War creates war. It begets itself in blood and dirt and darkness. Its birth cries are the screams of the dying. It grows in the hearts of the conquered, the resentful and oppressed.

Do not go to war lightly, my King.

Take even more care when creating peace.

Grand Warlock Auros

In moonlight and shadow the Guiding Star stood still and silent.

Ionas managed the chair without a sound or so much as a stubbed toe, searching for a trace of soul that felt – if only a little – like Sarea. He wouldn’t have known to look for it if she hadn’t told him they were family. There was no aura of magic to this building. Even the trailing remnants of his illusions seemed to have disappeared into a void.

Isn’t that strange? He trailed a hand along the whitewashed walls. As if I haven’t seen that trick before. A demon’s had influence here.

Bethilde Singer’s room was on the first floor. He tried the door, humming. The lock didn’t even try to resist him. He shut it behind him, letting it lock itself again.

He cleared his throat.

“I shall scream,” Bethilde said, in the darkness.

He snorted. “You think they’ll hear you?”

Silence.

He summoned light with a flick of his fingers, silver as the moon. Bethilde’s room was bare, almost as much as Sarea’s cottage had been. Crammed full of furniture, from a dressing table against one wall to a full standing wardrobe against the other, but empty of anything personal. The walls were pale pink. Bethilde sat on the end of her bed, staring at a low chest. Her skin was worn and wrinkled, the streaks of grey in her hair overwhelming the brown. In daylight, he’d have sworn she wasn’t a day past forty. Now she looked ten years older.

“Sarea never tells me anything.” He leaned against the door, folding his arms. “So what did that grandfather of hers do?”

Bethilde laughed, sharp and jagged. “You don’t need her to tell you that.”

“Pretend,” he said, every syllable precise, “I do.”

“Our grand-daddy went mad and blew himself up, he did.” Bethilde turned her head, looking at him, dark eyes glittering in the light. “Himself, and a thousand others, and a hole in Durabilis besides. That’s what he did.”

Ionas frowned. “Is that all?”

“My mother said he started seeing monsters in the walls,” Bethilde said. “Voices in his head, sayin’ things that made him scream and scream. Fire-dogs and shadows that weren’t shadows. Then one night he ran out and no one saw him or those people again. It was raining bricks and stone all over the city. Weren’t just a thousand and one that died that night. The Durasoona family had respect. We had money. But everyone stopped haunting our door that night, and everyone ran. Cousins, first. Everyone ran. Everyone always runs. But someone had to be the Durasoona. The family had to survive, because of that damn charter.”

Ionas breathed in and out and did not give in to the urge to scream frustration to the rafters. Fire-dogs? Oh, he knew them well. Shadows that weren’t shadows – he’d be happier if he never met one of those again.

“I could have had a house in the city,” Bethilde said. “I could have been a lady. But all I have is an inn and a dead husband and a dead child. How is that right? How is that fair?”

“Demons don’t care about fair,” Ionas said.

She looked away.

And that was just one thing they could do, if they found a way – whisper into your brain, set you on fire, drive you mad. There went the age-old city rulers, friends to demon hunters and lone warriors. So easily done. If he hadn’t been distracted, if he’d come back to this part of the world sooner, he might have been able to stop this, too.

Damn them all, he needed the Durasoona family, and they knew it. This would make things harder.

“You’ve heard them,” he said. “Talking.”

“Once, when I visited the city. It fills your dreams. Things that shouldn’t be real. I was young and proud. I left not three days later and they chased me halfway to home.” She pressed her hands to her face. “Just looking at her, I can hear them again. She looks like him. More like him than anyone should -”

“Him,” Ionas said.

“Grandfather,” Bethilde said, low, as if the dead could hear. “It’s his voice. He waits in the marsh pit. His words. Calling to you. Waiting.”

Ionas stared at her, then out the window at the moon. “The marsh pit,” he said. “Which would, I imagine, be the hole in Durabilis.” Wonderful. A haunting. The cherry upon the cream cake of everything he had to deal with.

“But it can’t use us. Not if we don’t have -”

Ionas said, “Shut up.”

She shut her mouth.

“Stop me if I’m wrong,” he said. “Whoever you left behind in the city sent Sarea out of it.” And quite possibly saved the entire human race in the process. If this worked. He had a chance. “Her father?”

Bethilde nodded. “What was I to do with her? Her aunt took her. Tineke was always the hopeful fool.”

He curled his lip. “You don’t know how powerful hope can be. Does Sarea know all of this?”

“Yes,” Bethilde said.

So she’d never been taught an inch of magic, just in case she did what he grandfather did. Spectacular. Amazing. Kept her hidden, quiet, safe. If this Tineke, aunt and teacher, ever came back to life, he didn’t know if he’d hit her or hug her. On one hand, Sarea was barely any use. On the other, no one found her before him…

And maybe she’d been more loved there than she would have been here.

Bethilde let her hands drop, turning her head towards him. Her gaze dropped to the floor. “Are you one of the monsters, come to kill us?”

“I can be monstrous,” he said softly. “Answer me this, Betty Singer. Would you do it again?”

“Tineke wrote to me,” she said. “She said it was a good life, if a little hard on her -”

He stepped forward, one long-legged stride. Bethilde stiffened. He said, “Would you do it again? Would you push the dark-eyed little girl away again? Would you let her live a life that stifles her light and her smiles and her cheer?”

“Would it have been any better in the city?” Bethilde snapped back at him. Now she focused her eyes on him. Now she cared. “In filth, mud, squalor? She got clean living!”

“Answer my question,” he said, cold.

“It wouldn’t change much if I had,” she said. “The girl’d still be the ghost of a monster!”

He stepped forward. Bethilde flinched back. “The ghost of a monster,” Ionas said. “Sarea is the sun. You have no idea what that means, but it makes her so very, very important. She’s not even half of what you think she is, and I? I’m a soldier, and this is a long, tiring war, and all I have for you is a warning.” He lowered his voice. “When the Wall falls, you’ll hear the demons laughing. If you run, you might not die as quickly as the rest.”

Bethilde looked up at him, wide-eyed and shrinking back. “Now,” he said. “Tell me -”

Bells rang. He looked up. “What’s wrong?”

“Fire,” Bethilde said. “In the warehouses. It’s an alarm to rouse the fire-fighters.”

“The warehouses would be on the outside of town,” he said. Damn, damn, triple-damn and curse the sin of complacency. He didn’t wait for her to say yes or no. He turned on his heel and left, wrenching the door open – the lock didn’t have a chance – and headed down the stairs.

Talk to the mysterious cousin. Find more questions than answers. What was one more night spent being hunted by demon hounds, compared to that?

 

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