wanted to fight, wanted to throw him off. But the agony spearing down the black thread consumed her, banishing the bite of the blade into a distant corner of her mind. Raiko was in danger. He was hurt and she could only lay motionless. Helpless, useless.
Her mind, absenting itself, drew up a memory: Raiko, seated beside her on the mats of a training room, long legs stretched out and toes absently curling. It had been a little routine with them, an effort on his part to teach her basic self-defense. “Someone with your Sight can’t afford to be useless in a scrape.”
It had rankled her, that casual dismissal. Maybe that was Raiko’s intention; anger lent ferocity to her strikes, a determination to shock the smug look off his face. But for all her efforts, he had barely broken a sweat. He leaned back, palms flat on the floor, looking utterly at ease. Weary frustration churned within her.
“You don’t have to do this,” she had muttered. “If it’s such a hassle.”
He side-eyed her, arching one eyebrow. “It’s not like I want to.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he said. “If you get hurt, so do I. That’s how this little arrangement works.”
Carelessly, he waved a hand over his chest. His intention to illustrate must have been just a hair too strong, because the black thread flickered into being, caught and strummed against his fingertips. They froze in unison. Still new to their soul bond, they had not yet learned the trick of keeping it hidden or ignoring a wayward touch. The contact was too close, too intimate.
“I know.” Yoli had heard the hitch of her breath. Had resented it.
“If you know, stop whining and make an effort,” Raiko retorted. Had she imagined the strain under the words? “Get up. We’re going again.”
He had sweated, that day. Eventually. She smelled it. She couldn’t rid her thoughts of it. At least he no longer looked half so smug.
Hot rivulets of blood ran down her sides. The pain in her chest was unceasing, crashing again and again. Would she die if her heart failed? Could she die in Death’s realm?
“Get up.” The memory of his voice echoed through her mind. “We’re going again.”
Raiko was always fighting, always bloodying himself to spare her a scratch. Who protected him? Who kept fighting when he could not?
The crash came again, but this time – this time, the sensation was different. Something had shifted. Each particle of agony was realigning, transmuting into something new. Heat congealed in her chest, molten and malleable.
The blade bit deeper. “How do you bleed without a heartbeat?” Death said.
Heat glowed, spread, scorched through her veins. She felt as if she would burn from the inside out. How could Death not feel it? How, with his icy touch, did he not melt?
Instinct seized Yoli and she shifted, ignoring the sting as the movement drove the blade deeper still to scrape the bone. She wedged a hand under her chest and willed the black thread into being. Her fingers curled. Held.
“How does it work?” she had asked him, once. “Your fyrnen.”
Raiko had scoffed. “Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“I’m just curious.”
He watched her for a moment, as if waiting for her façade to crack. When it did not, he said, “It’s an extension of myself. Like a limb, but more… important. It’s a bond between flesh and soul.”
She frowned, confused, and he resorted to prickly disdain. “Forget it. You wouldn’t understand.”
She hadn’t. But she understood now.
Her wings unfurled with a thought, beating strong and frantic and knocking Death’s hands away for one crucial second. Yoli scrambled onto her back, blood matting her feathers and pooling on cold marble. Heat coalesced behind her ribs, around her heart. She was a forge, molten steel and the ring of the anvil where her soul was struck. Death lunged for her, and perhaps he had an inkling of what she was about to do. For an instant – just an instant – she thought she saw fear in his eyes.
She pulled on the black thread and it became a hilt, dragging out of her chest. Raiko had called his fyrnen an extension of himself; hers was just the same. The hilt became a blade, a short sword, light and sleek and honed to a cruel edge. Death was upon her, arm raised to bring down the red-wet dagger. He stopped. Her blade had halted him, buried in the center of his chest. Right where his heart would be.
Yoli wrenched back her arm and thought, bizarrely, It’s like sunlight. Ichor poured from Death’s chest: a bright, golden gout. It was as if her blade had pierced the roof of Hell itself, carving out the darkness to let daylight shine in.
She was so dazed she scarcely had the presence of mind to turn her head aside, eyes screwed shut as Death stumbled. He clutched one hand to his chest, runnels of ichor dribbling through his fingers. Droplets fell to sizzle against her skin. With the blade – her fyrnen– clutched in a white-knuckled grip, she staggered to her feet. She turned and plunged into the dark, trailing scarlet in her wake.
Fading fast behind her, Death did not make a sound. No shouts, no curses – only an endless, waiting silence. A promise.
I am Death. I will have you in the end.
“Still alive, are you?”
Raiko drew a shuddering breath, feeling something crack in his chest with the motion. Shadows melted away and Malcolm’s face coalesced above him. A sneer curved across its face.
“You’re tough, even for a temeer. I’ve never seen one survive a broken fyrnen.” Malcolm looked down at scythe, one half in each hand. It tossed them into the water and shrugged. “But you still haven’t got long.”
Raiko’s gaze slid from Malcolm’s face to the halved scythe and he closed his eyes. Better to watch his own innards being dragged out, still steaming, than to see his fyrnen broken.
“You’ll probably die on your own if I leave you here,” Malcolm mused. “But I’d like to play with you a little while longer.” A smile crept into its voice. “I wonder… if I dissected you and gave the human girl your heart, would she cry?”
Raiko grimaced, fury stirring him to move. The stakes binding his hands and feet protested and fresh blood darkened the water. He slumped back, exhausted. Malcolm leaned over him, a new stake materializing in its hand. The stake sailed through the air until it hovered above Raiko’s chest, point down. Poised to punch through flesh and bone.
“I think I will,” it said. “Cut out your heart, wear your face, and bring it to her.” It laughed, high and brittle. “I can’t wait to see the look on her f—”
The words sliced short. A blade protruded from the right corner of Malcolm’s mouth, sudden and slick with scarlet. The puppet’s eyes flew wide and it dropped the stake, which bounced harmlessly off Raiko’s chest to splash into the water. The blade twisted and Malcolm’s jaw came unhinged with a moist snap.
Mouth askew, tongue lolling red, the puppet whirled around. Yoli stood behind it, her white dress spattered red and gold, eyes alight and blade drawn. The blade – Raiko had never seen it before, double-edged and short with a curved guard, the hilt unadorned. The savaged link of his own fyrnen cried out to it, marked it as equal. A comrade.
Raiko was so stunned he forgot his pain. Yoli had a fyrnen.
Malcolm’s features slackened in shock, then stiffened with cold, brackish rage. It moaned, drizzling blood from its mouth.
Yoli swept out the blade, flicking scarlet droplets into the water. Gone was the girl who shivered and wept. Her face was as composed and distant as a stone effigy. Her wings stretched out behind her, immense and powerful in spite of the missing feathers. They seemed to glow in the gloom.
Malcolm gripped the side of its unhinged jaw and snapped it back into place. “You little bitch.”
“Yo…” Raiko coughed, tasting iron. “Yoli. Run. Get… out.”
“Run as fast as you can, girl,” Malcolm said. “I’ll still catch you.”
Yoli lifted her chin. “I’m not running.” She raised the blade. “Get away from him, Malcolm.”
Malcolm gestured and the dark serpents slithered away from Raiko, swaying in a hypnotic circle around the puppet. They stilled, their featureless faces pointed toward Yoli.
Malcolm said, “I’m going to tear you apart.”
Raiko struggled against the stakes and slumped boneless into the water. With his fyrnen lying in pieces not five feet away, he was struggling to stay conscious. “Yoli,” he croaked. “Go—”
The serpents lunged. Yoli was in motion instantly, a red-white blur careening around the first strike. Her blade caught the glow of her wings and flashed as she drew it through the yawning maw of one serpent, carving it down the middle. Dark water rained around her. Shaking off her wings, she hurtled toward another serpent as it reared back, severing the head from the body in one clean sweep. Raiko watched with indrawn breath as she moved, swift and lethally graceful. He knew well how a fyrnen became an extension of the body wielding it, a new limb forged in the fires of the soul. Mastery over the weapon depended only on the soul’s strength and its connection to the body.
Before now, Yoli might have never held a sword in her life. But her soul was unsurpassed in power, and every atom of her being was focused on beating Malcolm.
The final serpent fell, misting the air. Malcolm screamed and sprang at Yoli. The puppet’s limbs stretched, bones popping, stumpy fingers burgeoning into raking claws. Yoli’s wings beat the air as they rose, moving too quickly for Raiko’s dazed eyes to follow. The clang of blade against claws rang in the air, echoed off the water. He slipped in and out of consciousness, dragged back each time by a hard yank on the black thread. Yoli was keeping him awake. Keeping him tethered to life.
If I die, he thought, the thread will take her right after me.
He drew a shaking breath and focused on staying alive. On the throb of his pulse in his ears.
High above, an infinite vault of shadow was lit by the hazy light off Yoli’s wings. She was impossibly fast, the once-white dress drenched by blood and water, tattered hem trailing behind her. Malcolm was a dark blur as it leapt at her, one obscenely long arm extended, claws grown as long as Yoli was tall. Her blade hewed one claw in half. Another clipped her, spurting red. She did not falter for an instant. Raising her sword, wings a haloed nimbus of speed, she slashed through Malcolm’s outstretched hand. The puppet’s arm fell away under her fyrnen, a path carved by body and soul, and she followed it in the space of a breath to come face-to-face with Malcolm. The puppet gaped at her with wide-eyed incomprehension.
Yoli drew back her sword and slashed, decapitating Malcolm in a single stroke. Its head flew from its shoulders, careered across the space, and landed with a distant splash. Its body hung motionless in the air for a heartbeat, then crumpled. It toppled into the water and disappeared beneath the waves.
Yoli’s entire body seemed to sag. She half-flew, half-fell into the water, shoulders heaving, one arm curled around her side. A slow stain of red spread across her ribs. Wincing, she hobbled to Raiko’s side. Her blade vanished and she fetched up the two halves of the scythe to cradle to her chest. “Oh, Raiko… are you…?”
“You…” Raiko trailed off. He was parched. “You’re… hurt.”
“I-I think I’ll be okay,” she said. “For now. But you… your fyrnen…”
“I’m… not dead yet.”
She knelt beside him in the water, red tendrils of hair slipping over her shoulders. This close, he could see the tiny scars dotting her face. Burn marks. A pang of guilt shot through him. He should have been protecting her.
“The stakes,” he gritted out. “You have to… pull them out.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think I can.”
“You have to.”
Shifting the halved scythe, Yoli scrubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Right. O-okay.” She set her chin. “I’m so sorry.”
“Just… do it.”
Raiko had thought the stakes nothing beside his broken fyrnen, but he could not stop keening as the first came free with fresh flowering anguish. Yoli cast the stake aside and reached for the second. By the time all four were removed, his brow was sheened with sweat. They waited for a time as he willed the dregs of his magic into the wounds, patching the worst of the bleeding before diverting most of his energy to his feet. He was acutely aware of each passing moment. In this realm, they were utterly at Death’s mercy. Every stolen second was crucial.
When Raiko judged his feet sound enough to run, he tried to stand. White spots danced across his vision and he staggered, but Yoli was there, propping him up. They stood together, a maimed mirror image.
“Give me… that.” Raiko nodded to his fyrnen. Yoli surrendered the scythe and he willed it out of existence, but still the ache lingered. Still something within was shattered, possibly beyond repair. He shoved the thought aside. “Let’s go.”
“Do you know how to get out of here?”
“The way I got in, I hope.”
Yoli wrapped her arm around his waist and they began to hobble. Her wings had vanished, and as she shifted, Raiko caught a glimpse of her back. The white dress had been cut down the middle to her waist. Long cuts scored one shoulder blade, streaming dark blood. They looked deep. His hands itched to find whoever had made those cuts, to throttle the life from them.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
“I… I should have protected you.” Each word was a confession. “I let them take you.”
Yoli huffed and readjusted her grip. “You didn’t let them.”
“I couldn’t stop them.”
“Not the same thing.”
“You’re infuriating, you know that?”
“That’s the Raiko I know,” she said dryly. “All the apologizing was making me think you were an imposter.”
The quip thudded down with all the subtlety of a brick through a window. They fell silent. Raiko’s humor evaporated, replaced by impotent rage. Rage that Malcolm had worn his face, used it to taunt and torture her. Rage that – in the end – he had been powerless to help her.
“Thank you,” Yoli said, “for coming for me.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he muttered. “Even if I’d come sooner, I wouldn’t have been able to…”
“It does matter. I’d almost given up. I… I needed a reason to fight.” She looked up at him, eyes fierce. “You gave me that.”
He looked away. “You won’t listen to reason, will you.”
“No.” Her thumb rubbed a circle against his side, impishly comforting. “But I don’t mind it.”
“Being the one to protect you. Once in a while.”
Raiko was silent, digesting her words as they stumbled through the dark. He was weary to the bone. If he spared too much thought to the notion of being protected – being vulnerable – his brain may very well short out.
He changed track. “You have… a fyrnen.”
“Um. I guess?” She stared at the path ahead in a daze. “I’ll fill you in later. But first, let’s get out of here.”
Raiko shifted his arm around her, careful of her back. She was so small beside him, grown thin from imprisonment. The wing of her clavicle pressed against his inner wrist, slender and delicate. Breakable. Her soul was a powerhouse contained in a glass castle, and yet. And yet, she was determined to protect him.
Like hell, he thought.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, let’s go home.”