Artemi reached for one of her spin daggers and thrust it into the flesh of whatever it was that held her ankle. Still, she proceeded to be pulled downward, the pain in her ears growing by the second. How badly she needed to breathe! She stabbed at it again, this time dragging the blade upward to cut something vital. The leviathan’s feeler seemed only to tighten further. Her chest and limbs ached for air; and still she plunged down and down. She reached for the limb and tried to find the end of it, but the thing was vast.
Her stabs must have felt like pin-pricks to the animal. There was no other option, and time was running out. She would have to wield.
The agony in her ears was enough to make her scream, but she had to keep her thoughts ordered if the form was to be anything useful, and if she hoped not to cut her own leg off. Artemi summoned the fires into her body, feeling them scald her insides after the freeze from the sinking, and rapidly thrust them into the leviathan’s limb. It snapped in two with a crack that sounded high-pitched through the water, and freed Artemi to drag herself upward and out of that blasted lake.
Breathing was all she could think of now. Fires damn her need for haste!
The water roared past her broken eardrums as she hurtled toward her escape. Nearly there.
Abruptly, she felt the heat of another wielder forming something above her, and her senses told her that whatever was being made was solid.
It was ice.
Artemi had too much momentum to avoid the ceiling that was setting above her, and the only way to avoid breaking her bones against it was to ensure that the ceiling broke first. In a moment there was utter blackness, and then it was transformed to brilliant orange as her body erupted with flame. The fire rocketed against the sheet of white that now hurtled toward her, spreading across the surface of its underside only briefly before it exploded into a thousand shards of yellow Blaze and burning ice.
She careered into the air beyond amidst the spray of frost and fire, the sudden warmth of the air beyond tearing the water from her clothes. And then she took her breath. Deep and long and rich. How good it felt to inhale once more!
Her elation was short-lived, however, as a blast of snow knocked her sideways and back toward the icy surface of the lake.
Burn it! Mirel knew precisely where she was!
Artemi only just managed to swing her fall toward the shore before she hit the ground, but the hit was still bone-crunchingly hard. She lay there, winded and breathless, for just long enough to collect her thoughts.
Mirel was in there with her. She had to have planned this. Artemi’s father would be elsewhere. There would be more traps. More ways to be shamed…
Behind her, increasingly intense, skin-prickling waves of heat told her that Mirel was about to wield again.
Artemi thrust herself up from the rattling scree, drops of ice-water falling from her soaked clothes, her fingers blue from the cold, and her breaths laboured from several broken ribs. “Your time in this life is nearly finished, sister,” she said with a calmness that surprised herself. “You believe you serve the world, but you serve no—”
A whirlwind of hoarfrost, tearing out of the darkness like million white knives, bore down upon her before she could finish. Two blades nicked her sides and a third crossed her left bicep, turning it so cold it became stone. Artemi was fast enough to melt most of the ice knives with a few weak licks of flame, and managed to dodge out of the way of the rest, but she was feeble already. Her lungs felt as if they had been crushed, and the strength was draining from her legs. She needed to find a corner to rest, recover and ready herself for a battle she could win. This one was already lost.
“Better luck next time,” she called to the silent chamber, and threw all of her remaining energy into a sprint toward a tunnel she had sensed while she had the fires inside her.
A barrage of snow and hail followed her into it, freezing her right foot and almost sending her sprawling, but she made it behind an outcrop just in time. Artemi took a few more furtive breaths, and then launched herself downward into the passageway once more.
Mirel would know precisely where she was, of course. She would be holding Blaze inside her body – the energy that reverberated in all things – and would sense Artemi like a rat caught in her maze. When Artemi had been moving slowly and quietly, she would not have been so easily detectable, but now she had both wielded and run she was visible. She might as well have carried a great torch and flag above her head to signify her presence.
Artemi pulled just enough energy from within herself to throw up a huge partition behind her, and fed the last of her fuel into the hardest run she could muster with one frozen foot. Mirel would not lose the trail for long, but this would be enough to give Artemi time to find somewhere to hide. Such cowardly retreats were not her usual tactic, but it would do Artemi’s father no good if she were dead before he could be rescued. Besides, Artemi was known for her pig-headedness, pride and aggression even when she knew the battle was lost, and running away would not be something Mirel had planned for. No, Mirel liked traps. Traps she could keep Artemi locked in for years. Traps Artemi would be able to peer out from, offering chains to shake and vantage points from which to view the world as Mirel tore it apart. Traps to be used as classrooms for Mirel’s teachings about loved ones.
There would be one such trap here, and it would look out upon Artemi’s beloved father, Ne’alin.
It was surely a wrong thing to have a favourite father across the thousands she had been given, but he had set himself apart from the rest in so many ways. He had always known she was vanha-sielu, from the moment she had first opened her eyes and looked at him, he’d said. And he had accepted it without fear or question. He had freed her from the guilt she felt at her mother’s death, had taught her how to bear it in all the lives to come, and he had explained that family and love were the firmest sources of strength for the fiercest of warriors. “It is love that outlives death, young Temi. Even when we are gone, you will still know it through the fires.”
It had gone against many things The Daisain had taught her during the Kusuru training. In The Daisain’s twisted mind, the only family was among The Dedicated, and any other loved ones served as nothing but sources of vulnerability. What was one to make of this when a member of one family decided to kidnap and harm a member of the other?
“Everyone has an irritating relative they’d rather be rid of,” Ne’alin had once said of Mirel, shrugging.
Irritating, Artemi thought with a wry smile. She slowed her limping run and stopped, or rather collapsed, against a rock that lay at an eccentric angle. Her right foot was ruined. Frostbite would take it, or most of it, if she ever escaped from this hole. The cuts to her side and arm had healed, but had sapped what little heat remained in her body after being plunged into the ice lake. As for her ribs… Artemi was sure one of them had pierced her lung.
She had two options: either leave the rib where it was and wait for it to work itself back into place over the next few days, or wield on herself and try to manipulate it back into its proper position.
Now, as any wielder worth her brimstone and ashes knew, working forms inside one’s own body was challenging in the best of conditions. Creating disguises, altering clothing and pulling arrows out of oneself only required the fires to be directed into the air around the body rather than through it. When a wielder attempted to wield the Blazes where there was already an inferno burning, things would become rather confusing. Ribs would be virtually indistinguishable from any other organ, and forms would be difficult to discern from the innate energy that burns in a wielder. It was very much like stirring puréed jelfruit with a spoon made of mashed jelfruit, one of the Founder Sisters had said.
A kanaala could have helped, but she did not have one of those at that moment. The best Artemi could hope for was to feel for the broken rib with her fingers, and then use a crude form to try to lever the follocking thing free. She had chosen a particularly stiff bodice for today’s battle, which in this instance was proving to be something of a mistake. Taking up one of her spin daggers, she turned it inwards and dragged it downward along the soft suede, deep enough that it sliced the shirt below. Then, reaching beneath the boning, she prodded her cold, sopping skin until it hurt the most.
Artemi wielded just a little, and quickly, to yank the bone out of whatever hole it had created. But she was too enthusiastic, and a chunk of bloody rib jettisoned out from beneath her skin, across the passageway, and it hit the opposite wall before falling to the floor with a sickening clap. She could not help but emit a small gasp of pain, though it came to her much easier now her lung could heal.
She gorged herself on more air, slowing down her heartbeat and clearing her mind of all invasive thoughts. A clear head was needed for the next battle, and dry clothes. Artemi wrung them out with another wave of blaze, and the ice water began to pool rapidly at her feet.
Her frost-bitten foot was the next item to receive her attentions, and though it was beyond repair, it could be held together with a tight brace form, which she duly applied.
Finally she was warm, she had her breath back, and she was ready to fight a good battle to find her father. Artemi filled her body with as much of the Blazes as she could hold, and in her mind’s eye, she searched the caves for any bodies – alive or otherwise – that could be Mirel and Ne'alin.
The partition she had created was one-sided, and as such, cast only the faintest of shadows across her vision. She could see well enough to detect Mirel sprinting toward her. The cave network was vast; much bigger than she had anticipated, but strewn throughout it were a dozen warm bodies. Any one of them could have been her father.
How typical of Mirel to leave ‘decoys’.
The tunnel split into three more passageways ahead, and Artemi was anxious to get away before Mirel caught up to her. She leapt into a jog, and then as fast a run as she could manage with a foot made of lead. When she reached the three tunnel mouths, she dropped another partition behind her and chose the middle path. It took her to the first of the bodies, a dying woman clutching at her stomach and writhing in agony. Her body had been cut until she could no longer heal, and it was now only Mirel’s cruel Blaze forms that held her together. There was no hope for this poor creature.
Artemi was swift in her mercy, and ended the woman’s life before she had time to plead for anything else. On to the next.
She triggered three more traps, ended the lives of seven more half-dead men and women, and launched a second rockslide before she discovered Ne’alin. He was crumpled in a heap, and had been placed in a small alcove at the end of a long passage. Another trap, of course, but Artemi was too worried about him to care about that.
With a blue light at her shoulder to help her see, she lifted his head gently from his knees. His dark eyes stared blankly at her. The looked dry, as if he had no more moisture left in his body to wet them.
“Father?” she asked, “Do you remember me?”
Some feeble noises came deep within his throat, and he worked his mouth as if he were attempting to speak.
“It’s alright,” she said softly, “I’ve come to get you out of here. Come with me.” The rest of the dying people in this place would have to wait for their pain to be ended. Ne’alin came first and that was that. He had to live.
“The light!” he whimpered. “The light is all gone. And it… it hurts to see.”
“We will find the light. Come.” Artemi slid an arm across his shoulders and tried to help him up. But something felt wrong. Very wrong. It was as if there were gaps in his body. Gaps that concertinaed open and closed as he was lifted up.
“Aghhhhhhhhhh!” he screamed, and Artemi immediately dropped him. There was blood everywhere. Blazes! Why hadn’t she checked?! Why had she not examined him for Mirel’s forms first?!
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” she babbled, searching his body for whatever feeble fires currently held it together. She could replace them… could hold him together with something stronger…
“Star light on a summer’s day, little fires out to play…” He began singing the children’s nursery rhyme, the very same one he had sung to her when she was a child. “Beware the witch, beware the witch! She comes, she comes to take your world away…” His voice was shaking as he sang.
It was no good. There were a hundred-thousand little springs holding him together. It would take her days to replace each one, and by that time he would be dead anyway. “Father-”
“Hmmm, mmm, hmmm,” he hummed.
“Do you understand it’s me? Your daughter?”
The humming ceased, and his dry eyes fixed onto her. “Temi,” he said simply, and then he began to cough up blood.
“You think you bear the world’s pain on your own,” he said between splutters, “But you do not. We all share it. Every one of us.”
Then I shall end it, her mind responded.
Artemi stood, withdrew her leading gale sword, and raised it above her head. She hesitated for only a moment, yet in that moment he blinked. It was a small thing, but in the years afterward, she often dreamed of that blink. What had it signified? Had he wanted her to stop? Was it an acceptance? Forgiveness? Or upset?
In any case, she brought down her sword, and cut his head from his neck. Her father. The one she had liked the best. The iciness in the air began to sink into her skin, making the tiny hairs on her arms stand on end. She had been trained to enjoy killing, and that response came to her as it always had, but it curled inside her somehow, as if ready for the slew of guilt that would follow.
“Poor, little Temi,” came a cold voice from behind her. “Such a broken little heart inside her. So weak. So gentle. So sweet. So… pointless.”
Artemi rounded on her with teeth bared, a great fury welling up from the hottest recesses of her soul. It set her cold fingers alight, made the tips of her frost-bitten toes burn and the ends of her hair smoulder. Pure fire poured into her first blade and then the second as she withdrew it.
Mirel stood only twenty feet distant at the end of the tunnel, her slight silhouette highlighted by the blue frost that hung in the air behind her. Artemi flung herself headlong into an attack against the woman, but immediately met with three of Mirel’s bitterly icy spin daggers. Artemi fell from the air, writhing in pain and anger.
As she began to pull them out, one-by-one, Mirel came to stand over her.
“Oh, I was hoping for so much more than this. You know what this brings our tally to?”
Artemi ground her teeth together and reached for one of her own daggers, but her hand was paralysed. Rime and snow had formed around it.
“You, if we count that appalling effort in Redfordean, have only defeated me eighteen times. I have killed you twenty-two times. Now,” she said, lifting her sword above her head, “Let us make it twenty-three.”That was inaccurate, Artemi thought back at her as the sword came whistling down, that count was wrong.