There’s no thud when I land. There’s no impact at all; no one in the crowd reacts to me. I reach out to put a hand on the arm of the closest person. It goes right through him.
Fuck. I’m like a ghost here. How am I going to stop this?
Maybe this isn’t real. Maybe my brain is just imaging what the joining must have been like for Shoch. I close my eyes, remembering the start of this . . . this dream or vision or whatever it is. Remembering how I looked back and saw my own body, still asleep on the bed. Still holding Shoch.
It doesn’t matter. Whatever this is, I have to stop what’s about to happen. I can’t let this priest sacrifice a human being. And I can’t let Shoch bind himself to the wyvern they summon here.
I walk through the crowd to get to Shoch. Literally walk through it, I mean. I don’t have to shove anyone aside or make a path for myself. So what am I going to do when I get to Shoch? How am I supposed to get his attention?
There must be some sort of connection between us. I know he’s an amoral little monster, but he’s my amoral little monster.
“Shoch?” I put myself between him and the altar.
He’s still scrawny. That’s the first thing I notice. And he holds himself like—well, like someone who’s spent his life pouring over books. There’s no air of command to him, and yet there’s something contemptuous about the way he stands there in his plain dark robes. Maybe that’s a scholar’s contempt for the uneducated masses.
Despite everything, I smile a little at that. And at the way those pale blue eyes of his are narrowed in concentration. How many times has he told me that he’s a different person with the wyvern inside him? But I don’t see the difference. This is Shoch before the joining, before his eyes went red. But he’s still my Shoch.
I wave my hand in front of his face. “Shoch, it’s me. It’s Aric.”
“Come on, pet. You know me. Some part of you must sense me here. Look at me, please.”
He raises his eyes.
“That’s it, Shoch. Come on.”
But no, he’s looking straight through me. I glance back so I can see what he’s seeing. Málaf, he’s staring at the victim now. And when I turn back to him, there’s nothing in his eyes but that same cold focus. Fuck me, I can read his thoughts exactly. He knows his part in this. He’s confident now. And he’s hardly even thinking about the man tied to the horns of the altar. The priest is about to slit that man’s throat, but that doesn’t bother Shoch at all.
So that’s what it means to be from Rokofar. No—that’s what it means to be Shoch. People in the crowd are at least looking at the sacrificial victim with respect and sympathy. Shoch is too busy thinking about his own part of the ritual to bother.
The priest starts chanting. I can pick out a word here or there—no, it’s not the trade tongue that we all speak. And it’s not the old tongue either, but it’s something related to it. She’s praising the victim’s courage and the sacrifice he’s making on behalf of all the people of Rokofar.
“Stop!” That’s my voice. I’m facing the priest now. This isn’t her first time. She looks assured and almost serene. She’s holding her knife to the victim’s throat—holding it steady without any hint of nerves.
She ignores me. Worse, the sorcerer starts chanting too. Not Shoch—he’s not a sorcerer yet. And he won’t ever be if I can end this now. But other one, I mean. He’s summoning a wyvern from beyond the barrier. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
I twist away from Shoch, scramble over the altar and grab the priest’s hand. I feel her skin, warm and smooth against my own. I’m not ghost-like, and neither is she.
She gasps, breaking the chant.
“Stop this!” I don’t know if she can hear me, but she can see me. Her eyes are staring straight into mine.
The sorcerer’s voice falters. Can he see me too? I don’t look away from the priest to find out. What about Shoch? I can’t look at him either. But I swear I can hear him breathing heavy, trying to figure out what’s going on.
“Please.” I’m begging. “Please end this ritual.”
She wavers—until the stench of holy wood fills our nostrils. That mawkish smell is too strong to be just from the incense, and we both know it.
I let go of her and stare up. A wisp of smoke is floating above us. No, not a wisp. There’s too much smoke for that now. And it’s taking shape. A second later a wyvern is hovering above us all, its wings stretched out over the altar—a mockery of the wings on Veshnic’s statue.
The priest screams something in her own tongue and raises the dagger again. I reach for her arm, but this time my hand passes right through her. She slits the victims throat—but it’s not a clean slice. We’re all too panicked for that.
He’s not dead. The victim’s not dead. Half his throat is torn and blood is gushing from it, but he’s jerking around now, as far as the ropes will let him. The drummer is at his side, trying to hold him. And the priest is grabbing him from behind, determined to finish the job. But the victim—he’s stronger than both of them and he’s flailing. Another second and he might even twist out of the ropes.
It’s too late to save him. I try to grab hold of him, to keep him still long enough for the priest to put him out of his misery. But it’s no use—I’m a ghost again.
The wyvern is flying through the cavern now. The smoke has faded into white, gleaming scales. The whole thing is white, from it’s snake-like tail to its beating wings. Everything except its eyes, that is—I catch a flash of red.
People in the crowds are screaming. They’re trampling each other as they duck for cover or flee. Veshnic help us—this thing could kill everyone here. Why isn’t that worthless sorcerer trying to banish it?
A keening wail rises above all the other screams and shouts. Shoch, I realize. That’s Shoch.
I turn to stare at my pet. Holy Sages, he climbed right up on the altar. And that keen of his—he’s calling the damned wyvern.
It notices him. Hell, it flies up to him, hovering right above him.
Shoch keeps up that keening. And his eyes—fuck me, they’re filled with wonder at the sight of this thing. Shoch isn’t terrified. No, he’s enthralled.
The keening is working. The wyvern seems just as entranced as Shoch is. It’s like the two of them are performing some intricate, ritualistic dance that only they know the steps to.
Shoch jumps off the altar, landing gracefully on the ground. He’s leading the wyvern now, I realize. Leading him straight to the victim, who’s still thrashing against the ropes. The priest and the drummer—they know what Shoch is up to, because they back up as far as they can.
We all know what’s coming. I shouldn’t have stopped the priest. A clean death from her dagger would have been better than this—better than those fangs and those claws. Fuck, I look away. I’ve seen the remains of a wyvern’s attack. Hell, I’ve felt those claws for myself. I’m not about to watch that beast tear this man to shreds.
I watch Shoch, though. He’s still keening, and he’s still enthralled. He doesn’t take his eyes from the wyvern as that thing makes a meal of another human being. And then . . . then he calls it back to himself.
They’re still dancing, these two. But the dance is more intimate now. Shoch is coaxing the beast, cajoling it, easing it back into a wisp of smoke. A wisp of smoke that seems to merge with him, entering through his mouth and his nostrils.
The panic is over. There are shouts of triumph, filling up the whole cavern. But Shoch is silent. He’s silent and satisfied—and his eyes are a fiery red.