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Shadowlight

 

by Jacqueline Diamond

 

An evil queen’s half-sister, a girl of the old race, fights to free their land and win the heart of a great mage. High fantasy with a touch of paranormal romance.

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Chapter One

 

Shadow pressed herself flat against the slate roof, watching through a chink in the gutter as the bloodcat hunted her.

Its sightless eyes indifferent to the rain-clouded midday darkness, the wine-colored beast scoured the alley, from time to time lifting its wedge-shaped head to sniff the air. This was a larger one than most, its shoulders perhaps as high as her hips. Its raspy breathing echoed from the stones, the reverberations probing each rough crevice and contour.

All this, she reflected bitterly, and the Radiants had spotted her before she could steal the keys to the prison that held Nle. In trying to rescue her friend, she had revealed her existence, when after all these years the Radiant leader, Haldn, must have thought her dead.

And Haldn surely wanted her dead. This ancient land could not belong to them both. While Shadow lived, however degraded and hunted, she would never forget that she sprang from the old race of her mother and, on her father's side, from the Radiants who had overpowered and banished them.

But her thoughts now must be of finding refuge, the only one possible at this moment—the Den of Ashi. Packed with the dregs of Ad-Omaq, it was dangerous, especially for one who had no friends. And she'd had none since the capture of Dorf and Nle. But there she might at least have a chance of survival.

Below Shadow, the three hooded Radiants clus­tered to one side, murmuring the chant of light-giving to clear the clouded eyes of the bloodcat. Shadow had never seen this done before, yet she knew from the cat's sudden rigidity the exact mo­ment when the vision came, and followed from its movements how its sight flickered and beat against the darkness.

Fools. Worshipers of the light, masters of its many forms, the Radiants couldn't see its power to con­fuse. There was a saying in the streets of Ad-Omaq: When the bloodcat sees, it is most blind. Apparently the Radiants had never heard that bit of underworld wisdom.

The adage proved true. Distracted by its newfound vision, the bloodcat failed to note the whisper of cloth-bound feet as Shadow slunk across the roof.

An edge of rain knifed through her thin ankle-tied robe as she skimmed down a drainpipe. The storm was a bit of good fortune. Even a ring-babble knew bloodcats couldn't sense in a downpour. It bought time for her to seek the Den.

But it might also drive the Radiants to use the full-light, splashing illumination over the filthy sneakways of Ad-Omaq like white paint on a grave. She must find a hiding place before then.

Shadow skittered across a rubbish-strewn square, one like a thousand others in this maze of a city. In the rain, the dirt was already churning to mud and writhing with lyworms in search of rotting carrion. Filth splattered against her coarse garments.

Drawing the tattered scarf tighter over the small horns that marked her as an outlaw of the old race, she merged into a corner and sent her mind flicking over the backways of the city. She'd spent the past dozen years dodging and thieving in this dark walled tangle, and knew it well. But sometimes stones shifted in the murk, and cracks opened and closed in the gutters, not always by chance.

The way to the Den of Ashi was forever shifting, and it would take all Shadow's city-sense to find it now. And all her courage.

It was not a place she would willingly go to under normal circumstances. The Den was home to the fugitives of the city, the robber-murderers, those whoremasters stupid enough to have enslaved High­born women, and horned people of the old race, condemned because the Radiants feared they might have inherited unpredictable powers. The putrid charm of the place lay in its secrecy, sprawling tuberlike deep beneath the Citadel itself. They joked in that asylum that it was the only place in the city from which one must travel upward to reach the Radiants' dungeons.

There, in the most rotten stench-hole in the city, Shadow might find a perverse kind of safety. It was too dangerous to leave the city; and she must reach Nle before he could be handed over to the grayvers as tribute.

She settled her pack against her shoulders, which were accustomed to the weight of always carrying her few possessions with her. At least the rain was slacking. Shadow scanned the streetstones for some newly devised crack that might open into the aban­doned sewers, which led to the Den of Ashi.

So absorbed was she in her seeking, Shadow al­most walked directly into an Enforcer.

The squat, heavy-jowled guard and the small, sharp-featured girl gaped at each other for a moment. Shadow choked back her panic. He might not recog­nize her as a fugitive; in the dark, she looked much like any other girl. She nodded indifferently, as though she had nothing to fear, and started past.

He eyed her pack. "Got your house with you, eh?"

The homeless were subject to enslavement, so Shadow shook her head. "Odds and ends for jug­gling." She touched the knife hidden within her robe. She would not spill blood without good reason, but she would waste no pity on an Enforcer, either. Not when she'd seen the pleasure they took in tor­menting the peasants who crowded into the city, desperate to escape the ghouls.

He was peering too closely at her eyes. She exe­cuted a ragged cartwheel sideways, wishing she'd spent more time practicing the tricks Nle had shown her.

"An acrobat? That doesn't prove anything." He confronted her again, his grin oily with appetite. "A street-sleeper, I'll bet. Make you a deal, girl. Give me my pleasure, and I might let you go afterward."

He reached for her and Shadow jerked away an­grily. At that moment the full-light came, the bril­liant glare slashing through the streets of Ad-Omaq, opening up the city as a man might turn out his pockets. Revealing the glint of yellow in her eyes that should belong only to a Radiant.

"Hey!" The Enforcer grabbed for her, careless, fooled by her size and youth. "Something strange about you."

A quick, practiced thrust and his words ended in a death gurgle. Shadow jerked out the thin blade and replaced it in her belt. At another time, she would have searched the man for his Radiant-made light-weapons, but not with the city shining like midsummer.

Guttural voices rasped overhead. Heavy cloths lifted from window openings. Rarely now did the ordinary people venture out except from necessity, but this phenomenon drew them past their caution. As the Radiants had planned, the city was full of eyes and ears.

Running, her breath coming hard, Shadow tried one street, then another; she knew each intimately, but there was no predicting where a gap might open in the pavement. A woman leaned out overhead, loudly demanding to know what Shadow was doing, the shrill voice echoing until there was no telling who might notice.

She had to find the way, and quickly. Shadow closed her eyes against the light, summoning. This was her small trick, one even the Radiants didn't know, but one she used sparingly, for it drained her strength.

With an effort, she found a vision of the route. Opening her eyes and battling shakiness, Shadow dragged herself down the street and around a corner. The alley broke off as she'd foreseen and at the end, by the crumbling foundation of an old wall, she spied a gap barely wide enough for her slender body. Those who lived their lives in the Den of Ashi did not make it easy for visitors to find them.

The dimness of the ancient sewers seemed sooth­ingly cool to Shadow's eyes after the full-light. She stumbled, panting, and nearly lost her balance. It was always wearying to use her special talent. There hadn't been much need for the clarity until now, except sometimes to spy weapons on one who claimed to be a friend.

Her mother, Mera, had said the clarity might de­velop as Shadow grew, might strengthen with use into something deep and many-faceted. She had said more, much of which Shadow scarcely remembered; that gifts grew best nearest their source, and that the old race had sprung from the mountains where Shadow was born. But here in the city, skill with a knife meant more than all the old talents combined.

Shadow took a deep breath. She must not linger near the surface, where the cat might smell her blood. Folding her scarf away, she slogged forward through the foul air. Although the sewers were no longer used since neglect had allowed the grates to clog, they trickled with runoff from the rain, and here and there a munt or a ring-babble had crawled inside and died. As her eyes adjusted to the faint glow seeping in, Shadow saw one furred munt-shape stir as if alive, but from the odd, rough movements she knew it was only a pack of lyworms, fighting over their food.

She picked her way carefully. The downward an­gle, the wetness and the lack of handholds made the going slippery, and the scant illumination faded to almost nothing. Yet she dared not weaken herself further by using the clarity again. Shadow checked the hilt of her knife, assuring herself that it was still in place. It would be little use, though, against any­one less bungling than that Enforcer.

Would the Radiants guess she had entered the sewers? Nle had taught her that they and their Enforcers ignored the ancient slopways. But this time could be different. She was not an ordinary fugitive.

Burned into Shadow's memory was the bitter triumph in Hakin's eyes at the execution of the horned woman Mera, nearly twelve years before. The victim had stood proudly erect, refusing to weep as the Radiants scorched her with their light. But Shadow had wept, a child alone, longing for the wise edge of Mera's voice and the healing touch of her work-roughened hands. Even now, the remembered pain clouded her eyes.

Stretching her shoulders against the weight of the pack, she brushed one hand against the top of her head in an instinctive gesture for good luck. Her horns were small ones, easily hidden beneath the scarf.

Survivors of the old race were feared and hated for their unpredictable powers and their refusal to con­cede the Radiants' supremacy. Her mother's blood in her alone would have made her despised, even had she not inherited the yellow eyes of her lather, Taav.

He had been the leader of the Radiants, the high­est of the adepts. How furious Hakin must have been to learn that her husband had betrayed her with a horned woman and fathered a bastard, a half-sister and potential rival to her daughter Briala. Nor would Hakin have forgiven him for the risk of min­gling his gifts with Mera's to produce a child of unknown powers.

Unknown powers. Well, Shadow supposed the range of her clarity was still unknown. And she had also inherited a bond to this land of her ancestors, and a hatred for those who misused it. Instinctively, she blamed the Radiants for the growing power of the grayvers. Surely a true leader would have found a way to fight the wraiths from the mountains and not been so quick to accommodate their inhuman appetites.

As she crept on through the sewers, Shadow's city-sense said she was passing under the doors of the Citadel. That sanctum of the Radiants rose pearl-white atop the dingy hillside labyrinth of Ad-Omaq, cliff-edged above the Omaq River.

Few of the wretches who battled their lives away in the killing streets knew that the city of Ad-Omaq had begun as a beacon of light, built five centuries before at the command of the Council which then ruled from the Western capital of Ad-Son, across the ocean. Shadow had learned from her father how, under Council orders, the city with the Citadel at its peak sprang up in the days when Omaq was a land of farms and villages ruled by the Magedom of Kir. The purpose was to entice Radiants from their scattered homes to work together, to refine their gift of nar­rowing light, to discover new ways of healing and of creating wonders. But they had been corrupted in­stead, turning to domination, hedonism and war, and in the course of time they'd reduced most of Ad-Omaq to a rotting heap of living rubbish.

Shadow's reflections sheered off as she caught a whiff of body odor bespeaking the nearness of the Den of Ashi.

She paused to consider her course. Her nickname derived from her skill at passing about the city unno­ticed, and even here she had entered a time or two without attracting the attention of the watchers at the door. Or she might go boldly in, swaggering a little, catching the gleam of firelight on yellow eyes. Her strangeness, coupled with a reputation for having light fingers and a ready knife, had earned her a grudging measure of respect in these parts.

That suited her best. Slyness was enough for a brief visit; to last here, she must be bold. That way, her chances of surviving might reach fifty-fifty, on a good day.

Shadow shook out the long black hair to reveal her horns and strode to the guard. Before he could speak, she whipped out her knife.

From the gloom a second man coalesced, toothless and cold-eyed; then a third, half his face eaten away by acid. Watching the knife, willing her to attack. Wanting an excuse to kill her.

Shadow elevated the knife, the point against one forefinger, turning it so that all might see the dark stain on the blade. "Enforcer's blood," she said.

Reluctantly the toothless man uttered a laugh, stink­ing with foul breath, and stepped aside to let her pass.

Shadow made her way through a drift of onlookers to one of the battered tables. She looked up to order a drink and found Ashi already at hand, the short one-eyed innkeeper holding out a glass of translucent orange-tinted brew.

"I haven't asked for anything."

"Drink. You are my guest."

Around her, conversations dimmed. A head turned, then another.

Ashi must know she came as a fugitive, not a visitor; he had his own secret passageways into the storehouses of the Citadel, it was rumored, and his own spies. Here in his hideout he ruled with abso­lute power. The weak might be slain at the entrance, but the cunning and the strong who passed within still faced this final death-test at the hands of Ashi. Shadow knew he had already passed judgment; the answer was in the drink.

She took the glass. It might hold pure finot, which lifted the spirits without dulling the senses, or it might be laced with aka, the venom of the aka-serpent. In either case, she must not show fear, must not refuse to drink. She had seen a man torn apart by his own companions for such cravenness.

Raising the glass in salute, she brought it to her lips and swallowed its contents in one long gulp. All eyes were fixed on her, waiting. Beyond Ashi, the fire leaped in its pit, casting blood-red brilliance over the assembly.

A sense of well-being pervaded Shadow. To feel so in this place could only mean the drink had been finot. She returned the glass to Ashi. "Another." He brought it, and she paid with an old coin minted in Kir.

Shadow relaxed slightly, enjoying the heat of the fire. It was amusing to think that, high above, the smoke vented itself through a crevice in the baths and was claimed by the Radiants to derive from magical origins.

She hadn't been here for months. The place was larger than she remembered, the roof double a man's height, extending far and tapering at the edges into rootlike channels where the denizens slept, and whored, and murdered each other.

Her coins were well distributed about her cloth­ing, so a sneak thief would find only a small part of them in any one place. But they would not last long; Ashi charged well for his services. And one dared not sleep without companions to stand guard. Shadow must make a new life here if she were to survive, yet her thoughts were still of Nle and of the need to rescue him.

And then, as always, to watch the ways of the Radiants. To seek a chink in their power, however long it might take her.

In repose, Shadow's mind replayed the events of the past few weeks, since her friends had been captured.

As she had done several times before to spy on the Radiants, she had crept into the Citadel through the vents, an entrance she had discovered years ago by using the clarity. She had located Dorf and Nle in their cells deep underground, but had found no way to release them.

Two weeks ago, while she watched in frustration and rage, Dorf had been taken as tribute to the grayvers. Seeing that she must risk discovery by Hakin if she were to save Nle, Shadow had climbed upward, watching the levels where Radiants lived and worked, hoping for a chance to steal a key that might free her friend. Finally, today, she had thought she might have that chance.

She had been spying at the top of the Citadel, where the Radiant adepts ruled from high above Ad-Omaq. Through a grate she had peered into Hakin's room, watching the Radiant leader converse with her daughter Briala. Keys dangled from Hakin's pocket, and Shadow's hand tightened about her hook as she waited, hoping to snare them while the wom­an's attention was absorbed elsewhere.

The pair were arguing. Unable to make her move until Briala left, Shadow listened to her half-sister quarrel with Taav's widow.

"Are you mad?" the girl was saying. The fury in her face made her look older than Shadow, although they were almost the same age. "An alliance with Kir? That means surrender!"

"We must be rid of the grayvers." Hakin ran ner­vous fingers through her hair. "It's not worth it."

"It's worth anything!"

An alliance with Kir? Shadow knew Omaq had quarreled with the neighboring country of Kir long ago. Then, a half-dozen years back, the Mage of Kir had gone further, shutting the forest paths to the caravans that once passed from the port of Ad-Kir to the city of Ad-Omaq. But despite the Mage's legend­ary powers, which he might use to subjugate Omaq if given the opportunity, surely an alliance with him was preferable to the depredations of the grayvers.

Like the other dwellers in Ad-Omaq, Shadow knew little about these invaders from the mountains. Crea­tures of myth, almost forgotten after more than a millennium, they had suddenly returned in recent years. Creatures of fog and darkness, they sucked the soul from a man and left him an empty, blood-craving ghoul.

The effects of the grayvers' resurgence, and of the ghouls they had created, were unmistakable: the des­olation of the land, the deaths of hundreds of peas­ants and the routing of the others. Instead of fighting, the Radiants maintained an uneasy truce by yielding up prisoners each month as tribute. As they had done with Dorf. And would do with Nle, if Shadow did not free him.

"We must have more blast-powder to fight the grayvers at their source." Hakin glared at her daugh­ter. "We can only get it with Kir's cooperation. And we will get it. We must get it." She was muttering half to herself. "I must be rid of the Gray Ones."

Briala's yellow eyes glimmered beneath her dark hair. "You think of no one but yourself. Not of me; no, never of me. Coward!"

Before the girl could react, Hakin's hand slapped across her cheek hard enough to bring tears. It was at that moment that Hakin caught the gleam of yel­low pupils through the grating. At first, she might have thought herself spied upon by another Radiant; but as Shadow scrambled downward and escaped from the vents she was seen, and her strong resem­blance to Briala left no doubt that she was the long-vanished daughter of Taav and Mera.

Now, biding her time in the Den of Ashi, Shadow turned the conversation over in her mind. Blast-powder. Taav had mentioned it once, when Shadow was a child, and then had fallen silent. So blast-powder was a tool of the Mage of Kir.

Why should Briala prefer the grayvers to him? The Mage—for Taav had met him once and described him—was only a man, although a man possessed of great powers and cunning. Stories were told of him in the streets of Ad-Omaq, of how he created beasts from air and summoned armies with the wave of an arm; but this was surely fable, or he would have conquered Omaq long ago.

As for the grayvers, had they anything to do with the fact that, for the past ten years, Hakin alone of all her caste had not aged? Or that suddenly, in middle age, her handsome looks had metamorphosed into fascinating beauty? Or that she had succeeded to her late husband's post as leader with no apparent oppo­sition? Perhaps in exchange for tribute, the grayvers had yielded something more than a promise not to attack the city.

Shadow drew her thoughts back to the present as a thin man, his face welted with scars, took a seat and ordered more finot for them both. From various parts of the crowd, men were drifting her way. Seek­ing alliances, perhaps. Or planning to pass them­selves off as friends, then rape and kill as she slept. She must find allies, must trade as little as possible for their protection. "Waiting for friends?" the thin man asked.

"Perhaps."

A third chair scraped forward at the table. This man she knew slightly: Argen, leader of his own gang. He was a hard outlaw, but she had never seen him commit an act of wanton cruelty. Argen tilted back in the wooden chair, regarding her inscrutably. Large-barreled, broad-boned, he gave the impres­sion of lazy indifference, but Shadow knew how quick and deadly he could be.

"I wondered how long before you joined us, Yellow-eyes." He took the thin man's finot for his own. The man glared and departed. Others who had edged toward them stopped, and waited. "I heard Dorf went in the last tribute. And Nle lies in the dun­geon, until his turn."

"Not if I. . ." She stopped herself, and quoted the saying, "Friends who are gone are friends no more."

"A cripple and a half-wit. How were they caught?"

"Bad luck." Despite his shattered leg, Nle was a master at surviving in the city. And Dorf might lack brains, but he was strong enough to defend himself. "Four Enforcers caught them with their pockets full of gems from a Highborn house."

"So the grayvers gain two more ghouls, and Ad-Omaq loses two more thieves. But they didn't catch you. You're a clever one, Yellow-eyes."

Shadow sipped at the brew and kept silent.

"You can't stay here alone," said Argen. "I have need of new friends." It was a concession to admit even that much, but Shadow had quickly weighed Argen against the other men lingering nearby, and she knew he was the least treacherous.

"One must have something to trade." Argen re­garded her, not with the greedy expression of the Enforcer, yet it was the same look. He reached one hand across the table, to her cheek. She allowed the touch.

"You haven't been taken yet, have you?" he said.

"No."

His breath quickened. "We need a woman." "I will not serve a gang."

He was caught. The air lay heavy with his lust. Now he would agree to anything; later might come disavowal. Later was later. "Mine alone, then."

Shadow nodded and rose, following him. She had seen the couplings in the Street of Lost Women, and felt disgust. But she knew her choices. It might even be possible, later, to persuade Argen to help her free her friend. Nle knew every quirk of the city, and would be useful to him.

Barely at the edge of the crowd, Argen seized her, his hands probing, his scent thick and musky. Shadow willed herself to yield, softening her muscles, chok­ing back the instinct to protect herself with a knife-thrust.

And then—light! Flashing through the den, glar­ing away the darkness in a great rush. Argen spun around to face the room, leaving Shadow free-

Day-brightness invaded the bowels of the earth, revealing Ashi's hole in all its degradation, the pock­marked faces, disease-bulged eyes. Some of the oc­cupants cried out against brilliance such as they had not seen for years, hands attempting to hide their damning horns—-one man had dozens, covering his entire head. Most drew weapons: daggers, axes, maces, handbows, cudgels and slings.

Shadow did not need the clarity to interpret what had happened. The Radiants had found the Den of Ashi, and they were looking for her.

Amid the uproar, she slipped unnoticed farther to the back of the chamber, where caverns tunneled into the ancient sewers. Then the eerie, reverberat­ing wail of the bloodcat doused the room with si­lence, a treacherous hush that waited to betray any movement.

"We've long known such a slime-hole as this ex­isted, but we never troubled to find it before." It was a woman who spoke, vibrant and strong, and al­though her face was hidden behind the massed bod­ies, her voice marked her unmistakably. So Hakin herself had come, meaning at last to destroy her husband's bastard.

A man spoke; it was the Radiant beside Hakin. "Put away your weapons. It would be a small matter for us to obliterate the lot of you."

Everyone knew this was true, but the words were ill chosen. Several in the crowd snarled defiance at this attempt to shame them. Covered by the noise, Shadow took a few steps backward. The bloodcat keened again. It couldn't find her scent amid all this fetor, but it knew her sound. She halted.

Hakin resumed her speech. "We've chosen to tol­erate this vile place until now, because you prey upon each other. But now you welcome our enemy, a girl of perverted birth who has dared to spy upon the Radiants. She is named Mera-ti, child of Mera. Yield her to us, and this time we leave you unmolested."

There could be no mistaking who was meant, not after Shadow's brazen entrance. Heads turned, fin­gers pointed, harsh voices lifted. Not Argen's; in one sharp moment, she saw him staring with hands clenched, and knew he would have helped her, if he could.

Shadow ran. The scream of the bloodcat licked after her, hoarse with frustration as it struggled to penetrate the crowded den. Her only advantage was her head start, and that dwindled rapidly as she lurched along the sewers, once falling so that her hands pressed into the viscous ooze. It was a strain to see in the grotesque light that crooked through the sewers sent by the Radiants behind her. She couldn't go on running blindly. She must make a plan. Must go—where? There was only one possibil­ity, not of escape but of defiance. The sewers emp­tied into the Omaq River. It was a death plunge from the walls, but at least it was a clean one.

As she ran, stumbled, slogged forward, Shadow heard the beast gaining. The Radiants likely trailed some distance behind, for their fight flickered only feebly here. At any moment she might feel the thing's searing breath upon her neck, and the jagged teeth rending down her back as she had seen one attack a boy who stole a chalice from the Citadel.

The finot helped clear her panic and she drew on the clarity. Ashi had a nasty secret that Nle had shown her once; there, it was down that corridor and a twist to the right.

Another dash brought her to the junction of two passages marked by a pile of bones and rotten cloth jutting from the muck. It was no accident so many had died here; but their misfortune might prove to be her luck.

A sharp jog to the left and she made a desperate lunge upward. In the semi-darkness, Shadow's mud-stiffened hands clamped desperately on the rods Ashi had mounted overhead, the shock of the leap jarring through her shoulders and nearly knocking her loose.

With every dram of strength in her muscles, Shadow furled her body and kicked at a second rod. Some­how she managed to catch the bar with one foot and anchor her legs over it. Panting, she hung against the roof, listening to the deadly murmur in the mud below.

The bloodcat shrieked with joy as it splayed around the corner and leaped at its prey. The razor claws tore across the side of Shadow's shoulder with a searing wrench. She shuddered and tightened her grip on the rod.

The dimness in the sewers cleared a little—sign of the Radiants' nearing—and she watched the beast land, its haunches tensing for the death leap. In the slime, something coiled.

The bloodcat's howl of anguish rocked the caverns and nearly tore Shadow from her perch. The aka-serpent killed with its tongue, stabbing into the furred belly of the creature, sending its fiery poison to the heart.

This was the trap Ashi had laid for the unwary, not out of malice but because the only way to obtain the poison was from the bodies of victims. To what curi­ous ends would he put poison extracted from a bloodcat?

"Bloodcat!" It was the echo of a Radiant's call, distant but clearly heading this way. Soon the light would seek Shadow out, and against their fire she had no weapon.

She dropped her feet and dangled by her hands, clenching her teeth against the pain in her shoulder.

She swung, building up speed, and then loosed the rods, flinging herself forward and narrowly clearing the pit. Before an Enforcer crippled him, Nle had been a street acrobat, and he had taught Shadow what he could.

One fork in the junction, she knew, led back to the city; she took the other. It sloped down, a good sign, and the air stirred, a shade less fetid.

Behind her, the Radiants had discovered the pit and the bloodcat, their illumination no doubt warn­ing them in time to avoid the writhing serpents. A guttural curse echoed down the tunnel. It was a pleasure, even if a slight one, to distress Hakin, who hand-raised the beasts herself.

Shadow's breath came shallow and last as she ran. She skidded several times, and her stiffening shoul­der pained her. The Radiants made raster progress, for they had their light as guide.

The angle of descent steepened, and Shadow slid down the final passageway, catching herself at the raw-edged opening by bracing against the sides. In blew the sweet dark wind, cold and rain-laced but fresh with the scent of the living world. Far below, Shadow heard the roiling rush of the Omaq River. Then a wash of light framed her against the night, hair falling loose to reveal the nubs on either side of her head.

She turned, and found herself briefly blinded. No daughter of Mera and Taav would leap to her death this way, bewildered and fearful as a beast. Fiercely, Shadow drew upon the clarity, and through it saw the three Radiants who faced her. Two were men. The third was Hakin.

She had never before looked at her father's widow with the clarity, and doing so shocked her, for she saw not the surface loveliness but the reality. A ghastly being, filled with some unnatural essence, the skin cadaverous beneath its youthful illusion. What bargain has Hakin made with the grayvers?

The Radiant leader raised her hands, to work a cage of burning light. Perhaps with more time, more knowledge, Shadow might have stood against her, but not now. Forcing a last smile, to show that she chose her fate freely, she leaped from the opening into the deadly river below.

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      Copyright 1989, 2010 Jackie Hyman

 

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