Children of the Serpent Gate
By Sarah Ash
Random House Sarah Ash
All right reserved. ISBN: 0553382128
"I'm old." Kiukiu stared in disbelief at her reflection. "I'm an old woman." Her fingertips moved over her lined face, lifting her wild, dry locks of greying hair, searching in vain for a thread of gold. She was so shocked she could only stare at the aging stranger in the mirror glass. "How long was I gone?"
"Many days, my dear." Malusha had never called her "my dear" before. That in itself made Kiukiu fearful. "Too many days."
"There's a remedy, isn't there, Grandma?" She turned to Malusha. "Tell me what to do, I'll do it. No matter what it is."
Malusha sat a moment, thinking. "I'll go put the kettle on," she said, easing herself up from Kiukiu's side. Making tea was Malusha's remedy for all ills, great and small.
"Grandma, what do you know?" Kiukiu persisted.
"I know that you wouldn't be still in this world if Lord Gavril hadn't flown to Swanholm to rescue you."
"Lord Gavril?" The glass dropped from her fingers. She looked up and found herself staring into the deep blue of Gavril's eyes. "You're alive?" She forgot her own distress and just gazed up at him. "But they said you were dead. They showed me the tower, they showed me where the lightning struck-"
And then she realized that he must be able to see every wrinkle, each strand of dull grey hair. She covered her face with her hands, turning away from him, not wanting him to see her like this.
"Kiukiu?" he said. He said her name so gently-and yet she could detect the bewilderment in his tone.
"Don't look at me. Please." This was the reunion she had dreamed of for so long. But in her dreams, she had been unchanged by the Ways Beyond. She had run to greet him, her arms outstretched, her golden hair loose about her shoulders. "That evil old man," she muttered. "He lied to me. He made me think you were dead, and all to trick me into his trap."
"What old man?"
"Kaspar Linnaius. He sent me into the Ways Beyond to look for you. And then, when I couldn't find you, he spun me some foolish story. And I believed him! Why didn't I trust my own instincts?" She was so angry with herself that she began to shake. "Why did I let him use me?"
"So you got lost in the Ways Beyond, searching for me?"
She nodded. Though even as she did so, she was aware that this was not the whole tale. There was more, much more, and she could not remember what it was, only that it made her shudder even more to think of it.
"Don't cry, Kiukiu." He put his arms around her and held her close, stroking her hair.
"I'm not crying!" How could he bear to hold her, to touch those dry, faded locks? Tears spurted, hot against her fingers. She wanted to bury her face in his shoulder and feel safe, comforted and cherished. But all she could think of was the haggard, faded creature she had seen reflected in the mirror.
"It wasn't lightning that struck the Iron Tower, Kiukiu. It was the Drakhaoul."
Her sobs subsided a little. So he also had something to confess.
"I was dying. And it rescued me." His lips hardly moved against her hair, as if he were whispering to prevent the Drakhaoul hearing what he said.
"Dying? So the story was in part true?" She felt another shiver run through her. He had suffered, she could sense it now, and he was not entirely healed. And there was something different, disturbing, about him, almost as if the Drakhaoul had begun to leach its darkness into his soul.
"Oh, Gavril," she whispered. One hand, wet with her own tears, crept out to touch his face. What cruel things had they done to him in that asylum? What damage had they inflicted?
"Tea's ready," announced Malusha, bringing over three brimming mugs. "You get this hot drink down you, my girl."
Kiukiu tried to take a sip of the fragrant liquid but her hands were shaking so much that she could hardly raise the mug to her lips. She managed a little but then the sides of her mouth begin to sag as the sense of loss welled up from deep within her again. Old. I'm old before I've lived my life. She sobbed helplessly into her tea, unable to stop herself, even though she knew that Gavril and her grandmother were watching her.
"Drink your tea." Even though Malusha spoke quietly, Kiukiu heard a note of brisk command in her voice. She shakily lifted the mug again, slopping tea over the top. She still couldn't stop the tears and now she no longer knew who she was crying for: for Gavril, damaged by the asylum; for herself; for their uncertain future . . . The tea tasted salty-though even the taint of her tears could not disguise another richer flavor. There was a potency in the dark, sweet liquid that spread heat throughout her whole body, right to the tips of her fingers.
"What's in this?" she asked suspiciously.
"Something to restore you," said Malusha. "You're all skin and bone. There's moorland honey from my bees, for one."
"Honey, Grandma?" Kiukiu said muzzily. "It tastes like mead to me."
Malusha shrugged. "Mead's made from honey."
The warmth of the heather mead spread into Kiukiu's mind, seeping through the bitter thoughts, numbing the pain. She yawned and tried to force her lids to stay open. She mustn't drift back into sleep. If she fell asleep, she could find herself back wandering those vast halls among the wan, confused spirits of the Newly Dead-or, worse still, gusted far from those she loved by the whirlwinds into that nightmare realm of dust and shadows.
"That's right," Malusha whispered, gently prising the mug from her fingers. "Just lie back. You're safe here."
"How can I be sure?" Kiukiu murmured.
"Be sure of what?" Drakhaoul-blue eyes gazed piercingly into hers.
"That this isn't a dream?"
She felt his hand close around hers, his grip firm and warm. "Does this feel like a dream, Kiukiu?"
"No . . ." The orange glow of the firelight was receding as her eyelids drooped but still she could see the intense blue of his eyes burning into hers through the gathering mists of sleep.
Kiukiu's eyes closed at last and her breathing came slowly, regularly. Gavril let go of her hand and rose to his feet.
"She should sleep soundly now," Malusha said. She shook her head as she watched over her granddaughter, her wild locks wispy as an old man's beard against the glow of firelight.
A burning shiver of nausea speared through Gavril's whole body. He tried to conceal it, turning away from Malusha so that she should not see it in his face. He had overspent himself. He had used up the last of his strength in his desperation to save Kiukiu, and now the terrible cravings had begun in earnest. He crouched by the fireside, hugging the hunger in, hoping he could try to stave off the worst of the pangs for a little longer.
"It's never been done. Not without cost." Malusha seemed to be talking to herself, shaking her head and twisting a tassel of her brightly colored shawl between her fingers.
Gavril glanced over at Kiukiu-at the faded, shrunken shadow of the girl he loved so much-and another tremor of anger throbbed through him. He was not used to feeling so helpless.
"Malusha." He took hold of the old woman by the shoulders, forcing her to look into his face. "Tell me all you know."
"Is that you or your daemon talking?"
"Does it matter?"
"First you will let go of me, Drakhaon," Malusha said in an icy voice.
His hands fell away. "Forgive me."
"Yes," she said, staring searchingly into his face. "It is growing stronger. I am not sure that I could cast it out now as I did before. It has meshed itself far deeper into you, and it is drawing strength from some distant source of power. I sense others of its kin at large in our world."
He could hide nothing from those disapproving dark eyes. "Eugene and the Magus set them free. There are five-and now that the Serpent Gate has been breached, more could follow."
" 'Only the Emperor's Tears will unlock the Gate,' that's what the Blessed Serzhei said," Malusha muttered. "Kaspar Linnaius." She swore and spat onto the flagstone floor. "Do you know how old he is?"
Gavril shrugged. "He looks about eighty . . . maybe eighty-five."
"Kaspar Linnaius was born one hundred and sixty years ago."
Was Malusha playing games with him? He had never heard of anyone living beyond a hundred years, let alone a hundred and sixty. "But how-?"
"An alchymical elixir. A little dose of that could do my poor Kiukiu a world of good right now."
"Then I'll go back to Swanholm and find Linnaius and his elixir."
Malusha tapped his arm. "You've already flown far. A journey to Tielen and back will use up the last of your resources. How long before you need to feed again, Drakhaon?"
Another shiver of nausea burned through his body. He bit back a groan, hoping she had not noticed.
"Is there any alternative?" The words came out in a snarl. "Would you prefer to fly there yourself?"
"The alternatives?" She ignored his gibe. "I've heard tales of shamans in Khitari, north over the mountains. It's just as far, if not farther."
"Khitari?" The name made him think of the exotic, dusty scent of black and green tea in the kitchen at the Villa Andara, and the black-and-gold lacquer boxes his mother kept her precious teas in, decorated with pictures of dragons and lion dogs. "What's so unique about these Khitari shamans?"
"They're said to live very long lives. There's a legend of a secret healing spring."
Gavril shook his head impatiently. "I haven't time to search all Khitari for some legendary spring." His throat and mouth were so dry it was becoming hard to speak, in spite of the tea he had drunk. And the cravings had begun to affect his mind. The coolness of pure water, miraculous healing water, rushed through his fevered thoughts, promising a cure for the waves of nausea. As a stronger pang wracked his body, he dropped to his knees, hugging his burning stomach, trying not to cry out.
Malusha just stood there, looking down at him.
"You're no use to her like this," she said.
"Why-is there-no other-way?" Each word came out on a gasp of pain.
"Because mortal men are too weak to bear such a powerful daemon for long," she said dispassionately. "It's killing you, Gavril Nagarian, just as it killed your forebears."
"It-told me-I could set it free by sending it home through the Serpent Gate. But it lied," he whispered, between pangs. "It used me." Now he remembered-and the bitterness of remembering enhanced the sense of betrayal that had haunted him since Ty Nagar.
"And how long can you last in this condition? Before you attack some defenseless child?"
He shook his head, no longer able to speak. He had expended too much of his power in the duel with the Emperor.
"There's fresh water in the well outside," said Malusha.
Outside, the eerie twilight of the long summer evenings had crept over the moors. In the courtyard, he began to wind the bucket down into the well, only to double up again with the griping pain. He let go of the handle and slid down, his back against the mossy stones of the well wall. The bucket splashed into the water far below with a hollow clank. Next moment, he was retching and a dark slime came up. He lay back when the first spasm was over, feeling the heave and ache of his tortured rib cage. He had used up the last of his strength bringing Kiukiu from Swanholm.
"There is nothing to restore you here." The Drakhaoul Khezef spoke through the receding waves of nausea. "You must hunt while you still have the strength."
Gavril heard the Drakhaoul's words as if through drifting smoke. "Don't make me," he begged, his voice hoarse with retching.
"The summer nights are short in Azhkendir. And you are far from the nearest village."
Gavril closed his eyes, seeing little flickers like firesparks fizzing across the darkness. "No," he said.
"What use will you be to Kiukiu if you die?"
Gavril felt a wry, mirthless smile curling his lips. The Drakhaoul always knew how to compel him to do what it wished, at the same time making him believe he was acting in his own interests.
"And you will die, Gavril, if you don't feed soon. Listen to the beat of your heart. Feel how it strains and judders."
"At least let me take a drink of water." Gavril set about drawing up the bucket. He plunged his head into the cold, peaty, moorland water, as if he could drown out the daemon-voice in his head. Then he gulped down as much liquid as he could before the vomiting began again.
A soft flutter of wings startled him. On the crooked tiles of the roof perched a row of Arkhel's Owls, white as ghosts against the dusky sky. Fierce golden eyes stared curiously at him. Malusha's lords and ladies were preparing to flit off across the darkening banks of heather to hunt for their prey.
"I'm not so different from you now, am I, my lords and ladies?" he whispered. "A predator of the night . . ."
Scarlet fire scored his mind. A wordless cry of fury and frustration shivered across the moors, and the sky turned black as smoke.
The cry pierced Gavril's mind like a spear of flame. He dropped to his knees, clutching his temples, as the old wound from Baltzar's botched surgery throbbed and burned.
"What-was-that?" he gasped as the flames died down.
"Sahariel," Khezef cried, ignoring Gavril. "Sahariel, wait!"
"Who is Sahariel? Another Drakhaoul? Where was it going?"
"He is searching. Searching for one of the Blood. Artamon's blood."
"I must find Kaspar Linnaius." Gavril stubbornly repeated the words under his breath as he forced himself back toward the coast and the Saltyk Sea. But with each labored wingstroke he felt himself grow weaker. It seemed that he had been flying over rugged moorland for hours without number-and still there was no sign of the sea.
Excerpted from Children of the Serpent Gate by Sarah Ash
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