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The cold is winning.
Snow descends from the dull gray vault above, whipped into a swirling maelstrom by the rising wind. Icy gusts cut through fur and leather like razors.
The cold, the insidious cold, slides phantom fingers into every fold, every crevice. My feet, wrapped in rags and laced into my sturdy boots, are distant, dim things. My hands are blocks of ice inside my fur-lined mittens.
Lia and I struggle against the gale, arm in arm. I know that should we become separated she will instantly be swallowed by the blowing curtains of snow. If that happens, I fear I shall never see her again.
Together we stumble up a gentle rise. It seems as steep as a mountain to our tired legs, pulling and pushing each other in turn. We reach the top. The ground beneath my feet and the sky above are smeared into a single featureless monotone. The snow shrouds any last trace of the path we have been following.
"This is no good! We need to find shelter!" I shout, loud enough to be heard over the wind. If we press on we might stumble over an unseen cliff or into an invisible crevice. We have been lucky so far, but I know if we press on blindly, sooner or later our luck will run out.
Lia nods, the gesture scarcely visible through her hood, but says nothing. I feel her shivers through the layers of cloth that envelop her.
I turn aside. If we are where I think we are, there should be cliffs nearby, many with sheltering caves. I have only ever seen them at a distance, but Rory came this way often and told me all about them.
If we are where I think we are. It is a frightening uncertainty in the face of the storm.
I curse myself as westruggle up the next slope. I saw the signs of the coming storm, smelled the snow on the wind. It would have been safer to wait and see how bad things got before committing us to the crossing. But this late in the summer, I knew this storm might be only the first of many.
The mountain passes, the only way down to the lowlands, could be blocked for months. If we don't make it across now, our journey to the Imperial City might be delayed until spring.
Inside, deep within my mind, my sister's spirit shifts restlessly at the thought. She does not voice her displeasure; there is no need. The idea of putting off my revenge for so long a time is unthinkable to us both. No, we will press on. The caves must be nearby.
We keep walking. The wind is now at our backs, which is an improvement. It seems to push us along, up, always up. Time passes, measured in gasped breaths and shuffling footsteps.
Despair settles over my heart as we top yet another hill. The cliffs have not appeared. Lia stumbles, dropping to her knees. This is not the first time she has fallen. I try to pull her to her feet, wondering if this time she will refuse to rise. After a struggle, she totters upright.
I lean towards her. "The caves are close!" I shout, hoping the words are not a lie.
"I am ... sorry," she pants. "I cannot ... I am so cold ... Go ahead and ... look for the caves. I will ... stay here..."
I shake my head. "I'm not leaving you. Whatever happens, it will happen to the both of us. Now move!"
I give her arm a desperate yank and a moment later she groans and struggles forward. If I were religious, I would thank the gods. I would pray to them for strength, or for a break in the clouds, or for the smallest glimpse of the caves I so desperately hope are nearby.
But I am not on speaking terms with the higher powers. Asking them for assistance, after the monstrous crimes I have committed and after the oaths I have forsworn, would be worse than folly. For all I know, the storm was sent as an instrument of their capricious justice.
The wind shifts, turning its wrath directly into our teeth. Needles of ice sting the skin around my eyes, drawing forth tears that freeze on my numb cheeks. I brace myself, leaning into the punishing gusts.
Without warning, the swirling mists part, and there, just a few dozen paces away, are the cliffs. The sight of their jagged faces evokes a smile. I turn, and see Lia gazing at them as well.
Together, we continue the ascent. The promise of shelter sends a jolt of fresh strength into my half-frozen limbs. Minutes later, we stand at the cliffs' base. The wind drops close to the stone, baffled and shredded by the deep folds of rock.
We search, and soon find a shallow depression. It is not a cave, but it serves to shelter us from the worst of the wind. We sit, huddled, arms wrapped about each other for warmth. Lia's shivers rack her slender frame like tiny earthquakes.
"This still won't do," I say, pulling down my ice-encrusted scarf. "We need a proper roof, and a doorway we can seal with our packs, or with snow. If we don't, the cold will kill us. I will find something, I swear it. Do you understand?"
Lia stares at me for a moment, brows drawn down, as if she does not comprehend why I mean to take us back out in the storm. Then, she nods. Rising and helping Lia takes all my strength, and I realize that the next time I stop I will not be able to repeat the effort.
I push aside the thought. No sooner do we stumble from the meager shelter than the wind renews its assault, almost knocking me from my feet. I cannot feel anything but a vague numbness below my throbbing knees. My wrists ache abominably.
I have seen the results of frostbite: the blackened fingers and toes, the terrible infection that follows. The misery. The death. It may already be too late.
The thought sends a bolt of fear through me, momentarily stealing away my breath. Without my fingers, I cannot wield my bow. Without toes, I cannot march against my enemies. I will be crippled and useless, worse than dead.
Still grasping each other, we stagger along the cliff face. Lia's eyes are downcast, fixed on the snow. Mine roam over the stone, searching, searching. Gods damn it, where are the caves? Lia stumbles and nearly falls; would have fallen if not for my arm.
We cannot go on. Best to carve out a rude hole in the snow than to stay out here in the wind. It is what I should have done more than an hour ago. Then, I had the strength. I might have counted on Lia for help. But I can tell she is at the end of her endurance. If there is digging to be done, I must do it.
For the barest moment, I think about my monstrous children, the fruit of my forbidden knowledge. I called them my "sweetlings," but no one else would use such an endearment. Terrible engines of destruction, unstoppable and implacable. They would not feel the cold, save as a stiffening of their already dead flesh. Such work would be child's play for them.
No. I shake my head, commanding myself to not think of them. Even if there were a corpse nearby from which to summon one of my dark children, I would not, even if refusing to do so meant my own death. Nothing good can come from raising the dead; I know that now. My own son paid the price for my wicked knowledge, and I have sworn that no innocent shall ever pay it again.
I stop and turn Lia, forcing her to look at me. I open my mouth to speak, to tell her we must dig for our very lives. Before I can utter the words, the blowing snow parts behind her, and I see a dark shape, low to the ground.
It is a faded, splintered thing. A six-armed cross of bleached wood adorned with the tattered remains of eagle feathers, half-buried in a drift. I recognize it instantly; realize what it means.
We are saved.
"Lia! Lia!" I say, shaking her. My voice is a whisper; the wind has snatched my breath away. "Come on, Lia, just a bit further. Just up there, I swear it."
She nods and allows me to push her along. Her lassitude would terrify me if I had the luxury to think on it, but I have no room for any thoughts beyond those of shelter.
Past the marker, I see a shadow, half-concealed behind a boulder. Dry scrub has been piled before the cave mouth; a simple screen. Removing it leaves me dizzy and breathless. Lia slumps against a nearby stone, unconscious or merely sleeping, I cannot tell.
I make a small opening, just large enough to squeeze through, then slip inside. A narrow fissure extends back into the stone. I consider drawing my knife, then decide that removing my mitten and fumbling inside my leathers will be too much effort. The still-intact screen at the entrance gives good odds that no animal has blundered inside.
Fifteen steps later, the shaft opens into a low-ceilinged cave. It is dry, but still numbingly cold. I see piles of wood, neatly stacked between simple pallets of evergreen branches. A ring of stones in the center of the floor forms a fire pit. I squat above it, tugging off one of my mittens with my teeth. The coals are dark, long-dead. Nobody has been here for days, maybe weeks.
My breath wreathes my face. Out of the wind, the cold is bearable. If I can get a fire going, it will warm us readily enough.
"Lia, we've made it," I say, not having to feign the happiness in my voice.
Despite my numb fingers, I manage to start a fire in the stone ring. When the flames have caught, I help Lia with her coat and gloves. She resists me, feebly.
"Let me be," she mumbles. "So tired."
"You must get warm," I insist, my clumsy fingers struggling with her gloves. The leather is stiff with melting ice.
I pull them off and hiss at the sight of her hands. They are waxy and white. Lia moans as I grasp them, massaging them gently. The skin is stiff and very cold.
"Lia, we must warm your hands right away," I say, trying to keep my voice calm. "The cold has begun to get inside of you. Tuck them under your arms until I can heat some water."
Lia follows instructions, dully, like a sleepwalker. I open my pack and begin to dig, looking for something to melt snow in. I uncover a battered tin pot. The fire will help, I know, but the best thing right now is warm water. It will coax her blood back into her fingers, hopefully before the frostbite can do its evil work.
I pause, the pot in my hand. An idea comes to me. I scowl and look over at Lia, shivering beside the small fire.
I must get her blood flowing.
I drop the pot with a clatter and kneel at Lia's side. I grasp her hand in mine, staring at the stricken limb with unblinking eyes. I have never done anything like this before, have never even considered the attempt. Worse, I have sworn, to myself and to others, that I would not call upon my forbidden talents ever again.
The memory of other soldiers I have known, victims all of frostbite, pushes aside my dread, replacing it with a different kind of urgency. I remember them, fumbling with cups or with their pipes, struggling to complete the simplest tasks with hands bereft of fingers. Remember faces hideously scarred, missing noses, cheeks pitted with sores which never managed to heal. Remember some of them dying, overwhelmed by gangrene.
No. I cannot allow that to happen. I will not. Not to Lia.
Silently, I call out to the blood magic sleeping in my belly, and feel it responding, uncoiling hot tentacles inside of me. The sensation evokes a bone-deep loathing, and I bite back nausea. I have not called upon my power for weeks. The last time I did, the last time I unleashed the crimson thirst, many Mor died, along with one other.
Along with my infant son. The inhuman power of the Mor, drawn into my body through the power of the blood magic, went also into him as he was struggling to be born. It killed him. I killed him.
After, when my son's tiny body was in the ground, I promised myself that I would deny it. That I would keep the oath I swore to myself to never use my forbidden knowledge. Now, that knowledge is Lia's best chance. I cup her chin and raise her face to mine. Our eyes meet.
"Kirin..." Wha--" Lia breathes, flinching away from my black-eyed gaze.
I hold her face in my hands. "Shhh. Stay still. I'll make things better. I promise. Trust me."
She hesitates, then nods. I feel her relax. She still trembles, but from the cold alone. I am as ready as I will ever be.
The blood magic flows from my body on unseen tendrils, bridging the space between us. They are ravenous, brutal things, made to rip, and tear, and drink. I struggle to control them, to force them into a new purpose.
In my mind's eye, through the lens of the blood magic, I see the ebb and flow of Lia's pulse. Her veins stand out against her flesh, limned in rose-tinted light. Her heart is a crimson star, pulsing in her chest.
Her hands are dark, lifeless. Her body has constricted the delicate vessels leading to her hands and fingers. The blood does not flow there. I look down and see that her feet are similarly dark. Without blood, the flesh has begun to succumb to the implacable cold.
I murmur a brief thanks to my mistress; if not for her teachings, and her wondrous books, the map of Lia's life would be unreadable, incomprehensible. With my healer's wisdom, however, mated to my sanguine power, there is hope that I can reverse the damage the cold has wrought.
I will the hungry tendrils away from Lia's fluttering heart, then force them outwards into the damaged limbs. They flow down her veins and through her flesh, all the way down to her half-frozen fingers. Vessels are pushed open, admitting streams of life-giving warmth. I see the slack fingers twitch, then curl slightly. Lia's expression darkens.
"It hurts," she whispers, then louder, "It burns. Kirin ... I ... Oh, gods, it burns!"
She raises her hands and shakes them, as if to dislodge the stinging thing which torments her. She stares, but of course there is nothing there; the power is working from within, invisible to mortal eyes.
Her moans escalate to screams, short, sharp barks of savage pain. I feel my control of the blood magic slipping. It is so hungry, mindless and primal, knowing only that it thirsts. If I slip, even for a moment, it will tear out her life by the roots in a welter of blood.
"Lia, be silent!" I say through clenched teeth. "The pain is a good thing. You must be still. You must trust me!"
Lia frowns but quiets her sobs. Tears roll down her pale cheeks, but for the moment she has mastered her fear.
I see with my enchanted eyes that Lia's hands are warming. There is damage, at the tips and in the joints, but it is minor. As I watch, I see the torn flesh mending, slowly and no doubt painfully, but mending nonetheless.
"Kirin! I ... it is stopping. The pain is going away," she says, her eyes widening in wonder. The flesh that was but minutes before pale and mottled is pink now, the color of health.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not done yet," I say, turning my attention lower. Sweat rolls down my face, stinging my eyes and dripping from the point of my nose. It takes all of my concentration, all of my flagging will, to force the blood magic down, past her heart and lights, through the arteries running like mighty tunnels down her thighs, then lower still, into the chilled feet.
Lia moans once more as the tingling resumes, borne on a flood tide of blood. I see her fighting to remain still, to quell the sobs that tear at her. She is so brave. So brave.
Soon her feet are suffused with the same rosy glow as her hands. The damage is worse there, particularly in her toes, but I can see the tissues mending. With luck, I was quick enough to spare her the agony of gangrene.
I grip the threads of my magic and pull them, gently, back into myself. It resists, screaming defiance. It yearns to hook into the very fibers of her life, to pull it bodily forth, through nose and mouth, through eyes and other tender places.
We struggle, the blood magic and I, a silent battle held within my mind. For a heartbeat, I fear it will slip loose, will rampage through Lia's body, but an unexpected surge of fresh strength washes across me, ennobling me.
I grasp the tendrils with renewed vigor, bearing down with all of my remaining might, and pull. Slowly, so very slowly, it relents. They release their barbs, withdrawing from where they have tried to root. It keens its silent frustration, crying out with thwarted hunger, but it relents nonetheless. Defeated, it slips from Lia's body.
I slump to the chill stone, every muscle trembling. Well done, my sister's spirit whispers inside my head. For a moment there, I feared you would fail.
"You ... helped me," I whisper, remembering the unexpected strength which bolstered me.
As I always do. So long as you do the right thing, I will always assist you. Always give you what I can.
Then Lia is there, beside me, lifting me from the cold, unyielding floor. Her hands are healthy and pink, spotted with tiny, inconsequential chilblains. I close my eyes and let my body relax, drinking in the fire's warmth.
Posted October 15, 2008
Kirin and Lia are traveling to the Imperial City, which is protected by the thick wall known as the Armitage. They risk their lives to get there because they are needed to fight the Mor, who have the city under siege. The Mor are monsters who live underground; they loathe the people who crossed the sea to settle in this pleasant land. Lia is an aeromancer who can summons lightning; Kirin is a necromancer who can ¿create¿ something from the bodies of the dead. However Kirin vows to never use her blood magic again as it cost the life of her unborn son while her creations are mindless atrocities that obey only her will.<BR/><BR/>Everyone fears necromancers; even her captain whose life she saves shows no gratitude towards Kirin. Instead he expels her from the Imperial Army. Although Kirin refuses to use her talent, someone is applying necromancy to eradicate the Mor. The problem with that approach is that a person would have to die to make an undead army and this necromancer has no restraints unlike Kirin.<BR/><BR/>NIGHTS OF SIN, the sequel to THE BLOOD MAGIC, is a fantastic fantasy that will appeal to sword and sorcery lovers. Matthew Cook is a talented author who creates complex flawed characters like Kirin, who struggle with doing the right thing which is not always obvious. She is especially tormented over using her blood magic that could provide the greater good but at what cost to whom; as someone pays the piper; Kirin no longer wants to decide who. Besides the syllable connection, the Mor will remind readers of the Morlock as they dwell underground and communicate in a weird way; their goal is to eradicate the humans. There are great characterizations and a strong sense of "realism" which makes for a fascinating tale as Lia fears Kirin is turning to the dark side of the magical force.<BR/><BR/>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.