Return 21

From here, Narcissa could see the door of the outbuilding, though not well and from an angle. The space in front of it she could see quite clearly, however.

She saw a small shape, bright with Meyar’s light, plummet from the sky directly over the outbuilding, followed by an owl haloed with green-gold. Heart in her throat, she lost sight of her sister behind the building.

Please let her be safe. Why did she come back here?

She heard Gernot’s threat, echoing off the inside of the walls, and felt cold and sick. Could she let her moon-sister endure that? But what was to stop him from inflicting that or worse on Kaveri anyway, once he had Narcissa?

How were they going to get out of this? A few days ago, she’d been looking forward to the upcoming full moon and the pure joy of playing in the abundant violet moonlight with her moon-sister who had become nearly as dear to her as her blood sister—not alone this time, but with Talir full as well, which meant other sorts of games. Even if they all died, they’d be back in a few days, but had her trick with Juro worked? What about Demetrios, who was probably the one who’d been inside alone briefly? What would happen to Ejiro, to Onyeka and her children, to Iole and Phaidra and Ander? And even with physical damage erased, what damage to the mind and heart would being tortured leave behind?

She heard Kaveri’s command, as well.

Talir’s light brightened in the clear area in front of the door.

Narcissa blinked, wondering whether she had dust in her eyes, but no, that was unmistakably the same thing they saw whenever any of them had been gone and was being returned. But none of the moons were full, Talir certainly wasn’t, and as far as she knew, both Kieran and Tyrel were inside.

The yellow light resolved itself into the shape of a light-skinned woman, not particularly tall, with long russet hair drawn back into a neat tail, in a tunic with a high neck but no sleeves and loose-fitting trousers.

She stretched, looked around her, then focused on the doorway.

“Gernot. No longer anyone’s master. Once again, you trap and threaten my son. I’m here. Come face me.”

Her son?

And that isn’t the local language, that’s Kieran’s.

Is that… Neoma?

Gernot charged out the doorway, and stopped short. “You’re dead!”

“Do I look dead? Coward. You’re afraid to face me without having some hold over me first. You’re afraid even to think for yourself and wonder whether I might be right after all. Maybe the moons don’t want any part of that sewage that you swallowed whole. Or is it that you don’t care, as long as it’s an excuse for making people scream?”

He roared something incoherent and took a couple of steps towards her.

Narcissa shrank down, expecting a battle.

Gernot stopped in his tracks and turned his face to Lirit. “I need to change!” he shouted.

Nothing happened. He stood there still in his human form.

He spat something Narcissa thought was an obscenity, and retreated just inside the doorway. Neoma, arms crossed, watched him without moving.

“Running away?” she said mockingly. “Or looking for help?”

There were more of the reborn inside, Narcissa knew, four of them, Wira and the woman who had stood at military attention and the two large men who always seemed to be near Gernot. The sensible thing for him to do would have been to call them out.

Instead, he came back into sight holding Mirren’s slender-bladed short sword with its hilt of two back-to-back crescents.

Yellow light shimmered around Neoma, and a reddish-furred wolf, no more than a third Kieran’s size, faced him with her tail straight up aggressively; Narcissa heard her growl.

One small wolf, alone against an armed man, and even if he didn’t summon them, there were other dangers out there that might choose to involve themselves: that grey wolf was twice her size as was the cheetah, the lion was several times her size, there were humans with spears, though she hadn’t seen the owl take to the air again.

But what could a hare or an unarmed woman with scant skill at combat do to help her?

* * *

With a deep groan that Lysandra more felt than heard, the ground in the centre of the circle rippled and heaved. She heard breath caught around her, tremors on the rhythm of the chant. The hopes of these women were, like that sound, almost palpable in their united and fervent strength.

“Please,” she whispered, not sure who she was praying to.

Another ripple, and more of the hard barren ground gathered itself.

Lysandra held her breath, but had to let it out before Ejiro succeeded at mustering some version of his human avatar. It was little clearer than the rough shape they’d seen the night she’d danced for him, but nonetheless, they had that much.

“Speak,” the oldest said to Lysandra, since the Bride seemed unable to, tears streaking her face reflecting the moonlight. “Quickly.”

“I heard,” Ejiro said, though it was a low rumbling sigh. “Show me where, daughter of Meyar. Call me from there.” Diamond eyes closed, and the vaguely humanoid form crumbled back into the dirt of the vacant lot.

Lysandra wasn’t sure she could bear to look around her at the stricken faces of Ejiro’s former Brides, who had just been confronted with a brutal illustration of the depth of Ejiro’s weakness.

“Show him where,” she repeated. “I can do that. Wish us all luck.”

“More than we can tell you,” the oldest said quietly.

She looked up at Meyar, not caring right now who might see, and changed back to her honeyfox form. Back into the air, wishing fleetingly for one of her friends to give her that initial toss that made it quicker and easier, and she oriented herself on the place she needed to go. Since she couldn’t be sure how much strength Ejiro could put behind a quake, the centre of it needed to be right on that building—or at least, the ground immediately outside it. She couldn’t chance failure just because the centre was too far away.

She was almost there before the owl spotted her.

Lysandra heard her own shrill squeak of alarm, and fluttered higher, trying to keep above it and out of reach of those talons. The owl, much larger and more powerful than her with a wider wingspan, in turn did its best to get close to her. If it did, she’d be dead before Meyar had a chance to heal her, and while that would leave Lysandra safe until the next full moon, what she’d come back to didn’t bear thinking about.

Smaller and lighter and with an entirely different build, Lysandra discovered that she could manoeuvre much more quickly. That saved her from attacks repeatedly. Had she had the option, she could have used that advantage to escape and find a place to hide or a place too small for the owl to reach her, but the longer she delayed, the greater the danger to her family. So she kept dodging, and when she was directly over the outbuilding she wanted, she folded her wings entirely and let herself drop.

At the last instant, she extended her wings again. The force of the air striking them felt like a physical blow, and she wasn’t sure she hadn’t shattered at least one bone, but Meyar’s cool blue-white light shimmered around her still, healing the damage before she could entirely assess it. She didn’t have full control back when she hit the tile roof, but at least she’d slowed her speed enough that it only knocked the breath from her. She made no effort to halt her rapid rolling slide down the slope and off the edge, just wrapped her wings in close and braced herself.

The moment she thudded against dirt, she asked Meyar to change her back. On her knees, her hands on the ground in an unconscious imitation of Abena’s pose, she drew enough air into her aching lungs to murmur, “Ejiro! Here! Please!”

“Rabbit!” she heard a man bellow from what must be an open door on the far side of the building. “You risked yourself foolishly for this woman. Let’s see how you feel about her screaming. Show yourself or I start removing fingers. I can think of other things if we run out of those.”

Oh, no no no no, Kaveri’s tough but that… and Cissa won’t be able to bear it, she’ll come out!

“Ejiro, please!” She looked up as a shadow crossed her, and flung both arms up to protect her face and throat as the furious owl slammed into her talons-first. She changed back to honeyfox form, and the deep wounds that pierced arms and rib cage were simply not there when she’d finished changing, too rapidly for more than a fleeting heartbeat of hot sharp pain. Aware of more voices around the building but without the attention to spare, she scrambled out from under the owl and in the direction of the first possible weapon she saw, no matter how primitive. Back in human form, she snatched up a rock the size of her fist and flung it at the owl.

At such close range, with the owl coming directly at her, it would have been a difficult throw to miss entirely.

She’d hoped for the head, but the rock collided instead with the leading edge of one wing, close to the body.

The owl dropped to the ground, wing crumpling.

Lysandra, scanning her surroundings for another rock, kept one eye on it.

The owl looked up, then changed to human form. Now a woman with medium-dark skin and medium-brown hair, cradling her injured arm against her, she turned her gaze upwards again, her eyes wide with shock. “She isn’t healing me! They healed you!”

“Because you’re doing something they don’t want you to do! Ejiro! Please!”

The first tremor was barely perceptible.

The second shook several tiles off the roof; Lysandra grabbed the injured owl-woman and hauled her bodily further away before any of them could strike her.

The ground beneath them shuddered and flexed. Before she could fall on the suddenly unstable surface, Lysandra dropped to her knees. Earth was supposed to be solid, not moving like a bowl of thick syrup that had just been struck. Her stomach heaved in counterpoint.

The mud brick walls were no match for it. She saw cracks appear, the outer coating flaking off to expose the naked bricks, and the bricks crumbling under the assault. More tiles crashed off the roof, some of them shattering and spraying shards around the immediate area, so Lysandra drew herself into a tight ball as much as she could in hopes of keeping them from hitting anything vital. One shard in just the wrong spot could ruin everything, though every tile that came free meant a greater chance for her family.

“Thank you,” she said breathlessly. “Whatever happens, Ejiro, thank you.”

* * *

Narcissa bolted out from under the cart just before it came down around her. Zigzagging across the nightmarishly quaking landscape, she spotted a dark figure in pale clothes, coming in the direction of the hand-carts or possibly of the prison outbuilding. She altered course to cross his path, such as it was when it was possible only to stagger drunkenly, and changed back to human. Impatiently, she unwound her mantle and abandoned it, and gathered the front of her long skirt up to tuck into the band of moonspun that had earlier supported her hidden knife.

“Even if the walls come down,” Demetrios said rapidly, “they’re caged still, and locked. Tile coming down, and the beams…”

“I think my sister is involved. She fell, with an owl after her.”

“Best we find her and find a way open those cages, then.”

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