Tiny white dots—seed pods?—tumble across the workspace where the apprentice slumps. The candles spit and flicker. Half of them have already gone dark. He does not stir. Not even when the wind drags fresh lines across the wet pigment markings that he’d drawn so meticulously with his stylus. He only lies there, drool sliding down his cheek—lifeless, but for a soft whimper. I am familiar with this sound.
Part of me wants to call back to him. To hunker in the curve of his arm and be warm there. He lets me do that sometimes.
The next, stronger gust of wind tugs the paper away from his slackened fingers. It rolls off the table, smearing more pigment in its wake. I expect the apprentice to shout and scramble after it. Strangely, he doesn’t.
His knife lies beside him. The blade is small and curved, gleaming like wine. I want it, of course, but I am not allowed to touch it. Normally the apprentice covers it with his hand whenever he catches me looking.
I’m looking, and he hasn’t stopped me.
Truly asleep, then?
I glide down from my perch to the corner of the workspace, landing in a swirl of white dots. The apprentice does not stir. I crouch to study his knife with my right eye. Not metal, but a deep red substance with a translucent edge.
The word buds into my mind, transparent and effortless, even though I’ve never before understood what crystal is. It’s this. Limpid red, like a drop of blood in springwater. The curve of the blade resembles one of my talons. The handle’s plaited in thin gold wires and looped by a red tassel that looks so, so soft. I love soft things.
And I love gold.
I clasp the tassel in my beak. Mine, now.
The wind knocks a candle over, startling me. I drop the knife. It clatters. The flame sizzles out. The apprentice expels a guttering wet sigh but doesn’t wake.
The dots flurry thick about me now. If they stick to my feathers, I will be annoyed.
I rake my pinions with my beak, but stop, gagging, on a mouthful. So bitter. They’re not seeds but ashes. They flutter through the disturbed currents in the air. The sun set long ago, but the leaf-shaped window still glows pink. More ashes blow in when I look.
Maybe something is burning outside. I’m sure that I won’t like it once I figure out what.
I turn to examine the apprentice’s salt-streaked face, mushed on the table, but jerk back when a shadow twitches just under his jaw.
The apprentice has black markings tattooed on his neck. In sunlight, they stay dull and do not move. Yet I have seen that pattern sweat until it shines, after sunfall. I watched him gurgle and clutch at it with his fingers, scratching ineffectually as his face got paler and greyer. He’ll curl up on the floor afterward, shaking.
Now, before my eyes, the markings glisten. And move.
I scrabble backward over the apprentice’s outflung arm, hoping that he will feel my claws through his sleeve and wake up. He does not react, not even as his skin reddens and that thing writhes like a twist of vipers. Two flat, lampyridine eyes slit open on the apprentice’s neck. Scales flow over flesh. Though it is made of ink, and flattened into the contours of his skin, it is alive. A chill forms inside of me as I meet the gaze of the lindworm.
If only the apprentice had worn his high-collared coat tonight.
The lindworm’s jaws hinge open. Its fangs expand in all directions, some of them too long to fit in its mouth. It shouldn’t be able to bite me because the lindworm is just a . . . a depiction. But I don’t know that for sure. I just know that it is bad.
It does not like me much, either.
“Something is wrong,” it tells me. She tells me.
I’ve caught the lindworm whispering to the apprentice before. Once, early in my memory, I even heard her speak to the master, while the apprentice wheezed and thrashed helplessly as if pinned under an invisible claw.
She’d said, “It is a crow that he lured in. Or it was, before he killed it.”
“How.” It didn’t sound like a question, the way the master said it.
“With grapes,” answered the lindworm. “Your apprentice traded lapis pigment for a half-withered bunch from the market. He toppled halfway out the window, catching it.”
“Fool,” I remember how the master crouched by the apprentice, repeating it in his face. “You absolute fool.”
The apprentice flinched. “It’s just a fetch-spelled—”
But the lindworm contracted around his neck, and he gagged, unable to—
Wait. A crow?
I don’t think I’d realized, back then, that they were discussing me. Yet, that couldn’t be right. I am not killed.
The master hadn’t questioned it. The lindworm continued its report mercilessly. “He slit its throat, stuffed its mouth with a wad of gold leaf that he scraped off the illuminated letters in your Chiliad, and then he wrote SIGGA-SUNNA on its beak with blood and ink.”
“That wouldn’t be enough to quicken it.”
The lindworm laughed. It was a sound like bones and chains jingling in a skin sack. “You left your silver flask here. Empty, but not clean. The boy heated salt and scoured the flask to lift a trace of ichor out. Salt, blood, ichor, and ink.”
Four simple words, but the room chilled as the lindworm recited them.
“Though,” the lindworm added, “the creature remains impressively stupid despite his efforts. Possibly made it even dumber.”
The master hissed at the boy. “I should allow the lindworm to eat your filthy little pet. But you’ll not learn certain things unless I permit you to live with your mistakes. First, you will replace everything you stole, threefold, with only your dead-brained construct to assist you. Make sure that he replaces that ichor by the season of my return, Seps.”
Seps. Not her true name, but the chain of letters that trap her within the apprentice’s flesh.
There was more to that remembered conversation, about what must be done in order to harvest ichor. The apprentice had pleaded several times, no, and I’m so sorry. Even the memory of his cries wakes a strange fear inside me. I fight the urge to bury my head under my wing, wishing to unspool time and return to the very first thing that I remember: where I lay, so cold in his hands, and began to feel safe.
“Stop hiding in his sleeve and come back over here,” the lindworm commands me.
I know this: Seps obeys and belongs to the master. So does the apprentice.
I peek over the apprentice’s arm at the hideous Seps. “No,” I tell her.
Forcing my tongue and throat to make that sound is . . . difficult.
“Oh, it speaks. After a year of nothing but inarticulate mewling and bumping into walls, of course, the first thing it would say is stupid. Come here. The boy is dying.”
That last part is the only reason I decided to listen to her.
Seps rises high onto the apprentice’s cheek. “He must have been doing spellwork. I need to see what he wrote. Where is it?”
The paper he’d labored over? Of course, she can’t see it from her current vantage. I can. I hop down next to the hooved foot of the table and snag a corner of the page in my beak. It’s damp. Viscous red liquid beads along its edges, threatening to drip.
The apprentice’s hand spasms where it hangs so close to my head.
Did I . . . cause that?
“Careful,” Seps warns, even though she can’t possibly see what I just did.
I release the page and catch it again, but gently this time, on a dry corner. His fingers remain still.
Back up on the workspace, the wind threatens to blow the paper away again. I weigh it down with the apprentice’s knife, an amethyst beehive seal, and a spent candlestick, all while the lindworm spits admonishments: “Lords of Death, put it down over there, at least. Turn it. No, the other way. Do not step in the ink.”
I use my own foot to hold down the final corner. Seps’s faintly-glowing eyes dim to green sickles as she slides down the apprentice’s face to study the page below.
Only two candles still burn: just enough to cast shadows over the complicated red and black markings the apprentice had drawn there. Unlike the lindworm, this ink does not move on its own, but it mimics movement. Countless intricate letters march into patterns, furling within and between the wide, bold strokes of the main signs. It took him hours. I fell asleep twice while the apprentice drew it, and each time I woke, he had only covered a fraction more of the blank space.
Something’s gone wrong with it, though. One of the greater signs bleeds as if cut by a mis-stoke. The scarlet pool devours the smaller letters as it spreads.
The apprentice no longer twitches or whimpers. The silence stretches far too long between each exhale and when his lungs finally scrape in a mouthful of air. Maybe it’s the way the ashes dart and scatter as soon as they drift too close to him.
Why does it make me so uncomfortable?
“Bound hereby with the burned twig of a white cherry, I compel thee . . . the glyphs were drawn correctly, so he did not fail. It must have overwhelmed him. He should not be like this. You have to find his soul and drag it back, or else we are both going to be stuck with a ghoulish husk instead of an idiot necromancer.”
“No,” I say, thinly.
“What else do you think the boy created you for? Go on.”
I blink at her, not understanding what she means, except that it is bad.
Seps mutters words I know not. The air takes on a frosty bite. It makes the feathers stand up on the back of my neck. Then she snarls: “Gox, he named you. A mote of his own soul, you bear. The door into death should have appeared before you. So follow the light, you little shit. And do not come back without Paris.”
Paris is the name of the apprentice. I’d forgotten. Or, I never knew? Neither the master nor the lindworm has ever called him that in my presence. But I do know it—because that name prickles with importance in every bone and feather, and it tastes like gold leaf.
Paris is dying.
If the apprentice becomes dead and I not, it will ruin something deep and delicate. The very uttering of it brings an unwanted ache. I spring away from the lindworm and launch myself up, heaving my wings. A steady rivulet of ashes blows in from the leaf-shaped window, lit so untimely pink, at midnight—
With the burned twig of white cherry.
It strikes me then: the lindworm can’t see it. Neither the ashes nor the glow. Only I can perceive the path opened by the strange letters that Paris scrawled on that page.
“If the last candle goes out before your return, he won’t be able to see,” the lindworm warns. It’s clear she means something more dreadful than coming back to a dark room.
I perch on the sill of the window-that-glows, swiveling to glance back at the slumped form of the apprentice. He had lit six tall candles at the start, from left to right. One of the last two sparks blue above a puddle of wax. The lindworm weaves fitfully across his skin. “He will not just wander lost, if he loses his sight. The knight will—”
“No!” I bark.
I leap from the window-ledge, pin my wings back, and fall into a stained-glass nightmare.
Only then do I wonder: knight?
I have flown outside before. It used to frighten me, but the apprentice made a game of it. He would toss scraps further and further out the window until I learned to dive for them. Now, they seldom hit the streets.
This is not that.
I plummet into nothingness.
The tower spirals away, no longer anchored to any horizon. There should be a city below—green tiled rooftops, twills of cloud, the smell of ripe food. But this is no place I have ever been. All is black. My determination puffs away like dust. I scream as I fall, but it’s trapped in my throat. There is no air to catch my wings.
And then I tumble into the current of white cherry ashes. They shine like cold stars and taste like a firepit. The thin stream of smoke rises under my feathers. I swoop frantically to stay in it, never mind the charred air that fills my lungs.
Paris. The smoke must have drifted in his wake, revealing his footsteps. The path is crooked, spindling deep into the gloom ahead. Sections vanish, only to reappear much further away. Panic flattens my heart. I’ve never been so far from his side.
What happens if I can’t find him?
My eyes adjust. Something else is out there, faint shapes that I sense as much as I see—a jagged landscape.
No, land isn’t the right word.
Within the borderless emptiness, something has been shattered. Glassy formations loom above me, bristling like fangs. The smoke trail weaves between them. I am not so graceful. I try not to let anything touch me, but the otherworldly fragments lean in as if they hunger for me.
The instant my feathers brush over one, the facet closest to me flashes like a chip of mirror catching moonlight. But it does not reflect the moon. Or me. It shows me the apprentice’s tower, nestled in fog and trees instead of buildings. The relief of home does not last, however. There is no city. I don’t think I’ll find the apprentice there, either. Only branches, fog, dusk.
Yet, if I’m wrong, I’ll lose him. I can’t ignore the chance. I fold my wings and alight on the window sill. No sooner does my claw touch it than a chill sinks into me as if the shadow of a predator flitted over my neck. The facet reflecting this peaceful evening to me has a sill and is framed like the leaf-shaped window that I dove out of. The rounded sides have the same grooves and taper into the same sharp angle on top. But it’s too short, and it’s missing the notches that the apprentice made with his knife.
I throw myself away from it, wings beating hard. The tower blurs. As the light ebbs I can just make out that what seemed like a window-frame is no more than a rough hollow. It merges with the gloom, vanishing.
The uneasiness follows me. I don’t like that. My thoughts usually go away as soon as I blink.
It’s impossible to avoid everything that crowds into the dark. Other false windows gleam to life under my feather tips. None are identical, yet all of them mock the real thing well enough to confuse me. Through them, I behold the tower distantly in rain and close up in a swirl of yellow leaves. I see beggars on its stoop and hear bells pealing behind it. It’s always there, cast through its own windows like a shadow into the landscape beyond. And with each glimpse, I waver a little more. Maybe he’s waiting for me there. Maybe this one.
Thinning, but still visible, the smoke winds past them.
I lose the trail only once. A needle-pointed crag nearly hits me. I roll away, only to flounder against another shape pitched just like a familiar, domed rooftop. I slip.
The apprentice slipped on the stairs, once. Even though he caught himself, his candle was flung all the way down, and down. It reminds me horribly of that: a spill down crooked, traitorous steps. But instead of guttering out, the light intensifies.
I crumple up against a slanting hollow. It glows murky earth-red. I make out the shapes of ruins scattered at the foot of the tower—I think, but the horizon must be somewhere over my shoulder, because the structures plunge nearly upside down. The tower itself hangs hollow. There are no people left. Not even carrion eaters. Debris tears across the sandscape, whistling and churning. A dull red sandstorm warps around the tower, blurry in some places but too sharp in others, and something about it feels deeply unsettling. Even as I try to tear myself away, a cart axle flies out of the storm and slams into the crest of the window. Crack.
As if it nearly broke through.
I realize I’m slumped in the upside-down cusp that should have been the apex of the window. The storm hurls sand at me. More debris. A low crunch. Splinters web across the translucent surface I cling to. Red dust sifts over my head. If it breaks—will I be flung into that place?
The tower’s dead outline provides its own answer. It lies at the end of every path. I can grasp now what bothers me about the storm: the sand’s falling down from my point of view, away from the unseen horizon overhead. I shudder. This whole place is broken. Maybe that’s how the apprentice was able to find his way in. Tap, tap, tap, and then sneak through the cracks. What if he’s not the only one who can do that?
A new fear rakes through me as the inverse tower emerges from a blinding gust of sand. Something’s in there. Thrashing at its world, bent on devouring whatever falls through. I huddle in terror. What if it notices me? What if it reaches through somehow? And part of me wants that. I want to just—give up. Let it take me. My flesh crawls.
The thought lashes my skull like a shout. I catch a breath of clean woodsmoke and leap toward it. Tumbling into the open void is a welcome vertigo, this time. I fly hard for the wisps of white cherry ash. It’s not as easy as before. Each feather drags like it’s iron wrought.
There’s a rumble and a glassy shiver in my wake.
Tempted as I am to glance back over my wing, I snap my attention forward when I realize that I’ve come to the end of the smoke trail. The ashes duck between one shadow and the next. The smoke fans out into a cloud, flickering as if underlit by a fire. I dive through it.
On the other side, I find him.
The light emanates from a spindly white branch jutting out of a patch of moss. Its twigs give off smoke and shimmer firelike, silhouetting him from the back. I rasp out a strangled cry at the sight of him.
He whirls toward me, black robes flowing after him like a flurry of pages. His eyes are candle flames, brightening to yellow as he tips his head back. The apprentice has turned to paper: black garments and ochre-washed skin, folded cunningly in his likeness. But my heart can’t be fooled. It’s him. His left arm dangles from a shred, ink running down. Glaring, he raises his good hand to point at me with two fingers, lips moving rapidly. Letters scroll across his bare forearm. Malevolent whispers fill the gloom around me, multiplying faster than any tongue should be able to conjure them. I can’t see the spell, but I feel it. Invisible talons fall on me with violence—before I can even react, it knocks me into an uncontrolled fall.
Suddenly his eyes go wide. The apprentice takes a half-step forward, breaking off the whispers.
My name scarcely crosses his lips before I tumble into his chest. He catches me with his good arm. There’s no heat or heartbeat in his soot-and-paper torso. In fact, it’s hollow. I can see right through it to the white branch behind him. Only his eyes give off warmth: two dark holes haloed in fire. Smoke ruffles the brush-stroke locks of his hair.
I croon against him.
“Good. Stay close.” He bundles me into the cavity of his chest. A shiver passes through him as I crawl in. “The Knight of Flies is coming back.”
It’s already there. At the edge of the branchglow stands something too tall to be human. It’s clad in plate armor, pieces hanging out at unsettling angles, skin stretched over the lames in ragged shreds. Its head sags so far back that all I can see above the gorget is the pale jut of a chin. Its jaw flexes and jiggles, gagging up wet flies that roll down the clouded breastplate in foamy pink strands of blood.
The apprentice whispers, “Grammar ensiform.”
A densely-written page rolls open on his outstretched forearm. He recites it so quickly, under his breath, that it blends into an arrhythmic chant—most of it, I can’t understand, but I catch commands for cutting, stabbing, flaying, rending. Once spoken, the written letters distort and melt off his arm, leaving untouched paper behind as each word is transposed into an echo of his voice.
The echoes swell to a drone, hanging like a cloud of invisible swords over the knight.
For a long, long moment, the knight only stands there, jaw slopping. Then one of the spell-words falls on him, a snarl that dashes itself to silence. In its wake, a bright red gash opens down the knight’s leg, exposing bone fragments and a buckled-in piece of steel. Other voices follow in a deluge. Clangs and dents, cuts and punctures assail the knight; each whisper striking ruthless as a blade. The knight sways, coughing a wet wad of flies over its chin. Pink bubbles drip after it.
The unsteady flicker of the white branch goes dark.
A thrum rises on a rich furl of rot. Flies, swarming the dark. When I can see again, the knight stands much closer to us, motionless. Silence hits my ears like a blow. The spell-words are gone.
The apprentice backs away, hissing open another page of spells across his arm. This time he whispers words that twist, bind, and pry apart. His maledictions harry the knight, dragging at its flesh and armor like hooks. Unseen chains tighten around its limbs, ting-ting-ting. But I blink, and the knight is one step closer. A gust of rot skirls toward us. Every time the knight moves, the flies hum, and the apprentice’s spells seem to just—blow away.
Now it’s right in front of us.
Paris gasps, staggering backward. The motion nearly pitches me out of his chest. The knight lunges after us with terrifying speed. Its first swipe misses, but Paris is too slow. A gauntlet closes on his wounded shoulder.
I throw myself at the knight, biting and scratching at its flayed abdomen. Ignoring me, the knight pulls the apprentice off his feet and rips his dangling arm the rest of the way off.
Red-cold pain slams into me.
I scream. The knight lobs the paper arm into the gloom, where it bursts into tatters. Paris’ low moan hits me on another deep red frost of agony. Maddened, I leap from vambrace to pauldron and up onto the white glistening face of the Knight of Flies.
It stares straight up and gibbers without vocalizing. A convulsive shudder sprays me with bloody strings of saliva. I attack the lidless round eyes, webbed blue. A gasp escapes it as I stab downward with my beak. If it can hurt, I will hurt it. I tear one of its eyes out and rock my head back to gulp it down.
The knight drops the apprentice to swat at me. I flatten myself, digging into its cheeks with both claws.
“Let go!” The apprentice’s cries fade behind the buzzing in the knight’s armor. I coil to strike that other eye.
Clang. An immense sound shivers through the dark like the jow of a bell, pitch distorted. The knight lurches into stillness as if stunned.
“Gox, leave it!”
Me? He has been shouting at me to stop? I whip my head around toward the apprentice.
I spot him crouching beside the white branch, the red ink of his wounds spattered up the side of his face and down his torso. His smoldering eyes fix on me, brows drawn low. The flames are dimmer than before. His whisper stirs the feathers just behind my ear:
“Come to me.” It tugs at me in ways I can’t explain. I release the slack flesh of the knight without intending to.
The knight does not react. I push off of its chin to fly back, wings unsteady. It’s only as I home in on my torn-up apprentice that I feel how wobbly I’ve become.
Clang. Another bell-jow.
Bands of mist creep over the edges of the light, sliding together like interlocking hands. As the glow diffuses, I spot dead grass and a litter of broken swords on the ground, featureless till now. Everything is dead but for the fingerlings of moss spreading from the stem of the white cherry branch. The moss patch is the apprentice’s work. I understand it instinctively; the small span of green measures his hold over the landscape. The gloomy expanse of lost weapons and reeds must belong to the knight, and it is vast.
Paris lifts his wrist for me to perch.
The knight lists to one side, jowls gnashing above its gorget. It draws both arms across its body, pulling a slender object out of the mist: a rod with a crossguard and a pair of steel hooks. The hilt extends as long as the knight’s uncanny forearms, and the blade hangs low behind it, steel bent into waves. With an almost-gentle tap of a boot, the knight kicks the tip of the blade overhead, sliding words into my mind.
Two-handed sword. Flame-bladed.
I can’t help the terrified gurgle that emerges from my throat. The knight closes in with a bound. A fluid twist of hips and shoulders pulls the spear-length blade into a downward arc right overhead.
The apprentice shrieks, “Pelta!”
It means shield. But the enchanted cry splits under the edge of the sword, offering no resistance. He staggers as the sword shaves a large scrap from his robes. The knight pivots into a slanted upswing that flows into our wake.
Clang. A deafening knell. The apprentice collapses, his fingers dropping from my claws. I fall after him, believing that the sword has killed us both, but the blade passes over my back with a force that divides my feathers and presses them flat. As I float down into the dead grass, my shadow darts in to meet me.
It is not quite crow-shaped. And it has eyes. Two slits that widen to pale green rings, stutter over the reeds as they swing from me, to Paris, to the Knight of Flies. The eyes move independently of the shadow—
“No.” I don’t believe it.
They are not my own eyes looking up at me. I know that sickly green.
She followed me here.
Flies drip into the grass around us. The knight reverses the sword to make a downward stab at Paris, who rolls partway to his feet, struggling without his other arm. Seps ducks into the shadow at my feet and seems to vanish.
The sword plunges, but Paris springs back just in time.
My shadow lengthens and splits in half. The two halves become slender jaws, twitching with anticipation or outrage. The lindworm’s head no longer resembles a serpent’s. It’s a lightless wedge jutting with teeth as long as my pinions. The knight hesitates, sword poised.
The lindworm screeches. A shattering, two-voiced wail, shrill and deep. The knight’s breastplate snaps into pieces, knocking it back a step and blowing its sword askew, though it hangs on to the hilt with one stubborn gauntlet. All around her maw, the dead grass puffs away, and earth crumbles. I feel a sudden vertigo on the edge of the chasm that my shadow has become. I’m vaguely aware of Paris scooping me up and pulling me away, but all I can do is look into the abyss carved out between me and the lindworm. Land does not exist wherever that shadow falls. Not even Paris exists there, in the narrow band that flows down his forearm and his robes. One side of him vanishes at the edge, and the other side of him resumes, interrupted by . . . nothing.
Paris shivers, but when I glance up, I realize it’s not fear. His face is ecstatic. Waxen tears track down his paper cheeks. “Kill her,” he breathes into my feathers.
But he’s not talking to me. Confusion and disquiet mix in my chest. He means the Knight of Flies.
He lured it here to kill the lindworm.