All of us fall silent. I don’t know what’s going on in everyone else’s head, but I’m trying to hammer Shoch’s words into my brain: we created the Tainted. We Tantzi created these monsters.
No, not monsters. Shoch ain’t a monster. I better keep reminding myself of that.
“All right,” Ruvan says. “All right. So ages ago, our priests figured out how to bind a human to a demon.”
“Not demon.” I give him a sharp look. “Wyvern. Let’s just call them wyverns.”
My brother rolls his eyes. “Fine. They figured out how to bind a human and wyvern. And these wyverns are magical creatures—the human bound to one can call on that magic and control it. That’s what makes a sorcerer. Am I right, Shocha?”
Shoch favors my brother with another one of his grim nods.
“Somehow, our ancestors must have used that magic to create the barrier between our world and—and wherever the wyverns belong.” Ruvan pauses to chew on his lip. Then he shrugs and continues. “If we figured out how to do it once, we can figure it out again.”
“Forgive me, Highness, but how?” Jonac stands up and starts pacing the room. “We have one sorcerer to our credit. And he—he’s not even a proper sorcerer anymore. He’s useless without his tongue.”
I glare at him. “And whose fault is that? You’re the one who cut his tongue out.”
Shoch doesn’t say anything—he doesn’t grunt and he doesn’t mime. But his eyes dart back and forth between me and Jonac.
“You’d have done the same in my shoes, Aric.” Jonac’s voice is low and dangerous. “Don’t pretend otherwise.”
“Yes, I would have.” I growl out the words. “And Shoch already knows that.”
Jonac lets out this—I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like a triumphant grunt.
“But I wouldn’t make it sound as if Shoch is to blame. And he ain’t useless. He’s the one with all this information. And he still has sorcery. He did just fine when he spoke the words of power through you.”
Jonac stops pacing. “That will never happen again. Never.”
“Probably not, because we won’t be making any more sacrifices, but—”
“Quiet.” Ruvan looks from one of us to the other. “Both of you.”
He doesn’t raise his voice. Not at all. But his words do their work: we both shut up.
Satisfied, my brother turns to Jonac. “Don’t say never. With the barrier failing . . . we don’t know what we’ll have to do if another wyvern breaks loose in our territory. And it worked last time. Shocha keened out those words of power through you.”
Jonac sighs as he shakes his head. “Highness, may I speak freely, even at the risk of giving offense?”
He points to Shoch. “I’ve been inside that thing’s head now. Or, more accurately, he’s been inside mine. And he is not like us. He doesn’t think like us. He’s in pain from that beast inside of him. All the time, I’d guess. And he’s full of emotions that he can barely control.”
I blink at that. I should be angry at Jonac’s words, but—no. I’m worried.
Shoch’s hand is sort of resting on mine. I give it a squeeze. “Is that true, pet? Are you in pain?”
He glares at Jonac before answering me. Than he mimes with his free hand—I think the gist of it is that it’s nothing he can’t handle.
“But . . .” I let my voice trail off. What am I supposed to say here, exactly? “Shoch, what can I do to make it easier on you?”
He smiles. It’s a warm smile. Warm and exasperated and affectionate and a little amused. But then he mimes that he’s fine. Just fine.
Jonac snorts. “I’ll give him this much. His devotion to you is real, Aric. But he’s full of rage and despair and—well, don’t think for a second that any of us can control him. You ought to keep your pet collared and leashed.”
Shoch twists his hand out of mine and jumps to his feet. My brother and Gael both grab hold of him to keep him from throttling Jonac. Well, from trying to throttle Jonac. My pet still don’t stand a chance against that man.
I push myself up a little. “Shoch! Look at me.” I keep my eyes on him. Jonac’s probably standing there with a satisfied smirk, happy to have proved his point.
Shoch turns back to me. Reluctantly, but he does. Ruvan and Gael each keep hold of one arm, though.
“You serve me, remember? Jonac’s our superior, so we have to treat him with respect—no matter what idiotic thing he says.”
That doesn’t placate Shoch.
“Besides, maybe that idiot has a point, pet.” I wink at him. “Can’t say I’d mind seeing you in a collar and leash.”
Fuck. That only confuses him. I’m not sure he knows what to make of those words with such a gentle, suggestive tone.
Gael risks letting go of Shoch’s arm to give him a friendly nudge. “Don’t worry. He’s just flirting with you.”
“He is,” Ruvan confirms. “Aric has no sense of propriety. But you can teach him a lesson once we leave you two alone.”
Now Shoch looks panicked.
“Shhh, pet. It’s all right.” I sigh. “My fault—I shouldn’t flirt. Shoch is some sort of monk.”
Ruvan’s eyebrows shoot up. “What?”
I shrug. “It’s true. Leaves me out in the cold, but what can you do?”
My brother stares at me, and then at Shoch, and then at me again. It actually takes him that long to recover. So much for his diplomatic skills—he should be better at hiding his shock.
Now Shoch is bright red. Damn. I only meant to distract him from his desire to murder Jonac—a desire I completely understand. I didn’t mean to humiliate him.
He turns to my brother and hesitates.
Ruvan guesses what he wants and holds out his hand.
Shoch takes it and starts tracing his letters.
“You’re not a monk? Oh, you haven’t taken any vows. You just—most sorcerers live like monks. Is that it, Shocha?”
He nods, but he’s still bright red.
Fortunately, Gael comes to the rescue. He laughs a little—a friendly, good-natured laugh—and throws an arm over Shoch’s shoulder. “No need to be embarrassed. We’ll all know each other’s secrets soon enough. Besides, we’re all friends here.”
I’m holding my breath. I didn’t notice at first, but I am. No need, though. Shoch is still skittish, but he’s not panicking or cowering or even backing away from Gael’s touch.
Ruvan manages a half-smile. “Well, we’re allies, at least. Shocha and Jonac—you two need to cry peace. I don’t care what you think of each other. I care that we can work together to send any more stray wyverns back beyond the barrier.”
I try to push myself up at that. “Wait.”
My little brother cocks his head at me.
“That’s all well and good. I mean, yes, they should play nice. But how are we supposed to do anything about stray wyverns now? We can’t spill any more human blood over it.”
Ruvan pushes his hair out of his face—there are always stray tendrils. Then he makes sure to meet my eyes. I can see him doing it deliberately. “I know your feelings on this. And I understand and respect the power of the, ah, vision you experienced. But, Aric, if we have to face another one of these things—”
“No Ruvan.” I shake my head. “No. Don’t even say it.”
“If we have to face another one of these things,” he repeats, “I refuse to take a blood sacrifice off the table.”
“Aric, listen to me!” My brother’s eyes are hard now. Hard and determined. “All you did was cut your arm open. That wasn’t a fatal wound. But it still worked.”
“Doesn’t matter. We can’t go down that road. If we do, what happens the first time the blood from someone’s arm isn’t enough?”
“You know my answer to that!”
“I know what it was before. That death for all of us is better than human sacrifice. But you’ll start thinking differently once you get used to blood on an altar. We all will.” I pause to shake my head. “Besides, Veshnic don’t want sacrifices. And we need his help in this.”
That’s Jonac’s voice. I glance over at him.
“Aric is right.” He pauses to scoff. “Not that I believe this vision nonsense of his—but he’s right about the sacrifices. We can’t go down that path.”
Ruvan is willing himself to keep his temper in check. Oh yes, he has a temper. He doesn’t let it come out and play very often, but he has it. “And what do you two suggest we do instead?”
“What you suggested yourself, Highness. We find out how to strengthen the barrier.”
“Right.” I nod in agreement. “Like you said, Ruv, we Tantzi figured it out before. We can do it again. Starting with the five of us here.”
Gael makes a face. “Ah, I’m all for this. But I’d like to point out that at least two of us here are not Tantzi.” He still has a friendly arm around Shoch, so he pauses to pat his shoulder. “Maybe three of us, depending on Shocha’s heritage.”
I grin. Yes, that was stupid of me, considering how dark Jonac’s skin is and how, um, medium Gael’s is. “That don’t matter. We’re all Bonshev. We all follow the Sages.”
Shoch grunts his objection.
“All right, pet.” I roll my eyes. “Four out of five of us follow the Sages. And you obey me, so that’s . . . well, almost as good.”
He gives me a hard look and then traces something in the air. Oh. It’s a shield. A shield with—well, I’ll assume that’s an eye he’s trying to make in the center.
“Yes. I follow Veshnic now too.”
That satisfies him.
“Very well.” Ruvan considers each of us in turn. “I’m not admitting defeat on this—but you’re right. Restoring the barrier is the most important thing.”
Gael knits his brows together. “Ah, do any of us know where to start?”
“Fuck.” I lie back again, struggling to get comfortable. “It won’t be easy. Some priestly writings survived the Sages and their followers, but not much. And I’ve read it all. There’s a lot about sacrifices, but nothing about the barrier.”
Ruvan perks up at that. “But those scrolls—they were found near here.”
“What?” I squint at him.
“You don’t know the story?”
“I know that hundreds of years ago some priest hid the papers in jars and buried them.” Damn, what else did I learn about this? “Presumably so these new Sages and their followers wouldn’t find them. It took a while before the Sages stopped preaching against the gods.”
“And they never stopped preaching against the sacrifices,” Jonac puts in.
I nod at him. “Right. It was sheer luck that someone unearthed those jars. But I didn’t know that all happened around here.”
“It did.” Ruvan is gloating now, because he knows something I don’t know. Little brothers never grow out of that.
“Aric, don’t you see? There might be more here.”
“More what? Buried jars?”
“No. But more writings might have survived. We can dig for them.”
“Dig? Ruvan, dig what?”
“This site,” Jonac answers. “Crevlock Tower.”
My brother nods. “There was another building here once, long before the prison.” He pauses. Just to be dramatic, I think.
“Well?” Yes, I’m losing patience. “What sort of building?”
“I still can’t believe you don’t know this—”
“It was a temple, Aric. A temple to Veshnic.”