Aeduan has teamed up with the Threadwitch Iseult and the magical girl Owl to stop a bloodthirsty horde of raiders preparing to destroy a monastery that holds more than just faith. But to do so, he must confront his own father, and his past.
“Worldbuilding after my own heart. It’s so good it’s intimidating.”Victoria Aveyard, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Red Queen
Sightwitch (illustrated novella)
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The blood looked fresh in the rain.
Weeping, oozing, even streaming in some places, the water from the storm hit wounds on corpses that had been stagnant for days. The granite bedrock would not accept the offering, and a river of blood slid downhill, following the terrain, gathering around Aeduan's boots. So many blood-scents to mingle against his magic, so many dead for his gaze to drag across.
This was the third massacre he'd found in two weeks. The third time he'd followed carnage on the air, the third time he'd smelled wet caves and white-knuckled grips amidst the slaughter. He was catching up to the attackers.
Catching up to his father's men.
The four stabs in Aeduan's abdomen spurted with each of his hunched breaths. He should have left the arrows where they'd hit, let the Threadwitch remove them with her careful hands instead of yanking them out as soon as they'd punched through stomach wall. Twenty years of habit were hard to change in just two weeks, though.
He also hadn't expected the barbs.
Aeduan sucked in a ragged breath, rain coursing into his open mouth. There was nothing to keep him here, and the scent he'd hoped to find — the one he'd followed for two weeks, ever deeper into the Sirmayans — was not nearby. Oh, the summer heather and impossible choices that marked her blood had been here, but she had moved on. Before the attack, he assumed, or she too would now be numbered among the dead.
Before Aeduan could turn away from the corpses and limp for the evergreen forest whence he'd come, a new blood-scent tickled against his nose. Vaguely familiar, as if he had once met the owner and bothered to catalog the man's blood, but had never tucked it aside to remember forever.
The smell was sharp. Still alive.
Between one heartbeat and the next, Aeduan changed course. Thirty-four careful steps over gape-mouthed bodies. Rain sprayed into his eyes, forcing him to blink again and again. Then the stone expanse gave way to a mossy carpet stained to red. More bodies, all ages, all angles, covered the earth with a density that spoke of attempted escape. The square Nomatsi shields on their backs, though, had done nothing to stop the ambush from the front.
Blood, blood and empty eyes everywhere he looked.
Onward he picked across the bodies until at last he reached the swaying conifers. The scent he'd caught was thicker here, but the pine-needle floor was also slippery, dangerous from the storm. Aeduan had no desire to fall. He might heal from every scrape, every broken bone, but that did not mean it wouldn't hurt.
Or drain his magic further, which was the problem now. Stomach wounds were particularly unwieldy to repair.
Aeduan inhaled. Exhaled. Counting, waiting, watching as his blood dribbled out and the world fell away. He was not his mind. He was not his body.
He kept moving.
But then, over distant thunderclaps from the south, he heard a human groan. "Help." With that word, his senses sharpened, his spine straightened, and a new energy kicked in.
He strode faster. Rain splashed beneath his boots. Thunder rolled to the south. He followed a path through the spruce trees, their trunks creaking like ships at sea; he knew this was a Nomatsi road. He knew that traps like the one he'd triggered beside the morning glories likely waited ahead.
The voice was weaker, but closer — as was the scent of the dying man's blood. A monk, Aeduan realized, when at last he crossed a dip in the path where a stream swelled with storm. Three steps up the rocky hill, a fallen white robe lay stained to rusty brown. And three steps beyond, with his back pressed against a fallen log, the robe's owner clutched at wounds in his belly.
Wounds like Aeduan's, that had come from traps meant to protect the Nomatsi tribe. Unlike Aeduan, though, this man had not removed the arrows.
For half a moment, Aeduan thought he could help the man. That he could use what remained of his own power to stop the man's bleeding. He had done it before with Evrane; he could do it again. The vast city of Tirla was no more than half a day away.
But even if Aeduan could sustain such power in his current state, there could be no healing the sword gash on the monk's thigh. The femoral artery was split wide, and though rain fell hard enough to clear away blood, the artery gushed faster.
The man had only minutes left to live.
"Demon," the man burbled. Blood seeping from the edges of his mouth down his seamed chin, riding the rain. "I ... remember you."
"Who did this?" Aeduan asked. There was no time to be wasted on names or useless memories. If anyone had been trained for death, it was the Carawens. And if anyone could help Aeduan make sense of this slaughter, it was the dying man before him.
Aeduan blinked. Rain splattered off his lashes. The Purists, though foul members of humanity, were not known for violence. Except ...
Except when Purists were not Purists at all.
"Help," the man begged, clutching at the wound across his thigh.
At that sight, anger thickened in Aeduan's throat. Mercenary monks faced the Void's embrace without fear, without begging. To see desperation darken the man's eyes — it was wrong. All wrong.
Yet Aeduan still found his magic reaching out. Spiraling around the white fire and iron ore that made the monk who he was. A pointless endeavor, for there was so little blood left inside the man's veins it felt like trying to catch wind. No matter how tightly he grasped, his magic always came up empty.
"Why did you not use your stone?" Aeduan asked, and he glared at the man's ear. At the Carawen opal that glistened there, waiting to summon other monks in case of an emergency.
The man shook his head, a bare trace of movement. "Sur ... prise." The word came out choked with blood, his face paler and paler with each breath. "Trained ... better."
Impossible, Aeduan wanted to say. No one is trained better than a Carawen mercenary. But then the man started coughing and reached for his mouth, and Aeduan realized he bore the burn-flecked hands of a blacksmith, the lopsided shoulders of a man who worked the forge.
An artisanal monk. The least combat-ready of all the Carawens. Why was this man here at all, away from the monastery and away from his post?
Aeduan's lips parted to ask, but before the words could rise, the monk's final breath escaped from punctured lungs. His heart slowed to silence. All life vanished from his blood.
And Aeduan was left staring at yet another corpse rotting beneath the rain.CHAPTER 2
Iseult thought he might not be coming back. All night, she had waited — since dusk, when Aeduan had first strode off to inspect the path ahead.
The sun set, the moon rose, the rain came. The moon set, the rain subsided. Until at last, mist and dawn laid claim to the mountainside. Still, Aeduan did not appear.
Logically, Iseult knew it was unlikely that he would never return. After everything that they had been through together, why would he abandon her now? Two weeks, he had stayed by her side. Two weeks he had guided Owl and Iseult higher into the Sirmayans with neither payment nor prod to force him onward.
Viscerally, though, Iseult could easily find a thousand reasons the Bloodwitch would never return. A thousand excuses from coin to company for why he'd strode into the foggy forest at dusk and why he might never come back.
The story that shone brightest though, as the sun's first rays clambered over mountain peaks, was that he was kept away not by choice, but by captor. Or injury.
That possibility sent her pacing on the gravel clearing beside their campsite. Ten steps one way. Pivot. Ten steps the other. Pivot. She never left sight of the narrow entrance leading to a dry, cozy cave of Owl's creation. Inside, the girl's mountain bat, Blueberry, curled fiercely around the child's sleeping form, leaving little space for anyone else.
Not that Iseult could have slept had she been in there too. Sleep had been her enemy for days now. Ever since the fire and the voice that controlled it had slithered into her dreams. Burn them, whispered a leering face consumed by flame. Each night he came to her. Burn them all.
She had tried to cleave him in her sleep. Tried to sever his Threads and corrupt his fire magic, just as she had done in her waking in the Contested Lands, but the man had only laughed while the flames swept higher. Flames that were all too real, as she'd learned that first night, when Aeduan had roused her. A stray ember from the campfire, he'd said, and too much kindling nearby.
Iseult had not bothered to contradict him. She also had not slept again, and that lack of sleep had left her with no means to speak to Esme about why this was happening. About why the Firewitch she had killed now seemed to live inside her.
No exhaustion burned in her eyes tonight, though. She wanted to leave — wanted to walk between those pines exactly as Aeduan had done at dusk and search every corner of the shadowy terrain. She knew it would be a fruitless hunt, though: Aeduan was too skilled to leave tracks behind.
Besides, she could hardly leave Owl.
Either Aeduan would return or he would not, and Iseult would keep marching back and forth until she had her answer.
Iseult heard him approach before she saw him. It was so unlike the ever-cautious Bloodwitch that she actually drew a cutlass from the sheath at her waist. There were bears in these woods. Mountain cats, too. And unlike humans, they bore no Threads — no colors to tendril and twirl above them, telling Iseult what they felt and to whom they were bound.
It was no Threadless animal that stumbled from the tree line, though, but the Threadless Bloodwitch instead. The instant she saw Aeduan's Carawen cloak brightening the shadows between the trees, cool relief crumbled through her. Until she realized something was wrong.
He limped from the forest, and his eyes, when they slid up to hers, were hooded and lost. "They're all dead." The proclamation came out low and hoarse. Aeduan swayed.
The relief in her belly splintered to horror. He was hurt. Badly.
Without another thought, Iseult shot toward him and swooped an arm behind his back — except her hand met rain-soaked fletching and arrows. Countless bolts erupted from his back like the spines of a sea urchin, and now that she looked, his cloak was shredded and stained to brown.
Aeduan listed into her; his breath came in short gasps. His crystal eyes swirled red. Whatever was happening, he clearly would not stay upright much longer, and Iseult didn't want him passing out on top of her. Right where Owl could walk out and see him. The girl had a tendency to shatter the earth when she was upset.
There's a spring uphill, Iseult thought, a crude plan cobbling together. I can clean him there without Owl finding us, and I can dry his clothes in the morning sun. She just had to keep Aeduan from slipping into unconsciousness before they reached the water.
With aching slowness, she guided Aeduan up the hillside. His eyelids fluttered, his feet dragged. Each step sent the ice in her belly knotting wider. As did each arrow she counted — seventeen in total. More than enough to kill a regular man, but Aeduan was no regular man.
Still, Iseult had seen him hit with double this many bolts before. There was something else happening here. Something deeply wrong. For some reason, he did not seem to be healing. His Bloodwitchery was not squelching or cleaning, it was not ejecting arrows and knitting him back together as she had seen it do before.
"Are you hurt somewhere else?" Iseult pitched the question into his ear. Stay awake, stay awake. "Is there a wound I cannot see?"
"Arrows." The answer slurred out. Useless.
She changed tactics. "Is this injury why you took so long to return?"
A grunt, a vague nod. Then: "Survivor."
Iseult tensed. "The woman from Owl's tribe?" Aeduan had followed the woman's scent for almost two weeks now. Twice, they had found these massacres, and twice, the woman's scent had continued on. This latest would mark the third instance. But when Iseult searched Aeduan's face for answers, all she got were pallid cheeks and harsh exhales.
"Was the woman there?" she pressed. Still no answer, though, so she let it go. They had reached the spring — thank the Moon Mother — and Iseult's exhaustion was catching up fast. Fear could only sustain a tired body for so long.
Iseult led Aeduan to a low boulder beside the spring's clear pool. The creek that trickled down the mountain had doubled in size overnight, thanks to the rain. With every muscle tensed, she eased Aeduan into a sitting position. A moan escaped his throat. Pain slashed across his face; she could hear his teeth grinding.
Even in the worst flames of the battlefield, even in the sea-swept moonlight beside a lighthouse, she had never seen him wear such suffering. Gripping his shoulder to keep him upright, she circled behind him. She would have to cut the cloak off if she wanted to keep this clean —
"Hurry," he said, and with that command, Iseult gave up any hope of avoiding a mess. There was no time to lose. She just hoped Owl would not wake soon.
She gripped the first arrow and yanked. Minuscule barbs shredded flesh, and blood sprayed. Aeduan hissed, head tipping back, as one by one, Iseult snapped the arrows from his flesh, and a pile of bloodied white feathers and cedar gathered by her ankles.
By the time she removed the last, his white cloak was streaked with fresh red. His spine slumped, and the only thing keeping him from falling headfirst into the water was Iseult's iron grip upon his collar. With the last arrowhead removed, she dug her heels into the gravel shore and towed him back. She wanted him to be upright so they could move away from the growing pool together.
Instead, Aeduan toppled backward. She barely caught him before he hit the earth and her knees buckled beneath his weight. Her bottom hit the rocks, pain barking through her seat bones. Her back hit a boulder, and her head cracked hard.
The spring wavered. Her eyes burned with sudden tears.
"Aeduan," she said, but her rasping words earned no response. His magic had finally dragged him into a sleep. He would not wake up until he was healed.
Meaning Iseult was trapped beneath him, while her chest swelled with ... with something. "You're heavy," she said, trying to move him. But she had no energy left. Not enough to move his blood-slickened dead weight. His head, peaceful and still, rested on her shoulder.
He was so warm against her, even as the cold morning caressed her skin. Then there it was again, that swelling in her lungs. Warm. Fizzy. Until at last it burst forth in a shrill laugh that felt a thousand miles away. It was someone else's panicked amusement. Someone else's weary body and fire-kissed mind. Someone else's burgeoning headache and bloating scalp bruise.
Iseult was countless miles from her home, pinned to the rocks by a man who'd once been her enemy, while a wren chirruped from the waking forest nearby — and while a little Earthwitch and her mountain bat slept inside the hollow hill below.
If only Safi could see me now.
Unable to fight it any longer, Iseult let her eyelids sink shut, and the world went quiet.
* * *
Heat roars. Wood cracks and embers fly.
"Run." Blood drips from his mother's mouth as she speaks.
It splatters his face.
With arms stained to red, she pushes herself up. She wants him to crawl out from beneath her. She wants him to escape. "Run, my child, run."
He does not run. He does not move. He waits, as he always does, for the flames to overtake him and the world to burn alive.
* * *
Aeduan had been in this nightmare before. Trapped and bleeding while flames crowded closer. Heat fanned against him, smoke scorched his lungs. But instead of the fiery tent he was used to seeing, instead of the storm he knew would come coursing in, he found only blue sky and wispy clouds. Instead of the clotted stench of his mother's blood, he smelled only the faint reek of his own.
The pain in his chest was the same, though. Agony that did not want him to move, that argued with his mother's last words. Run, my child, run.
Aeduan tried to turn, as he always did in the dream to no avail. Except this time, his head swiveled easily. The arrows and death that usually pinned him down were not stacked atop him. Instead, he realized with a jolt of confusion, he was pinning down another.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bloodwitch"
Copyright © 2019 Susan Dennard.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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