by Nick T. Chan
In the still moments before dawn, when all is as dark as the bottom of the sea, I turn my head from my sister and dream. In my dream, we are not conjoined. We are not fused from breast to stomach. I am not destined to cast spells until Isabella dies. Instead, I walk straight. I do not crab-scuttle with her. Alone and proud, I am with the love of my life. When I wake, I can’t remember his face. All that remains is that Isabella was alive, yet I was alone. They say the dreams of mages are prophetic, but that cannot be, because the only way I will ever be alone is if I murder Isabella.
This morning the dream ends early. I am woken by something warm in my right hand that wasn’t there before. I open my eyes. It is a parchment scroll. It’s probably from my friend Emily, who has not written to me for months. I wake fully and winter passes through my veins as I realise what the paper’s warmth means. The scroll was created by magic. Emily’s twin Susan was on the verge of death before we fled the Parliament of Mages, so she can’t have had the power to create the letter. It has to be from the Parliament.
I stand, intending to toss the letter into the fireplace. Standing wakes Isabella. She grabs my wrist and my throw falls short. I strive to pick it up as Isabella pulls away. We dance on the spot, revolving spasmodically, and then her greater strength wins. She squats, forcing me to do so too, and picks the letter up.
“It’s magic,” she says. “They must need you to cast a heroic spell.” She pauses and clasps the scroll to her chest. “How many songs will they write about me after I die?”
“None,” I say. A spasm of coughing overtakes me, bright blood flecking my hand, each spot jewel bright. She says the same thing she always does after each one of my fits. “It’s you or me. If you cast a spell like they want, the people will remember my name. If I’m going to die, I want to be remembered.”
And I use my usual retort. “Murder is a sin.”
The coughing intensifies until thick coins of clotted dark red blood coat my hand and darkness claws at the edges of my sight. I cannot breathe or think. Isabella embraces me until it stops.
“Read the letter,” she says. “You keep saying that you’ll find some way to save me, but we both know it’s a lie.” She pauses. “We’re dying. Do we have a week? A day? An hour? Please.”
She is right, but casting a spell will accelerate the rate at which Isabella drains my life, forcing me to cast more and more spells. I cough again, and suddenly I am tired. Isabella believes Parliament is a force for good, while I know better. But it doesn’t matter what I believe, not when my beliefs will lead to both our deaths.
I unfurl the letter. “It’s blank,” Isabella says. “Why would a mage create it?”
I trace my finger across the paper and my fingers tingle. “I have to cast a spell to reveal the words,” I say. “It’s a small spell. It won’t give us much more time.”
The words flow easily though it is a year since I have cast one. Isabella pushes a short hiss of air between gritted teeth at each syllable. As soon as the spell is finished, the scuttling tickle within my chest ceases and crow’s feet wrinkles appear on Isabella’s ashen face. Every part of me burns with life.
Flowing script, as black as blood in the moonlight, fills the page. Each letter twitches in a way that makes me uncertain whether it has really moved at all. I read aloud. “The Ever-dying King’s life is ending and the Worm Nil will soon awaken. I have a plan to stop it. Parliament does not know. I arrive in three hours. Draven.”
My hand shakes as I lower the letter. When the Ever-dying King dies, then there will be chaos. Without him, spells cost the weaker twin exponentially more. The Parliament will be powerless. As corrupt as they are, the alternative is anarchy. And worse, during the time between the death of the King’s current body and the re-birth of his new one, the Worm is unleashed.
Draven. Emily’s letters wrote of him. All I know is that she fell in love with him. He was going to save her twin Susan, but he failed and broke her heart. “It’s a trap. He can’t destroy the Worm,” I say.
“They’ll remember us forever if we do it,” she says. “I could have a statue in the grand square. Children will be praised for being like me.” She claps my hands and forces me into a spin around the room, false gaiety in her eyes. “The selfless Isabella, who sacrificed her life for all mankind.”
“No, it can’t be done.” I look away from her. She grabs me by the chin and forces my face back to its natural position, facing her.
“Can’t or won’t?” she says. “And does it matter?”
“It will kill you,” I say. “Take how much that spell hurt and multiply it by a thousand.”
“It will be worth it to be remembered forever,” she says. She snatches the letter away and reads it out loud behind my back, rolling each word around in her mouth as if they were hard-boiled lollies. “Why did you say Draven can’t kill the Worm?” she says. “I don’t remember him.”
“He was Emily’s lover,” I say. “He joined Parliament after we left. She said they discovered him in some small village. He wouldn’t have had enough time to learn how to cast spells.”
“How can he kill the Worm then?”
“He lies. Parliament is trying to catch us again.”
Isabella is silent. We watch each other go to the toilet, bathe and menstruate. But Isabella’s head is a locked box. She cares about clothes and makeup and dancing and men and a thousand other irrelevant things. Yet if I think about her death, my heart feels like a pebble dropped down an endless well.
I toss the letter into the fire, half-expecting it to resist the flames and hiss like a snake. It catches fire. Isabella picks up the poker lying in the grate and pushes the letter further into the flames. It is a strange pleasure to watch her flawless face, though she stole her beauty from me. If we do the impossible and kill the Worm Nil, this is how the painters and sculptors will depict her. When we were children, she had a mournful shrunken frog-face. Now men stare at her despite our freakishness. Every day I become more haggard, my skin as tight as papier-mâché over my skull, and my hair falls out in fist-sized clumps.
Isabella pushes the last log onto its side so that the fire dies, leaving parchment fragments interposed amongst the ashes. “We’re not going to run,” she says. “Parliament is still scared of you.” I try to move so I can pack our meagre belongings. She doesn’t budge. The join between our bodies stretches and I gasp. It must hurt Isabella as well, but her face is stone-still. I strain until the pain becomes too great. She never flinches.
“Don’t you trust me to make the right decision?” she says. No, I do not. Her head is filled with glory, but the dead care not for adulation. They are dust and worms and a statue is no substitute for my sister. I strain again.
The coughs overtake me without warning. When they stop, the front of our dress is covered with thick, gritty blood.
“Do you want to become oathbound if Parliament catches us?” I say.
“There’s no time to run anymore Mary,” she says. “I can feel our heart slowing.” The wind whistles through the gaps in our stone shack and the fire grows cold. I cough and the blood is fresh and bright. Dust eddies in rays of sunlight through the window as the sun rises. She looks at the angle of the sun. “He must be here soon.” She drags me outside and scans the sky.
A vast Zeppelin descends from the sky behind Isabella’s back. There is a woman nailed to the front and oh gods, its Emily. What happened to her? Then I realize my mistake. She is the globe. They have made her oathbound. Emily’s body spreads into a great puffer-fish of pale white flesh, making her the figurehead of a living Zeppelin. One of the reasons I left the Parliament was because of the cruelty of their punishments against those who defied them and now it has happened to Emily.
I sob and the sound alerts Isabella to Emily’s descent. “She’s hollow inside,” she says. “I can see a shadow.” She uses her palm to shade her eyes. “Two people standing side by side. Did Emily ever tell you how Draven and his twin were joined?”
“What has he done to her?” I say, my voice cracking.
“He can’t have,” Isabella says. “Only the senior members of Parliament can make someone oathbound.”
Tears blind my eyes. “No. Draven must have done it. Emily never defied them.”
I watch Emily’s face as she comes closer, hoping for a smile when she recognizes me. Her face remains blank. Oh, my poor Emily. She lands on the grass with a soft thud. She shudders and then she splits like a quartered orange, granting entry to her insides.
Draven steps out of Emily. Recognition spears through me. He is the literal man of my dreams. Ever since puberty, I have dreamed of him. I never remembered his face after waking, but now he is in front of me. High cheekbones, deep blue eyes and a mouth made to whisper sweet promises. My cheeks flush and our heart beats faster as I meet his gaze. Gods, he is beautiful and there is no other word for him.
A thin band of skin attaches Draven to his twin at the hip. The ash-colored twin is so thin sunlight almost passes through it and it is so withered that it could be either man or woman. Its eyes are closed.
Draven approaches us. His twin mirrors his walk, but it does not open its eyes. When twins are on the verge of dying, they retreat deep inside themselves, clinging onto life before the final spell. How could Draven know spells well enough to drain his twin to this degree?
“What have you done to her?” I say, putting contempt into my voice, but at the same time unable to tear my eyes away from him.
He holds his hands up. “I am no friend of Parliament. Like you, she tried to leave, but they weren’t scared of her. Their punishment sent her insane.” He strokes her cheek, but she doesn’t react. “I couldn’t save her. They didn’t know we were lovers, so when they asked for a mage to take charge of her, I volunteered.” Isabella nods, too eager to believe. It is plausible. I want to believe him. Gods, I want to.
The shock of seeing my dream lover in the flesh has kept me upright, but the adrenaline leaches and I stumble. Draven and his twin spring forward and catch us. The arm that catches me is strong. His other arm supports Isabella. His twin holds us too and its skin is like dried autumn leaves, brittle and ready to crack. I look into his perfect face, but he is looking at Isabella and when I turn my head back to its natural position, she has locked gazes with him.
Draven draws us back to our feet, his hands changing position. His hand stays over Isabella’s waist. The twin holds me upright. After a long, frozen, moment, he lets go and enters Emily.
“The Worm Nil will wake within days,” he says. “We have to return to Firewater now.”
“The Ever-dying King was healthy when we left. I can cast small spells to keep us both alive.”
“You are a long way from Firewater and do not know the news,” he says. “He is dying. He has been dying for months.”
“But he is not dead.”
“Before he lapsed into the sleep before death, he asked the Traders of Sorrows to exchange his pain for another’s sorrow,” he says. “They told him that he could not swap death.”
My last hope disappears. If the current King is dying, then Isabella must supply all the power for the spell. We do not have long to live if I do not cast spells and the new King will not be born for weeks. Isabella follows Draven and I do not resist.
The entrance seals behind us. Inside is cramped and Draven almost stands on top of us. Emily’s insides are deep red and waxy at first, but then her walls glow white and became transparent. She rises and my insides churn as our shack and the garden vanish into the distance. Isabella squeezes my hand. She had no fear of heights, but she knows my discomfort. I close my eyes, but I still see Draven in my mind’s eye. Better to open them again and I do so.
“What happened the last time a mage thought they could kill the Worm? How many people died?” I say.
Draven flicks a glance my way and then looks at Isabella. “Maybe three thousand died twenty years ago,” he says, his voice almost lost in the wind’s noise. “But that is not what will happen this time.”
Isabella leans sideways to hear better and I must follow. He smells of soap and rose water, but beneath is the odor of his dying twin. Its eyes open for a second, salt-white and blind, and then they close again.
“What spell will kill the Worm?” Isabella says.
Draven raises his hand and for a moment I fear he is about to run his fingers through Isabella’s hair. I hold my breath. “I have looked into the histories,” he says. “There have been four attempts to destroy the Worm Nil.” At the word destroy, he clenches his hand and then he opens it, waggling his fingers with a smile. I exhale. “Each attempt has angered the Worm, worsening its destruction. Thousands more die than is necessary.”
We float through the air at tremendous speed, passing over the mountain-graveyards formed from Worldstalker bones. Our shadow darkens the Forest of Silence where the trees eat those foolish enough to speak. And then we are following the Firewater River which flows to the Burning Sea, upon which the city of Firewater sits. In the shadows of the mountains, the Sea gutters with a low blue flame and the hellfish burn as they leap from the surface. By mid-morning, the shadows will have passed, the flames will have died and the hellfish will be edible.
Draven continues to speak. “No one has thought about when the Worm stops its destruction.”
“You are going to induce the new Ever-dying King as soon as the old one dies,” Isabella says.
Draven smiles, genuine delight in his grin, and he locks gazes with Isabella. “As soon as the new King is born, the Worm vanishes. If we bring the New King forth from the ground early, then the Worm’s damage will be limited. It took no skill to write a modified inducement spell, only skill to say it.”
“Cast it yourself,” I say.
“Any mage who approaches your skill has already drained their twin.”
“The first person who touches the new Ever-dying King will be the regent until the new King comes of age won’t they?” I say.
He talks again, too fast and too smooth. “My father died fighting the Worm Nil. I’ve always dreamed of stopping it.”
“So you’ll be regent to honor his memory?”
“Emily said you were a hypocrite,” he says. “You didn’t leave Parliament to save your sister. You left because they didn’t agree with you how to use spells. You spout fine words about the tyranny of Parliament, but if the chance to do good comes about, you run the other way.”
“Don’t lie,” I say. “This is for your own glory.”
“Mary,” Isabella says. “You must cast the spell.”
“So he can gain the throne for the next eighteen years?”
Before I can continue, Draven interrupts me. “Emily was your friend, but she lied about me. I am a good man. Love turned sour breeds lies and she lied.”
She never wrote about him at all except to say she had a new lover. He was going to somehow save her twin Susan. And he didn’t and then she wrote: I hate him and nothing more. He was less important to Emily than she thought it seems. I decide to bait him. “She told the truth.”
“If you cast the spell, you will be there when the new King is born,” he says. “You can be the first one to lay your hands upon him.”
This catches me so off-guard that I can do nothing but stutter. He has offered me the regency. “I…cannot.”
“She told me you hated how Parliament casts spells due to greed rather than where they’d do the greatest good,” he says. His eyes flick up to look at Isabella, back to me and then into space again. “Parliament would have to obey you. You could ensure that spells are only cast for good.”
“You would throw away such power?” I say. His hand hovers above Isabella’s knee, but does not touch. I want him to put his hand on my thigh and slide it beneath our dress. I want him to kiss me. How can I be so weak?
“I will have done more good than any mage in history if the Worm Nil sleeps,” he says. “What is the regency compared to that?” His eyes shine and I want to believe him. The Worm will be stopped and I will be the regent. Thousands of lives will be saved and the entire Parliament under my control. The tyranny of my fellow mages could be finally undone. Yet it would cost Isabella her life.
“I want to speak to The Ever-dying King before he passes,” I say.
“You can see him, but he won’t speak to you,” he says. “He is in so much pain that his mind is broken.”
There is nothing to say and we sit in silence as we fly closer to the city. Draven and his twin sit on the other side of Emily’s interior. His twin doesn’t open its eyes. All three of us slide glances past one another.
Emily catches a gale and quickens her flight. We fly over the sprawling city of Firewater. The noon sunlight has killed the flames and fishermen on shore are pushing out their boats. The city buildings have not changed since we left. In ancient times, our nation was nothing but sand and heat and burning water until enough mages murdered their twins to change the weather and then the land. The buildings are still those of a desert city, bricks as white as vulture-picked bones and the rippling curves of red tiled-roofs as far as the eye can see.
We descend, scraping the top of the city’s walls. They are made from the black diamond bones of Worldstalkers and their impervious ramparts have repelled numerous hordes over the centuries.
“We will give you my decision tomorrow,” I say. Isabella opens her mouth to protest, but I raise my hand to stop her. “Isabella and I will talk alone and then I will decide.”
We land. The milling crowds in the street glance at us for a second and then return to what they were doing. There are no cries of horror at Emily’s appearance. Isabella says what I have been thinking. “They didn’t look at her. How many oathbound are there in the city now?”
“Parliament has conducted many trials lately.” He pauses. “They have been suppressing opposition before the Worm wakes. There will be chaos and they take no chances.”
Emily splits and we exit onto the road. I look at her, hoping to see some semblance of recognition in her eyes, but there is nothing. Because I’m not watching where I’m going, I stumble and look down. A soft curse escapes my lips. We are upon the Road of Tears. Once it was known as the King’s Road until the last time the Worm Nil traveled upon it.
The road is the widest in the city and bisects Firewater in half. What was rock is now fused glass six feet deep. We stand above a young man. His face is unburned, but rest of him is charcoal-black. His eyes are blue and his mouth is ajar, as if he was lost in thought. The dead soldier is both handsome and familiar. I look from the soldier’s face to Draven’s.
“This is your father isn’t it?” I say.
Draven and his twin squat onto the road. Draven touches the glass above his father’s face. “I never knew him. I was conceived before the Worm woke.” The sweat on his fingers leaves streaks on the glass as he withdraws his hand. “He was a peasant, but Parliament conscripted him. My mother was pregnant.”
He stands. “Walk the road and then tell me casting the spell isn’t the right thing to do. I will meet back here at dawn with a modified inducement spell.”
“What is your twin’s name?” Isabella says.
His face hardens and he strides inside Emily. The exit seals. For a moment I imagine there is suffering in her eyes, but I am fooling myself. They are as blank as the eyes of dead fish. Isabella calls out, but Emily elevates.
We both watch until she is a distant spot in the sky and then I have to rub my stinging eyes. Isabella watches longer, her eyes watering.
I press my fingers into my temples. I cannot think. The pain is too much. “We don’t know what his damn spell is going to do until we say it do we?” I say. “Parliament hasn’t lured us back to punish us. They want us to do their dirty work.”
Isabella snorts. “That’s ludicrous.” She leads the way off the glass road and down the side streets.
“Where are you going?” I say, but she does not respond. We crab-scuttle and she watches for potholes. She is steady-footed while my feet skitter on the glass. The life drained from Isabella by my last spell has already dissipated and now she is draining me faster than ever. My limbs move a fraction of a second behind my thoughts and Isabella is a little glossier of eye and hair.
People keep their heads down and scurry off the road as we approach. “They’re scared of us,” Isabella says. “Remember when we were mobbed for favors? Parliament was always scared of you. You made them look bad, the way you talked about what good your spells would bring when you finally cast them.”
“You miss being the centre of attention,” I say. My tone is harsher than I intended, but Isabella remains serene.
“Yes,” she says. “I miss thinking that when you finally caved in, I’d be famous.”
“Where are we going?”
We round a corner. She has brought us to the marketplace where the Traders of Sorrows ply their wares. The marketplace is empty except for the Traders. They sit in enormous steaming glass tubs filled to the brim with water, their girth filling the tubs from centre to rim. Their eyes are black slits and the rest of their bodies are salt-white. Nostrils are two upwards-curved slashes, mouths lipless holes. They have no fingernails on their stubby fingers, no hair on their heads, nor ears or wrinkles. Nobody knows how the Traders work their magic without twins or why they trade sorrows for no apparent benefit to themselves. The Traders have been here since before Firewater was founded. They might have been here before mankind.
The nearest one focuses its black eyes upon us. Isabella forces me to walk and stand in front of it.
“Swap your guilt,” she says. “Swap your bloody guilt, so you can do what needs to be done.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She slaps me hard across the face. “Wake up Mary,” she says. “You love being a martyr so much you’ve destroyed all my dreams.”
I rub my stinging cheek. “You hurt me.”
“You can’t put it off any longer,” she says.
“What if he’s a liar?”
Her eyes are flat. “I’ve never believed in your Gods or your heaven. When I die, there will be nothing. My death will mean nothing unless you do this, but your bloody pride means more than my dreams, doesn’t it?” Her tone softens. “Trade your guilt. Please.” And then she is crying, her face crumpled, Isabella who is always so serene and perfect. “Please.”
I choke out the words. “If I could die for you…”
Her face steels. “But you can’t.” She turns her head to the Trader. “How much sorrow is the King’s dying pain worth?”
The Trader almost looks surprised. “To take his pain is to take his life.”
“I propose trading his pain for my broken dreams,” she says and extends her hand to the Trader.
“Your proposal is acceptable,” it says and it moves to kiss her hand, sealing the bargain. I try to stop her, but she brushes my hand aside without difficulty. The Trader kisses her hand and then it shudders and its eyes roll back in its head.
Isabella gasps, but the King was an old man and she handles his dying pain with a grit of her teeth. Bells start to peal, signifying the death of the Ever-dying King and the Worm Nil’s coming. Within minutes crowds rumble through the marketplace. None stop for the Traders; they are fleeing the city.
“What have you done?”
Isabella closes her eyes. “You have no guilt now. I’ve forced your hand. We find Draven and then you cast the spell.”
There will be a way out. There has to be. Isabella heads back to where Emily landed. My lungs burn but we cannot slow down. The crowds buffet us. The Worm Nil will kill them all. I know it in my bones. Thousands of ordinary people. They are not cursed with deciding whether to murder their twin, but neither do they have the power to save themselves. The gods have placed them as pawns, but I am a queen upon the board. I could save them all.
There are so many of them and I realize that Draven will never see us if he’s in the air. “The King’s tower,” I say. “I’ll cast a beacon spell.” Isabella sets her jaw and nods. The quickest way to the King’s Tower is to pass through the slums. We scuttle through the twisting and narrow streets as quickly as we can. Shouts and cries ring out. The stink of tears, fear and sweat is overwhelming.
We are stop to let the crowd pass. The front of our dress is covered with blood, though I do not remember coughing. It does not matter. After the beacon spell, Isabella might be dead. The crowd thins for a moment and then we are scuttling down less crowded streets until we have reached the Grand Square, where the statues of heroes (twin and un-twinned alike) ring the King’s Tower.
The tower is a pillar of flesh, topped by a vein-streaked heart as wide as a house. While the King lives, the heart beats. When he dies, the heart is still until the new King is born. Around the tower’s stem winds a wooden staircase. It leads to a platform encircling the heart.
“There’s no one on the platform,” Isabella says. “Where are the members of Parliament?”
“Too scared of the Worm,” I say. “It likes eating mages.”
“Draven could be telling the truth,” Isabella says. “You and he will be the only ones in position to touch the new King.”
Yes. Isabella will be dead. It will be Draven and I. And then I realize. “No,” I say. “Draven’s twin will still be there.” Isabella is blank-faced. “You’ll be dead,” I say. “I’ll be un-twinned.”
It takes Isabella a moment to understand. “You won’t be able to cast spells. And he will.”
“Maybe not. His twin must be close to dying.”
“But not dead yet.”
“It doesn’t take much power to kill someone, not if they can’t cast spells,” I say. “There are no witnesses.”
“He’s not a murderer,” she says. “Don’t ask me how I know, but he isn’t. I feel it. ”
I feel it too. He is not a murderer. He is a liar, but everyone lies. The elders of Parliament claim virtue, but they are tyrants. I remember when I was still a member. Our fellow mages proclaimed their plans for the final spell and their twins smiled and nodded. Great spells that would bring glory upon their dead twins. They lied. The spells were always for themselves. But I was the only one who fled. I was the only one who did something about the lies. And Isabella is right. I lie to myself and I always have.
I try to lead the way across the square, but my legs will not move. There is no burning in my chest and the scuttling spider in my lungs is gone. I try to tell Isabella I am no longer in pain. My head will not move. Why is everything so quiet? It is like I am underwater and it takes me a moment to realize Isabella is screaming something.
I focus and her words become a little clearer. She is screaming my name. “The tower,” I gasp. It takes a couple of attempts for her to hear me, though I shout back.
Isabella starts across the square and the band of flesh between our bodies stretches as my feet drag across the cobblestones. I feel nothing. A third of the way across the square, I blink, and when I open my eyes, we are halfway across. Isabella has stopped. She is slapping my face. The world is silent and the slaps are happening to someone else. I am behind a glass shield, an ant in an ant farm, watching the world burn. I want to sleep. If I sleep, I don’t have to murder her.
No. We must find Draven. No matter how brightly the beacon burns, he will not see us at ground level. If he isn’t flying inside Emily, it doesn’t matter what happens. We will die before he can find us.
I don’t know if Isabella has enough life for me to cast anything more than the beacon spell. It might kill her and I will be left alone and powerless on the tower with the Worm rampaging through the city. Gods, a spell now might kill her. But there is no choice. Most of the spells I learned at Parliament are too powerful. I need something small.
I blink and then we’re lying on the ground, my face numb against the cobblestones. Isabella grits her teeth and we stand. I feel no pain. Her muscles bulge as she sucks my life. Even so, there is no way she will be able to climb to the top or walk more than a few more steps before I die. I have to cast something.
My face is an inch from hers. I can’t think of what spell to cast. The damage to her face from the last spell has disappeared. Her beauty is like seeing the ocean or a mountain for the first time. It makes me feel insignificant. As children, we were identically plain. Now she is a Goddess and I am a hag.
Childhood. There was a rhyming spell all twins learn as children, a small, stupid spell. A spell to make vegetables taste like boiled sweets. The words were simple, but it was a song-spell, needing the rhythm and notes to be correct.
I almost remember the cadences, but it is like catching soap bubbles on the wind. As soon as a word of the lyrics is at the tip of my tongue, I lose it again.
I blink and when I open my eyes, everything is grey as the inside of a cloud. “Isabella!” I cry out, but I don’t know if my lips move. I have to cast the spell. I close my eyes and sing.
Isabella’s scream echoes around the square. I open my eyes. Everything is watery and blurred, but it is no longer grey. A half-animal moan of agony keens and then dies in Isabella’s throat. The spell has drained her, but it seems to have failed. Is that possible? And then I catch the taste of something on the air. It is the flavor of the sky just before a lightning storm, sharp and dangerous. “The Worm Nil,” I say. “I can taste it coming.” The Worm’s flavor changes. Its taste changes according to its intentions. In a way, I can read its mind and I know it hungers for magic.
The prickling on my tongue intensifies. “It’s coming for us,” I say. “Magic is a beacon. We need to climb.” Another spell might enable it to find us.
My eyes sting and I wipe them with the back of my arm. Isabella comes into focus. I stifle a gasp. The spell didn’t take much power, but Isabella is an old woman. Her skin as wrinkled as an unmade bed, her hair grey and lank.
“You have to carry me,” Isabella says, her voice weak. I gather her in my arms. She is kindling and twigs in my arm. Oh gods, she can’t support the beacon spell, let alone the inducement spell. I freeze. Maybe if we hide, the Worm will miss us.
Isabella digs her fingers into my forearm. “Go,” she hisses. I scuttle across the square, Isabella’s feet hitting the stones at irregular intervals.
The Worm’s ozone intensifies. It is hunting, not sure of where the magic is coming from, only knowing someone was stupid enough to cast when the King is dead.
I reach the stairs. Isabella’s eyes are open and fierce, but the rest of her looks so fragile that I worry she will blow into dust if the wind blows the wrong way.
I am strong, stronger than I’ve been for years. I’d forgotten what it is like to be able to breathe unencumbered. It is glorious to move without pain.
I climb the stairs, supporting Isabella’s weight. It is laborious, but part of me sings at the exertion.
We reach the top and Isabella slumps against the platform. People fill the streets, but few travel along the Road of Tears. Instead they flock to the Eastern gate or to the shore, fighting to board fishing boats. They are frightened the Worm will travel along the glass road again. But the Eastern Gate is too small to accommodate the vast crowds pouring in its direction. Thousands will be crushed to death.
And those on the boats will be no better. There is only an hour or so until Firewater Sea bursts into flame again. By the time they hijack the boats, the water will be on fire. The only safe passage is the Southern Gate via the Road of Tears but I can taste the Worm outside the gate.
“Is Emily in the sky?” Isabella says.
There are many oathbound flying through the sky. Most are travelling beyond the city walls, but there are still enough remaining above the city to make it impossible to know which one is Emily. None are close enough for Draven to see us.
A ghost of a smile traces Isabella’s lips. “Do you think I will get a statue for powering a beacon?”
“Maybe he’ll come close enough to see us,” I say. I can’t keep the desperation out of my voice.
She touches my face, the motion slow and pained. “You’re so beautiful. Is this what I looked like?”
No oathbound fly close. I scream Draven’s name, but my words are lost into the sky. The sun sinks and little fires gutter and die on the Sea’s surface. Soon the flames will roar waist-high. The hijacked boats will burn.
A great grinding sound sets my teeth on edge. The Southern Gate is trembling from the Worm battering the wall, searching for the source of magic. The walls are indestructible, but the gate is iron.
A single oathbound floats above the Road of Tears. It must be Draven, searching at our last location. Why doesn’t he think? Up here, no sound reaches up except for the whoosh of wind and the Worm’s battering against the wall. The crowd on the western gate is a boiling mass. There will be screams and the crack of bones as the weak are trampled underfoot. And on the lake, the launched boats are already catching fire. If we were close to the lake, we’d smell the roasting flesh.
“I love you,” I say and cast the beacon spell. Isabella screams and screams and screams. I force myself to keep staring at her as she ages and withers in front of my eyes. Her eyes sink deep into her sockets, two black stones dabbed in water, and then she closes her eyes. Her face wrinkles until deep cracks traverse her cheeks. She is utterly still and the only way I know she is alive is the faintest stir of breath against my cheeks. Every part of my body crackles with joy.
At the spell’s final word, light emanates from my fingers and I hold a tiny star in my hand. It is cold, clear and brilliant. And useless. Draven may find us, but Isabella doesn’t have enough power to cast much more. At least the beacon might lead Emily and Draven out of danger.
The Southern Gate glows cherry-red. The sky over the Gate darkens as Worm-brought storm clouds gather and then black fog leaks through the gate. The darkness thickens until the glowing gate vanishes.
I pray to the Gods Isabella doesn’t believe in, but Emily vanishes into the darkness. “Look up,” I scream, but of course he cannot hear me. In-between blinks, Isabella’s eyes film over with white cataracts. I look back into the blackness. “I dreamed of him,” she says.
I am staring so intently that it takes a second for her words to register. “What?”
“Every night, there has been a man in my dreams,” she says. “I didn’t know it was him until he stepped out of Emily. I dreamed he was the love of my life.”
A chill run through me. Mage dreams are prophetic, but the dream cannot be true. I have never heard of a twin having the same dream as a mage. “I have it too,” I say. “You dream of him and then you’re alone. But I’m still alive.”
She coughs wetly. “No,” she says. “I am alone, but with Draven. You’re dead.”
As the star’s light gutters and dies, Emily shoots out from the blackness. Behind her, the black fog dissipates as a howling wind washes it away.
The Worm has melted the Southern Gate and hot iron slag coats the road. It passes through where the gate used to exist. It should not fit. It coils above the city like a brewing storm, yet its head slides through the gates, its width endlessly narrowing as the body slides through. When I look at it directly, it is not there. I can only see it out of the corner of my eye, a featureless tube of night and nothing and air.
Emily rises until she is clear of the buildings and the street. But they travel towards the Burning Sea, not towards us, and the Worm follows them. I can taste its frustration. The beacon has attracted its attention, but Emily’s presence has confused matters. She is a creature of magic. The Worm turns its impossible head and chases her.
I start to recite the beacon spell again. Isabella barely has enough life left, but there is no time to ask for her permission. Her hair falls out in soft, grey clumps and when she screams, I see she has no teeth. When her scream dies, her eyes close and she is a genderless mummy. “I’m sorry,” I whisper, but she does not respond.
The star burns in my hand again. The Worm shifts from its pursuit of Emily and turns down the Road of Tears. Its howl increases in volume until it is the only sound in the world. Tin roofs flutter through the air and whole buildings roll down the street. Further down the road, people flee, but the wind pushes them off their feet. The road’s fused glass softens ahead of the Worm and the people burst into flame. The Worm rolls over them, leaving charred bodies pressed into the cooling glass.
It knows where we are now. The Worm is starting to taste me. As I become used to the gradients of its flavor, I understand it more. I have a taste of its thoughts, which is more than I can say about Isabella. The irony forces a sob from my guts.
The Worm howls down the road and there is a hint of terrible sadness in its flavor. The Worm is full of sorrow. And its flavor gives me a strange insight. It is driven to destroy magic and its drive is the source of its sorrow. I try to taste more, but the wind shifts too much.
Isabella whispers something. I look away from the unfolding horror and press my ears to her lips. It takes two or three attempts before I understand.
Let me die. Her voice is agonized. This is not her desire for glory. This is agony. Even in the moments before I cast the last spell, I didn’t want to die, but she is much closer to dying than I was then. I am not a murderer; I am a torturer.
Emily flies away from the Worm, travelling fast enough that she will be past the city walls within seconds. She is on fire, flames trailing as she streaks through the sky. But the Worm stops and extends its impossible neck to swallow them.
It looms over them, vaster than mountains yet too small to be seen. Its mouth opens, a storm cloud, a hurricane, the abyss at the end of the world. Leave them alone. Please God, miss them.
And miraculously, the Worm retreats. It returns to the Road of Tears and starts travelling towards the Tower. No, it wasn’t a miracle. The Worm understood my thoughts. As much as I can taste it, it can taste me. I open my mouth and poke out my tongue. The taste of sorrow is almost overwhelming. It is the taste of ashes, the taste of cakes at a wake, the taste of wine after long years of loneliness and regret. The Worm consumes magic users and magical things. All other destruction is incidental. It must do what it does and its sorrow at its own nature flavors the wind.
A cough rattles in Isabella’s chest like dice in a cup. She hangs limp and cold from my front. “Isabella,” I yell. “Draven is coming for us. He’s seen the star.” I hold the glittering star high until its temporary flame dies.
The Worm rolls down the road. Its burning wind pushes Emily ahead of it.
Isabella forces a whisper out. “Lead it out of the city,” she says. “Get inside Emily and use another spell to make it chase her away.”
“No.” If she dies inside Emily, no one will ever know what happened. I promised her glory. She is my sister and she deserves glory.
Emily traces a wobbly path to above the tower, her underside brushing the platform and then she lands. Her body is terribly burned, but her face shows no more animation than before.
She splits and Draven steps out. My heart leaps despite the circumstances. He clenches a scroll in his hands.
“I thought we had more time,” he says. He looks at Emily and touches the burning flesh on her hindquarters. Tears fill his eyes and he will not look at us as he holds the scroll in an outstretched hand.
Most of the scroll is covered in the runes in the language of spells, the Tongue. But some of it is common script.
Mary, it says. I have drained Susan too much to cast this. I know you won’t have drained Isabella. She is strong enough to bear the spell. We can rule Parliament together.
Beneath is the spell. It is Emily’s work. If Isabella was strong and the King still alive, the spell would not kill her, but she will die for certain if I do cast it.
Draven bows his head. His twin does the same. And in the gesture, there is something familiar. “Emily?” I say, looking closely at Draven’s twin. I had assumed his twin was male, but the withered creature is female.
Draven shakes his head. “No, Susan.” I touch his twin on its jaw. Emily’s dead twin?
“I don’t understand.”
The Worm curls around the tower’s base. Draven grips the platform, his knuckles whitening. “Emily made me oathbound. Her carriage drove past and splattered me with mud. I called her a whore.”
He opens his eyes, staring down at the Worm as it curls up the stairs. It takes its time now, knowing its prey is trapped. “She made me oathbound to punish me and then when I was her slave, she fell in love with me.” He pauses to choke back a sob. “I told her I loved her too, but I lied,” he says. “When it came time to cast the final spell, she could not do it. I told her to ask the Traders to swap my suffering for the pain of her twin. All I had thought to do was end my own slavery.”
Isabella opens her eyes and speaks. Her voice is clear and strong. She has more life in her than I imagined, maybe enough to cast the inducement spell. “Why doesn’t she speak?” I say.
“She could bear the guilt of hurting Susan, but she could not bear being oathbound,” he says. “It broke her mind. She saved Susan’s life at the expense of her own. Susan is my sorrow now.”
The Worm is at the top of the stairs. It is too large to fit, but it does. I can taste its despair, its need to destroy magic and its self-hatred for doing so.
“Cast the spell,” Isabella says, trying to scream her words. “Kill me. Kill me and save yourself.”
The Worm rears above us and it fills the sky. The scroll is unfurled in my hand. But I am no murderer. I am a liar and a hypocrite, but that is all. I throw the scroll towards the Worm. It catches fire before it hits.
I recite my schoolyard spell, the one that changes tastes. Isabella screams, but she lives. The Worm’s flavor intensifies and overwhelms me. And then the Worm and I are linked. We are twins. I taste it and it tastes me. It knows what I think and feel and say through tasting me and I understand it.
“You consume mages to make the new King”, I tell it, no words passing my lips. “If the New King is not born, the world will die. More than spells, he sustains life.” I taste it waiting, wary of what I have to say. “But you take no pleasure in murder. Your sorrows are heavy.” The taste of sadness and relief floods my mouth. It has spent eternity nursing its guilt, never sharing it. “Go to the Traders of Sorrows,” I tell it. “I will take on your grief and you will take on mine. Leave them all alive and I will be the Worm Nil.”
And it asks, “What grief will you have when your sister is still alive?”
“I love him. He is my true love. He is also Isabella’s true love. My grief is that I give her to him. I give them each other and that is my sorrow.”
The Worm Nil swallows me.
Isabella is un-twinned. I restore her to full health. I am the Worm Nil and the Worm Nil is me. We are one being, carrying the guilt of the other, and we are almost Gods.
Emily left Susan so drained that only a shell remains. There is nothing left to save, so I let her die and leave Draven un-twinned. I cannot restore Emily’s mind. There are some things beyond my powers. One day she may regain her sanity and then Draven’s guilt will be heavier.
I uncoil from the Tower. Parliament’s mages have fled the city in their oathbound. Some are criminals and they should die. I am not a murderer, but I will be. I leave my sister behind, knowing I will never see her again and that is my sorrow, but I am the Worm Nil and I will bear my sorrows for eternity.
Tags: Fantasy, Nick T.Chan, Steampunk