Ember slowed, each step heavier than the last, staring uncomprehendingly at the tiles beneath his feet and brushing his hand over each column he passed. Each column the same, every hallway filled with dust and the dead. Dirt, mold, decay, endless corridors that led to other, still more endless corridors. Time had no meaning here in the endless night of the mountain. Where the light that streamed down from above grew dim and swallowed up the pillars in shadow, Ember held out the stone-light and it brightened the path enough to avoid running into a wall.
Tapestries dangled from the ceiling, taller than the greatest and oldest of trees in the forest below. Some of them were torn, and a few hung low enough for him to touch. Gold embroidery and faded colors had somehow survived the centuries, and sometimes he thought he saw one of the designs curl in a little tighter at his passing, or one of the depicted figures look away as he glanced up.
He was inside a mountain. A mountain. That much he remembered. How he had gotten here was a mystery, but he did not belong in these dusty chambers. Many great rooms he passed, but most were locked, and those that were open were in disarray: great oaken doors – glossy and petrified – hanging off their hinges; broken furniture; shattered cutlery; occasionally a weapon or a stack of broken items that might have once served as a barricade. One such room appeared to have been a dining hall, long and dark with many torn banners hanging about. Shattered dishes crunched under his shoes. Ember wandered through the room, running a finger over the table and watching the polished wood appear through the filth in a little trail. He had not encountered a body in a long while, but there were several here, the most notable of which sat at the head of the table in a great carved chair – the rest of the party had been desecrated… picked clean… but not him.
Perhaps some sort of protective enchantment…
What do you know, Ember? What do you know about such things? Nothing, that's what.
Ember glanced at him quickly before turning away; he did not like that forever-grinning face.
Just off the dining hall was a kitchen. No doubt fully stocked at one time, it now contained many empty and broken baskets and jars. He found this room the most disappointing of them all, for only then did he realize how hungry he was.
And then it was back to the main corridor, which he hoped would lead somewhere of importance if he continued to follow it. He knew he would never find his way out the way he had come, and if he did chance upon that hall again it would be sheer happenstance.
"I have to get out," he murmured aloud, curling his fingers around the wooden spear. He didn't know where he had found it; he just knew it was his. His voice lingered and he found his own echo unreasonably satisfying. It was his, just like the spear.
Why had he come to this forsaken place anyway? He couldn't remember. It must have been the creature. What was her name?
Ky had tricked him into coming here. She had meant to lose him in these winding halls all along. Yes, that must have been her plan. But why had he come with her at all?
I have to think – I have to remember. Ember brushed a cobweb from his eyes and sighed, stopping in the middle of the hallway.
The echoing footsteps whispered on behind him for a moment more, and then paused.
A prickling sensation touched the back of Ember's neck.
He rested the spear in the crook of his elbow for a moment and clapped his hands, listening to the echoes rattle away into the darkness. No… the sounds rolled on before him.
Ember stiffened, his tongue lodging in the back of his throat, and held his breath. He dared not think – could not think – but the last thing he wanted to do was turn around and see it lurking there. Nevertheless, he counted silently to three, gripping his spear very tightly. On the third count, he spun on his heels, eyes wide to behold whatever monstrosity haunted his footsteps.
His heart skipped a beat and all his strength flooded out through the bottoms of his feet, rooting him to the floor.
Ky's ebony pupils glared back at him.
His fishing spear had come to rest a finger's breadth from her breastbone, and her silent breath chilled his face. The bloody slits down either side of her jaw pulled wide as she smiled, parting like the scales of a fish. Her stare was empty.
Ember twitched backward.
Her ears twitched forward and she grinned, neck stretching and lips gaping. He saw her tongue brush against her pearlescent fangs, a bluish pink flash of moist skin. It was the most macabre smile Ember had ever seen, and her eyes glimmered like black marbles in the dark.
His hand spasmed.
He would thrust the spear.
He would thrust it now.
But it never moved. It remained a fixture between them, cold and useless. A flash of clarity broke through the lingering scarlet rage in his mind, a cool swath of green that quieted his jumbled emotions and brought with it a deluge of recent memories.
You lied to me!
And he left her there alone.
Alone… with the book.
Some way, somehow, it all circled back to the book. He hated the memory of that book – the book that had hurt Ky Veli and made her bleed. And then he remembered grabbing her, shaking her, threatening her with his spear.
With each new memory he flinched, and the siren watched him with that steady grin. The corners of her mouth were turned down and he could see pale pinkish tissue stretched tight behind both fangs. Then – quick as a frog's tongue – her arm shot out and she snatched the spear, twisting, pulling, and it was wrenched from him with petrifying ease. Flung aside. It clattered into the darkness.
And then she lunged and the memories fled, leaving behind only raw instinct and gut terror. Claws hooked on the edge of his sleeve, tearing through the material as Ember twisted away and sprinted down the hall.
He could not kill her – but he could run.
And run he did.
Both arms pumping, head pounding, heart thumping, and behind him came a blood-chilling shriek that set his nerves on fire. The demon in the dark was upon him, and from her he could not hide. For this was a familiar demon.
It knew him.
And he knew it.
The hall blurred around him as he ran, and he could just make out a dark shape looming ahead. If he ran around it, she would be on top of him, but before he could decide what to do he was suddenly plunged into darkness. Smothered by something coarse and soft, he panicked and pushed past it, wrestling with the dusty fabric. It gave way to a frantic tug and one of the tapestries ripped from the ceiling, tumbling down around his shoulders. It was heavy. He panted, struggling out of it before it enveloped him and darting forward again.
From behind him came another wicked scream and a sound like a flock of dying crows as the falling fabric was torn to shreds.
If he hadn't happened to see a glimmer of light reflecting off a shiny black sculpture – a life-sized figure of some sort – he would have run directly into the wall at the end of the hallway. As it was, he banked sharply to the right and noticed a faint glow at the end of this new tunnel…
Light was his only chance. He could not hide from her in the dark, and though he was bigger and broader and his strides far longer, he knew she was gaining ground. The tapestry had given him a slight advantage, but he could feel something drawing near, hear the pat of a bare foot on the floor.
As he ran, the light grew stronger, and he saw that it was coming from a grand doorway at the far end. At times he caught glimpses of someone running along beside him – just a flash, a shadow – and after this happened twice he realized there were mirrors hanging along the hallway at regular intervals.
His legs burned.
The mirrors became more frequent, growing in size until they stretched from floor to ceiling and went on as far as the doorway ahead of him.
A frantic sideways glance gave him a sense of urgency and speed he had not known he possessed: Ky was sprinting less than two paces behind him, matching his long legs stride for stride, her hair streaming behind her.
He couldn't afford to lose even one step.
One false foot and she would be on top of him.
The mirrors were all around them – up and down, the ceiling, the tiles – every surface reflected his wide eyes, gaping mouth, and disheveled mess of blonde hair – and behind him…
A cold breath stung his ear.
His shirt choked him, the cloth ripping in the back and claws digging into his spine, dragging furrows through his bare muscles. He felt a thousand tiny tugs as the tendons tore.
"NO!" Ember shouted, his voice magnified in the hall as he lurched forward, desperate to yank himself free – the claws separated from his skin –
The instant his knees touched ground he threw his arms over his head and curled into a tight ball on the mirrored tiles, blood leaking down his sides. And he braced himself for the searing pain of being divided from his flesh by a creature of the deep.
There was a rush of wind, and a shadow, and then the patter of feet on the opposite side of his head.
Ember buried his face in his arms, holding his breath until he was certain his lungs would explode. His body ached for air, but he could not give in. The silence was so long and so dark that at last he dared to open his eyes and slowly, slowly, lift his head.
The siren had surrounded him. Her eyes glared from every facet of the hall, her fangs glistened on every mirrored surface, and her lithe form was crouched behind every corner. And yet she remained curiously silent. Not a single hiss slipped past her fangs.
She didn't move… didn't blink.
Her delicate nostrils flared at the corners and her upper lip curled out slightly.
Those black-pitted eyes darted to the left.
And then to the right.
And then through him once again.
Ember let out his breath very slowly, careful to make no noise at all. Her left ear shivered and she spread her fingers and toes lightly across the mirrors, lean muscles coiling.
There was only one explanation, which came to him with startling logic: he was invisible. Whether by magic or some trick of the steady light and the mirrors, he could see her – he could see hundreds of her – but she could not see even one of him. Her many eyes scoured the hall and she growled low in her throat.
"Ember," she gurgled at long last, her voice a gruesome lullaby. "Ember. Ember. Ember…"
He shut his eyes for a moment, swallowing once.
The blithe undertones dragged at him, pulled at every fiber of his being.
"Ember… Ember… Ember…"
Ember continued breathing, very slowly, in and out with the utmost silence, trying to calm his racing heart. Could she hear it thudding? Blood crawled across the fabric of his shirt and pooled in the valley of his spine and the hollow of his lower back. He felt like fainting, but it would be the death of him if he did.
Instead, he put his tongue between his teeth to keep them from shaking together and glanced around at the thousands of eyes which peered at him.
And then –
The eyes blinked.
His blood was spilling over, onto the mirrors…
She snuffled, and a fierce white gleam lit up all the eyes around the hall. Her lips curled back in a thin grin of triumph as she slunk forward.
Each creature advanced with the same stealth, the same cunning smile, the same wide-eyed stare. Ember quaked. He had to decide which one was the true threat, and quickly. Her chin lifted and she put out her bluish tongue, tasting the air.
He tensed, torn muscles quivering, and slowly rose to a crouch.
Grasped the hilt of the knife he had stuffed under his belt.
Three more drops of blood spattered the mirror beneath him.
He drew the knife forward.
Their eyes met.
Ember knew she couldn't see him, but somehow she had pinpointed his exact location in the sea of mirrors. The knife felt heavy in his hand. His fingers curled around it, smeared and shaking. His eyes left hers and he followed the row of mirrors until he was staring down what he thought was the correct tunnel and not another illusion. The hall wound on in a series of confusing reflections, but from where he was crouching he could see a warping of the light at the far end.
A stone door.
Was it, too, a reflection?
He tried to force strength back into his limbs, but all he had left was a little willpower. It would have to suffice.
She advanced another step, her thousand fingers delicately webbed and the bridges of her thousand noses creasing around her thousand eyes. Her shoulders hunched and she bared her fangs in an obscene grimace. A clawed hand reached, fingers curling, tongue protruding, eyes wild, closing in from every possible angle.
Ember shot forward like a pebble from a sling, slipping once on the slick pool of blood, and turned his focus entirely on the faraway stone door. He collided with something soft – there was a thump and his shoulder burned like fire – but he shoved past, sprinting for the end of the hall. A dreadful keening wail shivered the hall behind him, rising to a pitch beyond his range of hearing. His ears rang and tears of pain welled in his eyes at the deafening shriek.
The mirrors shattered.
Shards of glass crumbled to the ground all around him and pelted off his shoulders, and the tiles underfoot cracked and split into fragments beneath his leather shoes. He heard a savage snarl behind him, and a rhythmic thumping.
No more disguising her sickeningly soft footprints: the game was over, and the killer was coming.
The door loomed ahead of him, a great monolith of grayish stone, chiseled and coarse. He was almost there.
Five more leaps.
Ember's palms smashed into the stone with a fleshy thud.
It didn't move.
He rammed his shoulder into the door, unleashing a rasping yell of effort. His eyes watered. Blood ran across the stone. "Please," he panted, pounding on the ancient door until his skin split. "Open! Please!"
A terrible shriek clawed the air.
"Let me in!" Ember screamed, his voice tearing in his throat.
The ground trembled underfoot. Bits of rock crumbled under his fingertips, and then the door swung slowly inward, grating across the ground like a mortar and pestle. Light spilled out, some of it warm as candlelight and some of it pale as the light of day. Ember pressed himself against the chink; he had to squeeze through…
He risked a quick glance over his shoulder. She was farther behind than he had thought, but gaining three strides to each one he had taken. Broken glass flashed beneath her bare feet.
With a final shove, Ember squeezed through the narrow opening, tumbling onto mossy stone. He glimpsed a single stream flowing through the center of the room, flanked by river grass springing up out of the tiles and endless stacks of books against every wall. Candles flickered to life under his hurried glance and a steady shaft of daylight spilled over the stream and the misplaced greenery.
To his horror, the door continued to open behind him.
"Close, close, close!" he shouted, backing away – he clenched the knife in a shaking hand, panting, breathless. With a grinding sound that rang in his teeth, the door obediently reversed its deadly course, swinging shut again with that same painful slowness.
He could see her coming.
Flying over the ground in leaps and bounds, a black shadow among the fragments of the mirrors.
The door was almost shut.
She flung herself at the gap.
And then, with a scrape and a boom, the stone shuddered into place.
Something thudded against the door from the outside and a warbling howl of rage froze his bones. It died away into a single mournful echo and Ember slowly lowered the knife, drawing a deep breath and choking as his ribs expanded, stretching the ragged wounds across his back.
Ember… son of Jarel… lived a fool, and died a fool.
This was the end.
The end of them both.
Ember whirled around, putting out a hand for balance with a cry of surprise and pain. The room continued to spin around him and he sank to one knee. Through the blur, he saw a figure standing just beyond the flowing water, clothed all in white. A woman.
The tall maiden stepped forward, lacing her fingers, and smiled. Fair hair spilled over her shoulder, reaching the floor in soft flaxen waves.
"How goes the war?"
He reached for a handhold and, finding none, mouthed empty words – nothing escaped him but a gut-twisting moan. The knife slipped from his fingers and he slumped to the tiles. The ransacked bookshelves and crystalline water faded from view, and he surrendered himself to the blackness with a sense of tremendous relief: the pain faded, his forehead touched the cold stone floor, and his back spasmed once more before going numb.
It was all just a dream.
He would wake up in his bed.
This week has been absolutely crazy but I am SO pleased I was able to finish Chapter Fifteen for you. Let me know what you think of this update, and have a great rest of the week!