Shoch is in the chamber. He’s leaning back against the opposite wall, as if he still needs support in order to stay on his feet. Damn it—he ought to be back in our room, safe in bed.
Gael closes the door behind us, gentle and slow. I can hear my father and brother talking off to my left. A knot in my stomach unwinds—everyone is still alive. I glance over there just to be sure. Yes. My father, my brother and even Itzel are all accounted for.
They’re not talking anymore, though. Not since they’ve noticed us.
And Shoch—he’s finally looking up at me. Why did it take him so long? Is he still recovering? Or was he concentrating too hard on that wyvern in him? A little of both, probably. But there’s no mistaking the shame and guilt on his face, or the fact that he can’t meet my eyes.
There’s a trace of holy wood in the air too. Light and faint, but it’s there. So the wyvern is wide awake inside him and ready for release.
He’s here to kill my father. Ruvan meant to hold Shoch in reserve, I think, in case our father refused to listen to reason. But Shoch was in earnest. He’s didn’t intend to leave this room with the man still breathing.
“Aric, you’re here.” My brother sounds pleased to see me, even though he must have guessed that Gael betrayed him. “Good. Thank you, Gael, for bringing him. And Jonac—you’re more than welcome at this discussion.”
My eyes are still on Shoch, but I’m impressed anyway. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Ruvan ordered me here.
There are shuffling sounds behind me—oh. Gael and Jonac must be genuflecting in front of my father. I can hear them each murmur a “Your Majesty.” But I still don’t take my eyes off of Shoch.
“Come here, pet.” I keep my voice soft, but the command is clear.
His tongue darts out, as if he were about to lick his lips. But then he shuts his mouth tight and shakes his head.
I step toward him. The smell of holy wood is stronger now. “Shoch?”
Ruvan is still talking. “Itzel has been answering questions about the barrier—”
“And saying nothing to the purpose,” our father cuts in. “She has no more idea how to fix it than we do. This is a waste of time!”
The barrier. Ruvan cares about that even more than the four priests whose lives are on the line. And I suppose he has a point—but I can’t think about that. Not now. I’m too worried about Shoch. His whole body is shaking.
I close the distance between us and put my arms on his shoulders. He can meet my eyes now, except—fuck! That’s not Shoch looking at me. Not alone. The wyvern is staring back at me too.
“Itzel?” Is that my voice? How is it so calm?
“What’s wrong?” My father’s tone is sharp.
Fuck, what am I supposed to say? “Shoch—he’s losing control of the wyvern. Probably because of his injuries earlier.” That’s true enough, as far as it goes.
I think Shoch has given up on murder—he must know that he can’t keep the beast in check, or guarantee that it will only attack my father. So now he’s desperate to hold it inside him.
Itzel rushes to his side. He grabs her arms and moves his lips.
She nods and opens her mouth . . . but nothing happens.
“It won’t work,” Jonac says. I can’t see him. He’s still standing behind me. “He needs to talk through me.”
What does that mean? That this new bond with Itzel didn’t take? Is Shoch still linked to Jonac?
“Then go stand by him,” Ruvan snaps. “Let him use your voice, just like he did at Crevlock.”
Jonac hurries around me to get to Shoch. He puts a hand on his arm, but then shakes his head and steps backward. “It’s no use. Shoch isn’t . . . he’s not in control anymore. Swords out!”
“No. No blades.” Wait, what am I saying? I’m right, though. Knives and swords aren’t the answer. “Gael, stand by His Majesty. Itzel, stay behind them. Ruvan and Jonac—I need you to hold Shoch up.”
No one moves—even my father is silent. But I can feel all their eyes on me.
“Please. Just do as I say.”
Everyone obeys me this time. I have no idea why—I didn’t even put any bark into that order. And none of them have an obligation to listen to me.
Doesn’t matter. I need to keep my attention on Shoch. There’s smoke seeping from his mouth. And the scent of holy wood is filling the room. It’s not the cloying, sickeningly sweet kind, though. No, it’s the clean, pleasant scent that surrounds me whenever I’m in Veshnic’s presence.
Veshnic. He’s here. Well, of course he is. If he’s real, he’s always here. How did he put it? We all abide in him—or something like that. But that’s not what I mean. He’s here, he’s present and . . . and I think I know how to handle this beast.
Assuming I haven’t lost my mind.
“It’s all right, pet.” I smile at Shoch as I let go of his shoulders—Ruv and Jonac are propping him up now. “You don’t have to fight the beast. You can release it.”
“Aric!” My brother’s staring at me, pale and wide-eyed.
“Just hold onto Shoch, Ruv.”
I take a step back. The smoke pours out of Shoch, either because he trusts me or because he can’t hold this thing inside him anymore. Either way, we’re about to have a fully formed wyvern in the room.
My ear catches a sword sliding out of its scabbard—that would be Gael. “No blades,” I repeat. There must be a strange sort of authority to my voice, despite the fact that I’m keeping it gentle, because I hear him sheathe the sword again.
I take another step back. The smoke is shaping itself into something long, lean and serpent-like. Four limbs altogether: legs like a salamander’s, and wings with claws on the end, like a bat’s. Gleaming white scales, just like in that temple down in Rokofar.
The wyvern—it’s not smoke anymore. It’s real. And it’s staring at me with burning red eyes. I don’t think it’s noticed anyone else.
That’s good, I tell myself. And it’s not attacking—also good. It’s sniffing the air though, as if it can smell the blood under my skin.
Fuck. That’s going to be a problem.