Ambri-Qis - Chapter 22

"Hey, what time is it?" Nick asked Akuro once we were on our way from the Master Library to wherever it was that Quelos planned on taking us. "It was almost sunrise when we left, right?"

"There was an hour or so of night remaining," he said, nodding. "The time difference is about twelve hours, so the sun has just set here in Ivanarke."

Nick grew thoughtful. "So…if you guys used Yoko's gate to go back and forth, could you technically stay awake indefinitely? Like Andris?"

"The blood would eventually shut us down," Quelos said before Akuro could respond. "We've tried things like that before with Itzak, but the longest we've managed to keep a Shimare awake is about five days. According to Itzak's research, the blood needs to rest, just as humans need to sleep."

"I guess that explains why Lynn and I get sleepy." Nick nodded to me. "What's up with Andris, then? How come he can't sleep?"

Akuro made an ambivalent gesture with one hand. "We can only conjecture, but Isi seems to think that Andris' blood draws power from more than his triggers and meals."

"Well, that's more than evident," I muttered. "Even I don't know where it comes from."

It's because of me, I would think, Ambri-Qis said. I never slept—I never needed to.

How typical, I sighed. I didn't have answers—as far as I could tell, there were no real answers. I merely existed, and even that was sometimes more than I could handle.

It took a few more minutes of walking down gently spiraling corridors before I realized that we weren't headed towards the throne room. That had been several levels higher, and we were still heading downwards. Judging by the lack of windows, we had already gone below-ground. The Brood Manor had been built into a massive tree that dwarfed even the largest sequoias on record, and the entire structure consisted of spiral corridors that wove in and around each other. The main floors were level, but the halls that led to each level always sloped just a little bit, spiraling around the tree in a confusing array of nested helices.

"Where are you taking us?" I asked the lightning bugs. "I don't know that I've ever actually been down this way—the corridor to the Council's resting chambers goes the opposite direction…and I think that one is a wider spiral, too." Rather than the bizarre shift in artwork that I was used to seeing in the lower levels, the walls and floor seemed almost plain. It hadn't even turned into roughhewn stone passages like the ones on the research levels. Simplicity wasn't exactly a common theme here.

"We need a woman," Quelos said simply.

"I'm sorry—what?" I stopped walking, refusing to take a single step further until he elaborated. Nick stopped, too, staring after the lightning bug in disturbed silence.

"He means that we need a Shima to accompany us to our destination," Akuro said, pausing to explain while Quelos continued on as though he didn't care whether we joined him or not. "The individual that we are meeting is rather picky about the company he keeps. If we wish to ask for his assistance, it would help if we brought along someone who can speak freely."

"I still don't get it," Nick said. "Why a woman?"

"He finds women more agreeable than men," Akuro replied with a shrug. "Rather, he finds them more trustworthy." At that, he continued after Quelos, who was nearing the bend in the spiral where we would lose sight of him.

"Uh…does any of that make sense to you?" Nick looked to me for input, and I just sighed.

"I don't think I care anymore," I muttered, motioning him forward and following the lightning bugs at a distance.

After three more circuits around the Brood Manor and a descent of about a hundred feet, we finally reached the doorway to a chamber that mirrored the one for the Light Elementals. However, instead of complex reliefs and columns of pure white marble, this entrance had been carved from the blackest marble I had ever seen. There weren't even shadows of other colors in the stone—just pure, jet black.

Realistically carved dragons coiled around the two columns, and the tinted glass windows on either side bore etchings of clouds and creatures within other designs. Above the ebony doors were more marble reliefs of the Elemental symbols and a Chinese dragon twisted into an infinity.

"I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Shina and Sirek aren't in there," Nick said slowly, giving Quelos an askance leer.

"This is the common area for the Dark Elementals," the latter said as he grasped one of the ornate wrought-iron door handles and pulled the portal open for us. "I was once their Anase, but left for personal reasons. I prefer their uniforms, though, which is why I always wear black and red robes, rather than the white ones."

"He thinks it hides the blood more easily," Akuro muttered, rolling his eyes to show his disapproval of Quelos' attire.

Curious to see the interior of the Dark Elementals' chamber, I entered first and stood aside while the others filed in after me. As expected, this room was also the complete opposite of the Elemental chamber to which I had grown accustomed during our previous stay in Ivanarke. Nearly every exposed surface was coated in black, with red globes hanging from the ceiling to cast a soft glow throughout the space. A human would have had difficulty seeing, but our eyes adjusted easily to the meager lighting.

Black leather sofas were arranged around the embers of a hearth, with black sheepskin rugs on a black marble floor. The walls were black, too, with glossy chrysanthemum patterns on a matte background. Even the end tables and coffee table were made from the darkest ebony and plates of black glass.

"I think we just found Andris' favorite place in the world," Nick said.

"Actually, I think we've just found your final resting place," I retorted sharply.

He just sighed and nodded to the empty chairs. "So…where is everybody?

"They must be here somewhere," Quelos muttered with an edge of annoyance. "I told them we would be coming down once we picked you up."

As though the room were responding to his statement, a slight brush of air swirled around us from out of nowhere, carrying with it a dense cloud of what appeared to be soot. The breeze took it to the hearth, where it twisted and condensed into the shape of a person. Within seconds, there was a man standing beside the fireplace with folded arms, leaning a shoulder on the mantelpiece. I couldn't see his features, however; he seemed to melt into the shadows just enough to hide from my eyes.

I frowned, intrigued, while Nick gaped in shock and emitted a sort of squeaking, choking sound.

"Where is she?" Quelos demanded of the newcomer, either forgetting the appropriate introductions or simply not caring enough to do it. My money was on the second option.

"Hello again, Akuro," the stranger said, ignoring Quelos entirely.

A blinding explosion of lightning crashed suddenly into the spot where he stood, but missed when he burst once more into a cloud of indestructible black particulate. The cloud hovered for a moment then reformed in the same place, and the man chuckled as though a child had thrown a sock at him.

I slowly turned to Akuro and was disturbed to see arcs of electricity sparking across his hair and clothes. For some inexplicable reason, he looked ready to slaughter the strange man—and his family.

"Zylus," the lightning Elemental said curtly, his tone hovering between irritated and murderous. "I thought you were out commanding the Nesciti while they monitor Vrisalte's movements."

"Considering who I am, is it really so farfetched that I can travel so quickly between here and there?" he replied, the lilt of a smirk just barely coloring his words. "The Nesciti don't need me to babysit them at every moment." Even though I couldn't see his face, his expressions were obvious in his voice.

"I would appreciate it," Quelos interrupted, "if you would let her know that we've arrived." He shot his brother an exasperated look, but didn't seem to care much more than that about the situation.

"Ah, well," Zylus sighed. "I suppose my moments of fun can't last forever." Without another word, his body dematerialized like a drop of food coloring into an ocean. The dust seemed to fade into the shadows, vanishing without a single speck to indicate that he had ever been there.

We spent several seconds staring at the empty air where he had stood. I was simply confused as to how this Zylus person managed to pull off his shadow magic. Nick, however, seemed almost horrified that nobody was giving him a logical explanation for what had just happened.

The runt turned incredulously to the Elementals. "What the hell was that?"

Akuro merely folded his arms and turned away, still angry. Quelos glanced briefly at his brother and shrugged a little.

"That was Zylus," Quelos explained, "the only Elemental of darkness on record and the current Anase of the Dark Elementals. He can manipulate shadows, and his powers allow him to become a shadow. That probably wasn't his real body—he rarely shows his face, seeing as how he prefers dark environments and dramatic entrances."

Nick's expression said clearly that this explanation was insufficient, but before he could state this aloud, a smattering of chatter sounded through one of two shadowed hallways that exited the room.

"Chikusho," Quelos said under his breath, glaring at the hall directly across from the entrance. "Did they have to send that one, too?"

A pair of Shimaren entered the chamber, talking in hushed whispers and laughing like a couple of infatuated teenagers. One was a short girl, probably somewhere between sixteen and eighteen, with long, straight black hair and a cherubic Asian face. The other, a male Shimare whose physical age I judged to be around twenty or twenty-five, sported neatly clipped black hair and skin similar to Lynn's—coffee with plenty of cream. Both wore black robes with crimson dragons embroidered around the cuffs and hems, the same Dark Elemental uniform that Quelos favored.

The girl noticed us first and went quiet, staring as though we had caught her doing something wrong. Her partner paused in confusion, but his face also fell when he realized that there were others in the room.

Her eyes were a dark, dark gold…

Immediately, I turned to Quelos and said flatly, "She's related to you, isn't she?"

He ignored me, speaking instead to the girl, "Naze aitsu ga koko ni iru?"

"Onii-chan…gomen. Shiranakatta, anata ha mou kimashita." She had a soft, tiny voice, like a bell.

"English, please," Nick said in irritation.

Quelos wasn't being helpful, so Akuro finally got over his anger and explained, "This is Aliista, our sister. The other is Scyn, her blood partner. She inherited the same lightning abilities as we did, and he is the Elemental of death."

"I've never heard of the blood passing on abilities so predictably," I said.

"And that's why we're all on such good terms with Itzak," Quelos muttered in defeat. "Come over, Aliista."

She gingerly stepped forward, and after a brief hesitation, she hugged Quelos while Nick and I marveled at his accepting reaction to the gesture. "I haven't seen you in too long," she said. "Have you been well?"

"We're still alive, aren't we?"

"As well as we can be," Akuro added when she hugged him next. He patted her hair and smiled. "Are you happy? He is treating you properly, yes?"

"Of course! You're the only ones who still worry about me." She pouted at both of them while Scyn hung back and tried to appear small.

I, however, was not going to let him get away that easily.

"So you're an Elemental of death?" I asked, giving him a doubtful frown. He didn't have much presence for someone with such a rare trigger.

"My abilities are admittedly weaker than most would prefer," he replied in a faded Arabic accent, refusing to meet my gaze. "I can reanimate small animals and speak with the departed, but I don't have the ability to drain life or enter Ombircel the way past death Elementals could."

"If he would exercise his abilities more often, the story would be very different," Quelos said, giving Scyn a disapproving look. He clearly had a low opinion of the Shimare, but didn't want to push too hard in front of his sister. It was something of a relief to know that there was more to him than his warmongering façade seemed to imply.

"I'm just not…comfortable with it," Scyn muttered. "Even if the Emperor feels that my powers are an asset, I've always believed death to be a sacred thing. It's wrong to meddle with such forces. These are my powers, yet even I do not understand what death is. If I were to die, I certainly would not want a stranger to disturb me."

I couldn't argue with his principles, having experienced my own version of death. "To each, their own, I suppose."

"Anyway," Akuro said to Aliista, "we would like you to meet Andris and Nick. Andris is a Nariuvne, a being similar to us, who is unaffected by our greatest weaknesses and feeds on Shimaren rather than humans. Nick is his fledgling, and the most recent addition to the Elemental ranks. Mizumi is training him as a water Elemental."

Aliista bowed deeply to both of us, and we glanced at each other in uncertainty. Bowing wasn't one of the customs that I had picked up over the years, and I still didn't understand when or if I was supposed to return it. Nick seemed to have similar doubts, but made an awkward attempt to reciprocate, anyway.

He glared at me when I chuckled. Regardless, our response didn't seem to matter to the Elementals.

"It's a pleasure to meet you both," Aliista said warmly. "Yoko has informed me of the important details. I am saddened to hear about what happened to your blood partner, Andris. I don't know what I would do if I were in your position. The guardians are powerful, and I can only hope that you have enough power to set things right."

"Well, Quelos seems to think that you can help us," I said slowly, unsure of how much she really knew or what she could possibly do to assist. Obviously, she was around the same age as her brothers, blood-wise; but other than her Elemental abilities, I didn't see anything particularly special about her.

She smiled a little bit. "I myself can't do anything to help, but I can put you in contact with the one who can."

I raised a brow, curious to know what she meant, but she didn't elaborate any further.

Instead, she turned to Scyn. "Go tell Zylus that we're heading over to the chamber; we will meet you there, okay?"

Scyn hesitated briefly, but nodded anyway and gave the rest of us a short bow. "I will see you at the gate, then." At that, he turned and left the way they had entered.

"Follow us," Aliista said, motioning Nick and me towards the entrance. "My brothers know how to get there, but I must enter first and announce your arrival."

I was simply confused, but the look on Nick's face made me feel better about it. He kept trying to catch Quelos' gaze, perhaps attempting to garner some proper explanations for everything that was going on, but the lightning bug didn't take the bait. It wasn't long before the kid gave up and let out a long sigh of defeat.

Personally, I couldn't tell whether the secrecy was intentional or not. Knowing how Ivanarke normally operated, almost everything was likely on a need-to-know basis. My only experience had been with the Shimari Council itself and the Emperor at the time, but I had known even then that I wasn't aware of everything. Things were probably much different now, but the basic structure and logic behind how the Brood Manor dispensed information didn't seem to have changed much.

Once again, we followed the winding corridors deeper into the earth. The plain walls and doorways became roughhewn stone blocks, with occasional gas sconces every few yards. Doors disappeared altogether, and the spiral tightened until I was sure that we were only traveling around the inner half of the tree's radius. The curved ceiling—normally at least fifteen feet tall in the rest of Ivanarke—had shrunk down to about eight or ten, depending on where one stood beneath the arch. Even the width of the passage decreased to the point where only two of us could barely walk side-by-side.

It felt almost like an ancient sewer system. The only things missing were vermin and the stench of rotting organic matter, but the walkways remained free of debris or moisture, and the only scent was that of smoke from the lights. Small ventilation holes kept the air clear, traveling through the tree and using convection to carry fresh air and stale air out.

There was a sound, however, other than our near-silent footsteps. It was a faint, but very real pulse which vibrated though the stones at such a low frequency that I could feel it resonating in my blood. Pressure accompanied each beat, like the contractions of a living heart, and I couldn't help but wonder if the very walls were alive. After all, Ivanarke was an ancient structure, sustained by the same blood that gave power to so many Shimaren. I myself had given blood to trees before, imparted a sliver of my own powers to keep them alive.

I had always assumed that Ivanarke was no more than just an oversized pine with its innards carved out to house the Shimari Empire's ruling body. However, in these twisting stone passages buried deep within the earth, with my knowledge that the blood had properties even I couldn't predict, I wasn't so sure.

Perhaps Ivanarke itself was as much of a monster as the rest of us…

For once, being tireless proved beneficial—we probably walked about five miles by the time we reached our apparent destination: a simple wooden door with iron fittings, which only passed my height by an inch or two.

This door was so unassuming, in fact, that Nick couldn't handle it anymore.

"Please tell me that there's something really, really helpful in there," the kid said once he realized what he was seeing. He held his palms out to Quelos in a plea for mercy. "Don't tell me that we just spent an hour literally walking in circles just to visit some crazy recluse who talks in riddles. And especially don't tell me that we're here to pick up a box or something equally lame. I might have to cry, and that would be embarrassing and super pathetic."

Quelos scoffed as though truly offended. "Of course not, bokke! It's more like a globe—spherical, about the size of a bowling ball." He gestured with his hands, indeed indicating an object about the size of a bowling ball.

Nick didn't seem to have an appropriate response prepared for this news. His face fell so hard and so fast that I half-expected a single crimson tear to roll down his cheek.

Fortunately, it did not.

Also fortunately, Aliista was oblivious to their shenanigans and said with a smile, "I'll be right back. He can be fussy, but he's really very nice." Without further explanation, she slipped through the door and let it click shut behind her.

I gave Akuro a look. "I take it that this is your brother's way of being dramatic?"

He offered a smirk and shook his head. "I am unable to control him, no more than I can control my sister and her choice of blood partner. It is simply a part of who he is, and seeing as how it is one of his least dangerous habits, I decided very early on that it wasn't worth the trouble of trying to correct."

"Urusei," the subject of our conversation interjected. "Considering how rare it is that we get an opportunity to show off the more interesting secrets in Ivanarke, is it really so problematic that I want to make it seem more exciting than it really is?"

"Yes," said Nick. "Yes, it is."

Quelos shot him an irked leer. "It's not my fault that you have no sense of adventure. Don't complain to me when I'm just trying to turn routine into entertainment."

They squabbled back and forth for several minutes while I tuned them out. I tried to convince myself that going along with the Elementals' plan was probably my best bet for finding Lynn—it didn't really work, but it kept me busy. During that time, Scyn showed up, looking especially nervous. He greeted Akuro and me, seeing as how Nick and Quelos were preoccupied at the moment.

"Is she in there?" Scyn asked, clasping his hands together and actually twiddling his thumbs.

I nodded, giving him a curious look. "She's been in for about five minutes. You might want to check on her."

"Oh, I don't think I should go inside. I don't want to make him angry. He doesn't like me very much." Scyn caught the increasingly disturbed expression on my face and added helpfully, "Aliista should be fine—he likes her plenty."

Despite the utter lack of reassurance his statement offered, I didn't press for more. I was too tired to care at that point. I just wanted to find Lynn and bee happy again. Luckily, Aliista returned only moments later, grinning and motioning us though the open door.

"He says he'll speak to you," she announced cheerily. "I explained everything, so go ahead and talk to him. Just follow the hall a few feet, and the chamber is right around the corner."

"Finally," Nick muttered, barging past me into the unlit passage beyond. "Let's go get this bowling ball, already."

"So are you going to tell us who this person is?" I asked, entering behind the kid.

"Have fun, you two," Quelos said as cheerily as his sister had.

I froze just inside the doorway and spun around in time to have the door slammed in my face, sealing us within a lightless tomb.

"Quelos, you conniving bastard!" I shouted in surprise, trying futilely to wrench the portal open again. It wouldn't budge. I even released my powers and tried to blast through the thing, but the unassuming wood was impervious to my assault. I couldn't tell if I was just too angry to focus properly, or if the wood had been enchanted to resist damage from people like me.

I might have gotten a bit carried away for several seconds after that.

Nick joined me a moment later, shouting his own curses and attempting to smash the planks apart with a torrent of needle-sharp, high-speed water jets. This, too, had no effect, other than to drench us to the bone and set me off once again, this time focusing my anger on the runt.

"What the hell are you doing?!" I cried, coughing up water and backing away from the deep puddle that sloshed around the threshold. "You just had to develop the most irritating power in existence, didn't you?"

"Shut up!" he snapped back, trying once again to kick the door down. "It's your fault for letting them lead us around like this! Why couldn't we just go look for Lynn the way normal people would?! Why do your moronic decisions always put us in these dumbass predicaments?!"

"No, it's not my fault! Ambri-Qis was the one who forced me to accept their help! If it were up to me, we would be as far from this place as physics can allow!"

He kicked the door again. "You can choose to ignore him! It's your body, Andris!"

"He keeps stealing it!" I almost screamed.

I hate to interrupt this touching moment, but there seems to be a…well…an audience. Andris, turn around, please.

The offending parasite's voice nearly sent me into another rage—at least it would have if he hadn't relayed what my spatial sense was picking up. I hadn't even noticed the faint red light in the hall. I paused and turned to face the other end of the short passageway, cautious about what Ambri-Qis was sensing but still angry enough to let my powers pool around me as a threat. Nick continued shouting for Quelos to open the door and making enough noise to wake the dead.

I stared in disbelief.

There was an enormous eyeball at the other end. It was completely black, except for a teardrop-shaped pupil that pulsed with a deep, deep red. It seemed familiar, but I was too busy trying not to panic to allow my brain the luxury of memory.

It blinked.

I blinked.

"Oh, don't stop on my account," the eyeball said in deep, gravelly tone. "It gets a bit dull down here, and I do love a good argument."

I shoved Nick aside and attacked the door with renewed fervor. "Quelos?! Damn you to all the hells this world has created! Open this door!"

"What the fu—oh, God, there's a giant eyeball?!"

"You know, that door won't open until I tell it to," the bored voice rumbled from behind.

"That ain't gonna stop me from trying!" Nick cried, now kicking the hinges while I tried to tear the handle off.

There was a pause, followed by a blast of cold air that was either a hurricane or the most impressive sigh the universe had ever known. The force of it slammed us into the door and pinned us in place for several moments.

"As amusing as it is to have two strangers dropped on my doorstep with no apparent knowledge of who I am or what sort of threat I actually pose, I should probably inform you that I can help you locate the Plorávero girl." The eyeball-voice let out a chuckle that could have been an earthquake. "Or you can continue to exhaust yourselves in a fruitless attempt to escape my chamber. The choice is yours to make."

Nick and I remained silent for what felt like an eternity, both of us uncertain as to whether we should believe the creature or find more creative solutions to get the door open. On one hand, we had no clue what this being's intentions were, or whether or not our abilities were enough to handle the situation if it didn't work out in our favor. On the other, neither of us had a viable plan for finding Lynn.

Nick glanced back to give the eyeball a shifty look. His own eyes were almost white with fear. The large, glowing pupil cast only enough light to let me see Nick's pale visage, and beyond the eye itself was little more than a wall of darkness.

"Do you think Quelos locked us in here to get killed?" Nick asked in a hush.

"Somehow, I doubt it…but if that isn't his plan, then what the hell could it be?" I replied, turning watch the thing for signs of hostility.

There was no hostility there, however. Actually, it was half-lidded, as though tired and perfectly willing to take a nap.

"Your call," the kid said under his breath. "I smell blood, though, and that's not usually a good sign."

I could smell it, too. Now that I wasn't distracted by the sudden entrapment or the giant eye's disturbing appearance, I realized that the air was thick with the cloying, marvelous scent of Shimari blood.

Stay focused, Ambri-Qis said sternly, though his own voice sounded distant.

Says the pot to the kettle, I muttered back.

I watched the eye, and it watched us, though its interest seemed to be fading by the second.

"Well…I don't have any better ideas," I finally said to the kid. "It says that it can help us find Lynn."

"So we wing it?"

I nodded slowly. "I suppose it's our only option at this point."

"You go first. I'm no good with strangers."

I shot him a well-deserved glare, but didn't argue. If something went wrong, I was probably the one best-suited to fend off an attack. Sometimes, I deeply regretted the fact that I had such a massive arsenal at my disposal. There was something to be said for being inadequate—in certain cases, at least.

"Okay," I said to the eye. "We'll come in to talk, but first you need to get out of the way."

It blinked and chuckled a little bit, but backed out of the passage to allow us through. Whatever this creature was, it either shrouded itself in darkness or the chamber beyond simply wasn't lit. Even when I was sure that it had left us plenty of room to leave the cramped space, there still wasn't enough light for my eyes to see.

Cautiously, we felt our way out of the entrance and found ourselves in what sounded like a vast cavern. Here, the overwhelming scent almost made me dizzy with need. Although I couldn't see, I could hear the echoes of our movements and the creature's occasional chuckles. We hugged the wall and stayed close to the passage, just to be safe.

"So you have come in search of a way to locate the Plorávero girl?" the creature said in an almost conversational tone. There was a lilt to its deep voice, but I couldn't say for sure if it was just amused or trying to deceive us in some way. Assuming the echoes weren't playing tricks with my ears, the voice was coming from at least two stories above.

"Actually, I don't know why we're here," I answered, holding still and keeping my powers pooled around me just in case. "Quelos didn't give us any details, but he made it sound like you could help."

"He said we're looking for a bowling ball," Nick added.

I wanted to glare at him, but he wouldn't have seen it, so I didn't bother.

"And we're looking for a bowling ball," I muttered under my breath, closing my eyes and trying to ignore my thirst's prodding. Even though Ambri-Qis was the embodiment of my thirst, there was only so much that he could do to keep me focused. The rest was a matter of my own willpower.

If we ever managed to get out of this alive, I was going to blast Quelos into next century.

"Ah, I know what he wants, then," the voice said in that same amused tone. "Would you prefer some light? Frankly, it disagrees with me, but I suppose I can make an exception. You seem rather uncomfortable down there."

"Some light would be fantastic," I said, fighting to keep the irritation out of my voice and failing, as usual.

Without warning, a thousand flickering candles snapped into existence, and I winced a little bit while my sensitive nighttime eyes adjusted to the sudden illumination. It wouldn't have been bright for a human, but without the layer of dark filter that I had during the day, switching from absolute blackness to normal light levels so quickly was somewhat painful.

"Better?" the creature asked, still chuckling.

"Better," I said warily. Its voice had changed locations, and I finally glanced over to where it was coming from.

It was…just a man. His gray linen robe was tied off around his waist, leaving his torso bare, and I could just barely see the fine lines of tattoos on his dark chest. He sat in a simple, black wooden chair, lounging comfortably and smirking at us.

Well, he was actually a fair distance from us, due to the fact that his chair was perched on a small island in the middle of the room, about a hundred feet away. A single column, about four feet in diameter, rose up from the center of the island and into the domed ceiling above. This was where the normalcy—if it could be called that—ended.

A moat of blood surrounded him, so still that it reflected the candles in their little carved alcoves and made the space look as though it stretched through the glassy surface. The curved edge of the room, where Nick and I stood pressed against the wall, was little more than a three-foot walkway that encircled the enormous chamber.

I honestly didn't know what to say—for several reasons. At least now I knew why the scent of blood was so overpowering. Ye gods, was I glad that the runt had already fed. I might have been forced to hold him back from an impromptu swimming lesson if that hadn't been the case.

"You're…not a monster?" Nick asked in surprise. He was gawking at the insignificant-looking man.

"You may call me Ushu Urugalak—or Ushu, if you prefer," he replied with a chuckle. "I apologize; darkness has real power in this chamber. It makes you see things that aren't there."

"That wasn't a trick," I said, finally feeling comfortable enough to step away from the wall. "Whatever that was, it was real, and you're trying to convince us otherwise."

"You are entitled to your own opinions, of course." He smiled, and even from this distance, I could see that his teeth were those of a Shimare. They glinted almost like silver against his dark skin. However, I had never before seen a Shimare who had managed to keep his human complexion. No matter their genetic background, the blood always bleached most of the color away. There were variations, of course, but never to this degree.

Something was off. Either he wasn't what he claimed to be, or he was some sort of anomaly.

"Where are you from?" I asked, walking past Nick and pacing the edge of the chamber for a better angle. "Your skin is as dark as mine is pale. How did you manage that?"

"Well, I found this amazing moisturizer. You should try it."

My eyes narrowed. "What are you?"

"I am Ushu Urugalak—I thought we had already covered this."

"So you're not a Shimare." I was hungry and annoyed, and his jokes were not helping.

"That is still up for debate. Itzak has theories, however."

"He's studied you, too?" More and more, I was beginning to realize that spending some time with Itzak every so often might have been a good idea. Maybe I would have been prepared for this encounter.

"Jeeze, that guy gets around," Nick said, following behind me as I walked. He seemed much less panicked than before, but I knew that he only stayed close because he was worried.

"He's a good man," Ushu said. "A little more enthusiastic than I would prefer, but he gets the job done and enjoys doing it. That is more than I can say for Quelos."

I stopped about a quarter of the way around the room and watched the strange man for a long moment. I had a feeling in my gut that he was someone I should have known about, but I simply couldn't make the connection.

"Ushu," I said slowly, forcing my brain to think, "why would Quelos lock us in here? Why does he think you can help us?" Certainly, it was very much Quelos' style to drop us into a ridiculous situation just to see how we would respond, but I knew that Akuro wouldn't have gone along with a simple prank. The latter would have at least made sure that there was a good reason for all of this. Otherwise, we would never have been dragged down here.

"Seriously, Quelos said you had a bowling ball." Nick was frowning at the man, and I just sighed at the kid.

"I think I preferred it when you were terrified."

Nick glared at me and folded his arms in irritation, leaning back against the coarse, dark granite wall. "I'm not the one playing Twenty Questions with a guy sitting in a pool of blood. We should just get what we came for and leave—who cares about the details if he can help us?"

"I like this one," Ushu said, laughing again. "He's just a fledgling, yet he is much better at this than you are."

"He's my fledgling," I snapped. "I'm not even a Shimare."

"Close enough, by my estimation. This blood reacts to yours, and you are bonded to one of its children. Fortunately, that also allows us to use the bowling ball to find your blood partner."

I was too annoyed to verbalize a response, but he didn't seem to care. Instead, he got up from his seat and went to the side of the column behind him. He placed a hand against the smooth granite surface and closed his eyes, muttering a few words in what sounded like Akkadian or Sumerian—

His arm sank into the stone.

"Whoa—oww!" Nick gave a start, and I heard his head bang hard against the wall.

I smiled to myself. Small victories…

The column vanished.

My smile faded. The column had indeed vanished; however, its contents remained.

Instead of stone, a pillar of blood rose a hundred feet to the ceiling, and I suddenly understood where we were.

"This is the cistern, isn't it?" I said in awe. I had never seen the end of the well where they kept the Original Blood, but I had heard the Council speak about it on a handful of occasions.

"That is what they call it," Ushu replied. "I don't particularly like the name, but it is at least more accurate than some of the other ideas they've had." He had sunk to his shoulder in the blood, and after fishing around for a few seconds, he seemed to find what he was looking for. Slowly, he withdrew from the pillar, not a single drop clinging to his skin.

When his hand emerged, he was holding what did, in fact, appear to be a bowling ball.

Dragon of the Netherworld…

Ambri-Qis caught my interest with the whispered words. What do you mean?

The markings on his chest…his name…the cistern…

He was just muttering to himself at this point, and I sighed a little. Care to let me know what's going on before he starts to think I'm insane?

Andris…I think he's Raslythe.

"What?!" I demanded aloud before realizing my mistake.

Ushu and Nick stared at me. The kid didn't seem terribly surprised, but the look on Ushu's face made it more than apparent that he had sensed something amiss.

Well, hell. Maybe I could pretend that I was talking about the thing he had pulled from the well.

"Who are you talking to?" Ushu asked slowly. "I thought I heard a whisper, but wasn't certain until you replied to it."

Damn. Before I could even think to deny his suspicions, my body went to the edge of the walkway without my consent. Ushu's expression shifted drastically from vague curiosity to anger, and I silently cursed my second half. The bastard just couldn't seem to keep himself a secret, could he? Why did he always have to do this at the worst possible times?

"We haven't met before," Ambri-Qis said, "but I know who you are, Raslythe. How is it that you have managed to remain on this plane?"

Carrying the orb in one hand, Ushu stepped away from the pillar of blood, and the granite column reformed behind him like mist from the very air. "Is it not customary to introduce yourself before asking personal questions?" he asked through gritted fangs.

"I am Ambri-Qis, the creator of the Nariuvnen and former inhabitant of Iuvicel. As you might have guessed, I became a Wraith and took refuge in Andris' body."

"Nobody informed me of this."

"It's not exactly something we want everybody to know about."

Could've fooled me, I growled silently.

As usual, Ambri-Qis ignored my complaints. "Before you become angry at me for entering your domain, you should be made aware that Qiva Liaqne has joined forces with Rubeo Corvus, and both are holding Lydian Plorávero against her will."

"This, I already knew," Ushu said flatly, glaring at us. "What are your intentions, Ambri-Qis? I have been away from my realm for millennia, sealed within this chamber and anchored to this body. Why are you here?"

My maker shook his head. "I'm not here in any threatening capacity. Lydian is as much my blood partner as she is Andris', and all I want is a way to bring her home again. Regardless, as the guardian of the Lythera clan, you are powerful enough to protect this domain."

Ushu relaxed, just a little bit. "I see…but how is it that I was not informed of your existence?"

"Well, I'm not a member of your zodiac, and I have been hidden away for as long as Andris has been alive. It seems that both Rubeo and Qiva were aware of my presence, however. I don't know why they would keep it to themselves unless they were at odds with the rest of you."

"That would indeed be the case," he spat, taking the orb in both hands now and frowning down at it. "The Vulune can only seek Shimaren, so my view of the world is incomplete. I only know of Andris because of his interaction with Ivanarke and his blood bond with Lydian Plorávero, but your presence has been shrouded."

"Is that what that thing does?" Nick asked, stepping forward to stand beside Ambri-Qis. Ushu frowned at him, and he added, "Look, I know I'm just some random dude who showed up with Andris, but Lynn's done a lot for me. If that bowling ball can help us save her, then I don't care who gets pissed-off. We need help, and you can help us, so why don't we skip all the stuff that doesn't matter and get down to business, huh?"

"Please stop calling it a bowling ball," Ambri-Qis sighed, raising an eyebrow at him.

"I'll call it whatever the hell I want," muttered Nick. "I don't really care what its name is. I'm just sick of wasting time talking while Lynn has to deal with whatever it is that Rubeo is putting her through—and don't forget the crazy demon bitch. Who knows what Qiva is doing to Lynn right now?"

For once, I'm in agreement with the runt, I said quietly, just to Ambri-Qis.

It's a valid argument.

"The boy has a point," Ushu said, looking up from the orb and staring hard at my Maker.

"Good, then we are all on the same page," Ambri-Qis said aloud, nodding slowly. "It has been…enlightening. I hope we can speak again, Raslythe. It has been a very long time since my last civil conversation with another of my kind."

"We are not the same, Ambri-Qis," Ushu replied, though not with any hostility. "You decided to become what you are—I was chained to this place against my will. Though I have grown to accept this cage as my domain, I am not nearly as free as you seem to be. Return whenever it pleases you. I would like to see the world through the eyes of one like you."

Ambri-Qis smiled. "Until next time, then." A moment later, I was back in control.

"Were you present for that exchange?" Ushu asked me when he saw that my appearance had returned to normal.

"At any given moment, we're both aware of whatever this body senses," I replied with a nod. "Though, I have to add that I'm tired of having my body stolen at his every whim."

"A reasonable complaint." He glanced back down at the obsidian orb. "This can find Lydian for you. Simply place your hand against its surface and focus your thoughts on her. I would do this for you, but it is better if you are given all of the necessary information—it will also be faster. The information is not always perfect, as it depends on what she can see and what she is thinking, but it should at least give you a starting point. You may not be able to make sense of all the images immediately, but they will develop in time."

"Yeah, that's pretty much what I would expect," Nick said, folding his arms again and resuming his slouch against the wall. "Have at it, Andris. Quelos is gonna think we're dead if we don't get out of here soon."

"He'd probably just leave us to rot," I reminded him.

The kid just grimaced, unable to deny my logic.

"As long as you keep your mind open to what it shows you, the Vulune will not harm you," said Ushu. "Do not resist it—do not try to pull away. Allow it to take you through the visions. It will release you when it has shown you what matters."

The guardian didn't allow me to voice my concerns over that last part. However, he was kind enough to bring the Vulune over to where we were, instead of making us cross the blood moat. Like quicksand resisting an impact, the blood solidified wherever his bare feet touched, and melted when he stepped away. Within moments, he stood before me on a shell of blood, holding the orb out with both hands and giving me a heavy stare.

I could now clearly make out the markings on his chest—not tattoos, but cicatrices lined with soot as the cuts had healed. The fine web of scars formed his name in Sumerian cuneiform: Ushu Urugalak, the dragon of the netherworld. Below that, smaller markings implied that he wasn't allowed to leave the ring of blood, and that only his eye was to remain in this world…that even his name was to be sealed from him…

And then I understood what had happened to him.

Somebody forced him to become what you are, I whispered to Ambri-Qis. They forced him into a Shimari body and bound him within the cistern.

I know…I can read it, too.

Part of me wanted to say something to Ushu, but I caught a look in his eyes that made me stop myself.

He was so angry…and sad…I just couldn't bring it up.

Instead, I placed my hand against the orb. As I stared into it, the darkness began to swirl like black smoke, and at the core formed a perfect teardrop of glowing blood. I barely had enough time to register that it looked exactly like the eye in the entranceway before the Vulune accosted my mind.

Darkness, moisture, and the sound of dripping water filled my thoughts. A hall of gold and jewels glittered around me; a lightless stone cell swallowed me whole. Cold marble columns formed a ring…fountains and a domed building…the scent of roses and cheering. Voices filtered through walls of bedrock, and footsteps echoed faintly from the ceiling. Some things were from the past, but others from the present. Blood…a torrent of blood pouring from a fountain…Qiva's voice speaking to someone—Rubeo, perhaps?

A hoard of information, pertinent and useless all at once, flowed into my head. They were speaking a language I didn't know, as old as Ancient Shimari, with words borrowed from a dozen other tongues. I couldn't tell anymore who was speaking, just that they were angry about something.

And then I touched Lynn's mind, felt her resolution. She was ready to die before she ever gave them what they wanted. She would never allow them the satisfaction of breaking her.

She knew that we would come for her.

She knew…

It stopped.

The images and sensations faded almost instantly, and I found myself in the cistern once more.

"Europe…"

The word came out before I realized that I was saying it, and Ushu gave me a crooked smile, nodding his approval. Silently, he pulled the Vulune away from my hand and turned his back to us.

"You should go," he said. "The images will become clearer over time, but this initial information is what you should follow for the moment."

I hesitated, not quite sure whether he was trying to get rid of us or if he just felt that the matter was settled. "What about you?" I asked carefully. "Is there anything we can do to help you?"

He started walking back towards his island, his footprints melting away after every step. "Nobody has that kind of power," Ushu said with finality. "Go save her from my misguided brother and sister, and bring her to me when you have done this. I wish to know what she knows. At the very least, I can then prepare myself for whatever calamity they are planning."

"Good bye, Raslythe," I said after a pause.

He didn't reply, and Nick and I went back to the entranceway. As we reached the opening, the candles flickered out, casting the chamber again into darkness. The door clicked open, allowing faint light to reflect into the passage.

I glanced back one more time, just inside the hall. And in the meager glow I thought I saw the shadow of an enormous creature coiled around the pillar.

A single eye watched me, a drop of blood in a field of black…

…and then it closed.