He read the runes on the stone, then shook his head at them and read them again. “Well…” Samet sighed. “Bloody fuck.”
“What’s wrong?” Ethan stepped to his side.
“I had hoped that when Adros wrote that one would have to go through hell, he was speaking metaphorically.” He turned, and began pacing.
“Master?” Ethan gave him a worried look. “Samet?”
“We don’t have a choice. It’s this, or…” He ran a hand through his hair. “Or I can close the archway but not seal it. All that would do is buy us time and…” He shook his head. “Time may not be enough.”
“I need you to listen to me, Ethan.” Samet turned toward him. “I am sorcerer, not mage. The…” He swallowed. “Hell will welcome me, increase my power and its…” He took a deep breath. “Once I step through, it will be the demon part of me that is the strongest. You will see the monster the Covenant mages say that I am, the beast they were formed to vanquish.”
“No, they…” Ethan shook his head.
“They are not wrong, Ethan. Now listen.” Samet caught him by the arm. He leaned forward, and spoke a word directly into Ethan’s ear. “Did you hear, Ethan?”
“Yes, master.” Ethan shook his head. “But I don’t understand.”
“My truename.” Samet exhaled. “Given by my tongue, in my voice.” He met Ethan’s eyes. “With that, you can compel me to obey. If I cross over fully, the only hope will be you. You must call me back. I cannot do this without you.”
“Not today, Ethan. I am not your master.” He ran a hand down Ethan’s cheek. “Today you must be mine. I can trust no other. Please, Ethan.”
“I…” Ethan swallowed. “Yes, Samet.”
The air was nearly hot enough to sear his throat, and contained the coppery tang of blood. Foul odors hung on the breeze, death and rot and sin. Ethan turned toward Samet, and then nearly recoiled. The man behind him was still recognizable as Samet, but faintly translucent horns now curled back over his hair. His eyes glowed, and a shadow hung about him, giving him the illusion of darkly feathered wings. Samet’s lips curled back in a smile, revealing sharp teeth, and for the first time he truly did seem to resemble his father. “I did warn you.”
“Yes.” Ethan nodded. “You did, master.”
Samet flinched. “Not here, please, Ethan. Don’t call me that here. Come, we must hurry.”
The spider-like demon lunged at Ethan as he tried to scramble back to his feet. Samet turned, lifted his hand… And all that hit Ethan was a few motes of dust and blood. “Are you alright, Ethan?”
Ethan retrieved the silver dagger, and immediately flung it. It flew over Samet’s shoulder, taking another demon in the eye and dropping it. “Yes.” He rubbed the back of his neck, then nodded.
Samet concentrated briefly, and the dagger flew back to Ethan’s hand hilt first. With some reluctance, he released his hold on the magic. It was getting more difficult to do so. He quickly checked Ethan for wounds, then pressed one of the potions on him. His own wounds were already healing.
They began walking again. They hadn’t gone far when he heard the voice. “Samet…”
He froze in his tracks. “You.”
“Now is that any way to greet an old friend?” The woman who rose from the fire was beautiful beyond words. Dark tresses tumbled down her shoulders, obscuring parts of her lush breasts from view. That and the flowing gown she wore were more tantalizing than modest. She swayed as she walked toward them, smiling. “Your destination is not much further, but it is well guarded.” She flicked her eyes toward Ethan. “Two may not be enough.”
“And three may be too many.” He shook his head at her.
“Always have to do things the hard way.” She smiled at him, giving him a small shake of her head. Then she knelt gracefully before him. “I swore I would aid you in finding a way to seal the archways, did I not?”
“Yes…” Samet took a deep breath. “You did.” This close, he could feel the pull of her presence. Her aid was not something to be spurned lightly.
“And have I not kept my word?”
“You have kept it.” He swallowed.
“Samet?” Ethan’s voice broke through the small haze around him. “Who is she?”
“She…” His voice hardened as the haze vanished. “Is a demon.”
“Indeed.” Garachus rose. She nodded to Ethan. “But then, you do not seem to have difficulty with the presence of a demon.”
“Samet is no demon.” Ethan shook his head.
“If he were not…” Garachus smiled at him. “You and he would both have died the moment you stepped through. This is not a place for those not born to the fire, and tis only his will that keeps you safe.”
“I do not need your help.” Samet stepped between her and Ethan.
“Of course.” She inclined her head gracefully. “Yet it is offered anyway. Come.” She turned, and began walking up the path.
He made a frustrated noise before following.
Ethan kept one hand on the heartwood dagger and one eye on the woman. He would have to have been blind not to see the effect she had on Samet. Her voice seemed almost hypnotic at times, and she’d lean toward him, her body speaking of the delights of sin. And her eyes were like those of Lady Roshni. He wanted to drive the blade into them.
“You’re recovering well, Prince Ethan.” She smiled at him, and he narrowed his eyes. “It appears Samet did learn something of healing magic after all.”
“Don’t talk to me.” Ethan shook his head. The fey were one thing. This was a demoness. And regardless of what Graham had often complained, he had been listening during the sermons.
“I have no interest in damaging anything belonging to Samet.” She shook her head. She started to say something else, but something moved on the edge of the path.
He slashed at one of their attackers, and noted reluctantly that the demon woman also moved in to join the fight, catching one attacker by the throat and slamming it to the ground with enough force to crack the thing’s bony armor open. Samet flung ice rather than fire, but it seemed to burn the creatures.
The fight was over in a few seconds. Ethan yanked his dagger free of the last one. He’d expected… They were in hell. Hell was a dangerous place. Yet they’d faced greater threats in the land of the Fey. He gave the woman a suspicious look. She glanced back at him, a small smile on her face.
“The removal of the shield will affect the dragoncrown.” Garachus nodded to Samet. “That is why you will only have three days after its retrieval.”
Samet sighed. “And there is no way to block that effect?”
“The solution is simple.” Garachus smiled. “You do not need the shield. I can protect you from the effects of the archway. You can seal it at your leisure.”
“Ah, marvelous. So, all I need to do is let you into my head.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “We’ve been down this road before. The answer is no.”
“Stubborn. Will you risk the world for your pride?” She shook her head. “You nearly died retrieving the athame because you weren’t prepared. I tried to warn you.”
“Enough.” Samet shook his head. He could feel the tingle of magic now nearly constantly. Coming here may have been a mistake. The worst part was Garachus was right. She had power enough to shield him, and he risked no more from her offer than he did coming to hell in the first place. Perhaps he should…
“You know…” Ethan’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “For a horrifying place of burning death, hell is actually a lot prettier than I would have imagined.” He shielded his eyes as he scanned the horizon.
Samet laughed. “You think it’s pretty?”
“I’m not suggesting we take up full time residence or anything.” Ethan shrugged. “Just pointing out the swirling smoke and fire does have a certain aesthetic.”
He reached out and ruffled Ethan’s hair affectionately.
He froze the demon as it charged at Ethan, then shattered it with a simple motion of his hand. Ethan got back to his feet, brushing the remains of the demon away. Garachus was shaking her head. She turned her eyes to Ethan. “Perhaps you should speak to him.”
“Don’t talk to me.” Ethan turned away from her, then retrieved another of his knives.
“It is your people that will be destroyed, if he fails to get to the archway in time. Each moment the storm of souls rages, hundreds of your countrymen will die in agony. They will be turned on their fellows, slaves to the Warlord.” She watched Ethan. “Would you condemn them to that fate, knowing it as you do?” She shrugged. “Or perhaps you think your nieces should suffer as you did.”
Ethan went still, his face visibly paling. “No.”
“Stop.” Samet narrowed his eyes at Garachus.
“He should know the consequences, should you fail in this. You might be able to save one of the girls.” Garachus smiled. “Your father does desire grandchildren, after all. But I doubt he will give you all of them, especially since two are still too young to breed. And there is another boy now, isn’t there?”
He wished she weren’t right. If he failed… “I said stop.”
“Or have you given up on your quest to save your father from himself?” She folded her arms. “That is of course, your other option. Fail to reach the archway in time, and you could simply kill your father and take the dragoncrown for yourself. Will you make that choice, Samet?”
Samet shook his head, and kept walking. There was time yet. And once he had the shield… She could guide the portals of hell to take him anywhere, not just back to Fey. One way or another, he would reach the archway in time.
A demon’s words are always lies, even when they speak the truth. Graham’s voice echoed in his head. Ethan touched the hilt of his blade. The thought of Vadin putting his hands on the girls made him want to vomit. Robert and Samet would never allow that to happen. But then, Robert hadn’t been able to save him… He forced the thoughts away. Samet’s appearance had changed slightly. The horns and wings seemed to be growing more opaque the further they journeyed.
He was considering just stabbing the demoness to shut her up when they reached the rise and he saw what lay before them. “Samet…”
“A dragon.” Samet shook his head. The massive winged serpent lay, green steam coming from its nostrils. Its limbs ended in wickedly curved claws, each the size of one of Ethan’s knives. “It had to be a dragon.”
The demonness just smiled.
A dragon. Samet drew his magic to him, letting it fill him. “Dragonbone blades, Ethan.” Immediately Ethan switched the knives he was carrying. Samet focused a spark of magic into them, coating both blades in frost. “Avoid the head. It spits acid.”
“Right.” Ethan nodded.
He took a deep breath. “Garachus…” He glared when she smiled. “We are going to need your help.”
“Of course.” Glowing blades appeared in each of her hands. “You only ever needed ask.” Her eyes flashed.
Her power touched his, a heady rush, pleasure that bordered on the edge of pain. He drew the magic, letting it pour in, filling him. The world seemed to fade a moment before suddenly snapping back into focus. “Now.” He flung the spell, slamming the force into the dragon. It howled in pain as the spell burned into its scales, then whirled. Both Garachus and Ethan charged, and he formed a ward around each of them before flinging ice directly into its open maw.
Samet felt the dragon gathering its own power, throwing it back at him, and he focused the ward, splitting the dragon’s counter-attack and deflecting it past him. The dragon inhaled, and then Ethan raked his daggers down the dragon’s side. The dragon jerked, and its acidic breath missed Samet by several feet.
Magic bent around him, obeying his commands, and he could hear Garachus laughing as she spun, her blades flashing as she tore gashes in the dragon. The power was like nothing he’d felt before, alive in a way he had never imagined possible. Samet smiled as he focused once more.
Light gleamed in the dragon’s eyes. It roared, shaking its head in pain as it thrashed.
And then it’s skull shattered.
Ethan turned to stare. Samet’s eyes weren’t just glowing, they were trailing fire. The horns were solid now, and the wings behind him spread. And to Ethan’s shock, Samet didn’t walk down the path. The wings carried him to land a few feet away from the pedestal. And Garachus had a triumphant look on her face. “You have the shield, Samet.” Her voice was low and sultry. “And the power.”
Samet reached for the shield, his hand stopping an inch away. “I still need the path.”
“You know I will take you where you need to go.” Garachus nodded. “What we can do together will be…”
“Samet.” Ethan kept his daggers in his hand. “Samet, we have a path already.”
Garachus turned toward him, and he found himself taking an involuntary step back. Every moment he’d been at Lady Roshni’s mercy came back to him at the sight of her eyes. “Do cease your mewling,” Lady Roshni’s voice said.
“Samet.” Ethan felt himself shaking a little. “Samet?”
He felt the power wrapped around him, warm and sensual. Garachus’s voice seemed to whisper directly into his ear, full of sultry promise. “We did it, Samet.”
“We did.” He barely realized he’d spoken. He was vaguely aware someone else was saying his name, but he couldn’t focus.
Garachus put her hand on his shoulder. “I told you I would help you.” She ran a hand down his cheek. “Don’t you feel it, Samet? This is what you are. This is what you were always meant to be.”
With the archways at his command, he could sweep the world. All the wrongs would be his to right, to remake. Couldn’t it be better? Couldn’t he make it better? Didn’t the urchins always plead to him, beg him for food for their bellies, shelter from the cold? He could see to it they never went hungry again. Those that harmed them would kneel. “Yes.”
“Say my name.”
“Garachus.” He barely heard his own voice. The power was calling to him. He reached out, taking hold of the shield. He smiled.
Ethan stared in horror as the black wings suddenly snapped fully into focus, becoming part of Samet. Fire trailed back over the horns, then around Samet’s entire body until he seemed to glow with an aura of embers in a fireplace. No. No, no… He opened his mouth to call Samet’s truename, to call him back, and Garachus pounced, tackling him to the ground. She put hand over his mouth, silencing him. “No.” Her smile was cruel. “We’ll not be having that now…” The tip of one of her fingers traced down his cheek. “Such a sweet morsel. I will enjoy…”
“Get…” The demon that had just a few moments before been Samet whirled around. He waved a hand, and Garachus jerked once before being flung into a stone column with enough force to shatter the stone. “Away from him.” She rose and leaped, snarling. The black wings on Samet’s back ignited in flame. Tendrils of fire moved, coiling serpent-like around her as they caught her in midair. Samet flung her to the ground. “Mine.”
Ethan’s hand found the heartwood blade. He lunged before the Garachus could recover, burying the blade in her eye. Garachus screamed as she began dissolving away into ash. Around them, he heard howls and snarls as more beasts moved toward them. Ethan grabbed the shield from where Samet had dropped it. “We have to go.” He held out his hand. “Samet, we have to go. Open the way.”
Samet caught his hand. The stone opened into a portal, and Ethan dragged him through.
He knelt, breathing in and out, trying to calm himself. The power had felt so… alive. He felt Ethan’s hand on his shoulder, and Samet put his own hand atop it. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t need it.” Ethan’s voice was quiet.
Samet looked up at Ethan. “What?”
Ethan knelt in front of him. “That thing stopped me before I could say it.” He ran the back of his hand down Samet’s cheek. “And you came back for me anyway.” He smiled. “They are wrong, Samet. You are not a monster.”
“It felt so…” He said the words softly as he put his hand on the back of Ethan’s neck. His shoulders shook slightly. A sob escaped him.
“You came back.” Ethan held him tightly. “You came back.”
“I love you.” He looked up at Ethan.
“I know, master.” Ethan touched his forehead to Samet’s. He wiped the tears from Samet’s cheeks. “Go to sleep, Samet. You are safe here.” He pulled Samet closer.
Samet lay curled against him, asleep. Ethan didn’t dare close his own eyes. They lay on the path, near the waystone, but Samet hadn’t been able to raise the wards. He sniffed the air, then slowly moved away, laying Samet down gently. Then he rose, the dragonbone blade in one hand and a heartwood blade in the other. “I know you’re there.”
Varorgirin stepped out of the shadows. “I wondered, hound.” Her lips curled back as blood dripped from them. “Would you be a strength or a weakness?”
“What is it you want him to do?” Ethan kept the daggers ready.
“I want him to open his eyes, to see the truth he blinds himself to. It is a hard thing, hound, when hope dies. It can break a man.” She narrowed her eyes. “You learned that the hard way. I fear he may as well.” She spat the bloody filth. “The difference is when you broke, you lacked the power to take the world with you.”
“He’s stronger than you think he is.”
“The greater the height…” Varorgirin shook her head. “The harder the landing. I know how strong he is, hound.” She drew herself to her full height, towering over him. “He took the leash off you, and put it on himself. I can only hope that will be enough.”
“You…” He slowly lowered the knives. “You care about him.”
“Of course I do. Why do you think I’ve put so much trouble into him?” She smirked at him, showing a hint of jagged teeth. “You killed Garachus. Well done.” She slowly nodded. “You know my name now. Call it in blood and I will come. But know if you do…” She showed her teeth again. “Blood will be my price. A life’s worth, at least.” She shook her head, then touched the waystone. It glowed. “Get some sleep, hound.” She turned, and then vanished into the ground.
Leaving the beautiful blue flowers behind one more.