Daine slammed herself once more into Ozorne's flickering shield. Nearly through. Behind her, skeletons rampaged.
"You unholy menace," Ozorne growled, amber eyes molten with fury.
Black fire wrapped around the emperor. Daine snarled.
"I am almost tempted to let you have him," came a heartbreakingly familiar voice.
Daine shook off the pricklings of recognition and slammed into the new shield. It didn't waver at all.
The sour smell of fear from Ozorne deepened into true terror, masked over with utter rage. "You treasonous bastard," Ozorne hissed.
"Really, Ozorne," Numair said lazily as he stepped past the hyenas, "you've met my parents." He looked at Daine, eyes full of nothing but bitter amusement.
Daine found herself crouched naked and human on the cold tile, numb from disbelief. "You're dead," she croaked.
Numair's smile went uncharacteristically crooked. "Well, in a sense, I am," he said.
"You son of a bitch," Ozorne snarled.
"That one I'll own up to, since you have met my mother." Numair glanced sidelong at Ozorne. "Finally figured it out, have you?"
"I knew you had a simulacrum stashed away!"
Numair's smirk widened. "Indeed."
"So…" Daine said tentatively. "They executed your simulacrum?"
"Do you think me that blind, girl?" Ozorne snapped at her, eyes never wavering from Numair. "I killed the real thing!"
"Ah, yes," Numair breathed. "I must admit, you did - well, for a given value of 'real,' considering that the original body I was born into died eight years ago. I must say, I'm a bit surprised you fell for the same trick a second time, Ozorne; I expected better from you." He turned back to Daine. "I could take you to visit my grave," he said. "It might be an interesting experiment; would your current powers resurrect an empty shell?" He laughed at the expression on her face.
"But I saw a simulacrum…"
"You must be in shock," Numair murmured. "You're never quite this slow. If the body I was wearing earlier is now dead," he continued, poisonously cheerful, "what body, precisely, do you think I am wearing now? Why do you think I had a spare body tucked away?" He waved one hand idly in the emperor's direction. "I learned the art of making lifelike simulacra from him, Daine. Do you really think he would not have been able to tell an empty body from a real one?"
For a long moment, all three of them were silent. Ozorne continued to stare intently at Numair, slowly gathering the last shreds of his emerald Gift in his clenched fists.
A chunk of masonry knocked half out of the wall earlier teetered and fell, startling Daine badly. Numair chuckled, and stepped back.
"I don't quite know what to do, here," Numair said. "You have been a thorn in my side for ages," he nodded at Ozorne, who glared, "and I am sorely tempted to just let you finish him off, Daine." He stared at Ozorne for a long, long moment, and something that looked strangely like regret flickered across Numair's dark eyes.
"That said," he continued, turning to face Daine squarely for the first time, "I find myself agreeing with my dear friend." Numair's previously-hidden hand came up, full of sparkling hypnotic fire. "You, my dear, are indeed a menace, and now that you know what you know, I have to get rid of you both."
Daine scrambled away, but Numair didn't throw the fire at her. Instead, he made an odd pinching gesture in her direction, and tugged.
The sparkling white wall encircling her Self crumbled within her, and Daine, her wild magic flooding into the void like a tsunami after an earthquake, lost herself completely.
The last things the girl named Daine ever fully registered were the abrupt absence of black magic from her field of vision, the pained gasp of a man backed into a corner as he ran himself through with a magic feather, sudden sunlight on steel wings, and a very quiet curse.
It was Alanna and Lord Martin who found him, guided by Lindhall and the prince. All four stopped dead when they entered the menagerie.
"What-?" Alanna nearly stuttered. Kaddar swayed, reached out to steady himself on the nearest wall, then clearly thought better of it.
"Sorry," Numair rasped. "It's a bit of a mess." He looked around and smiled tiredly. "I'd clean up the mess, but I'm tapped out."
Lindhall examined his former student closely for a long moment, pale blue eyes hard and icy, then he shook himself and glanced around. Deep gray fog crept across the floor and into all the enclosures, and everywhere it touched, blood and other assorted matter simply ceased to exist. Without another word, the older mage turned sharply and stalked out.
Numair sat down, hard. "I chased Daine and Ozorne in here," he whispered brokenly. He buried his face in his hands. "Oh, gods, Daine… She was in the form of a hyena, and she had him cornered. He had unlocked the cages…" He glanced around, and swallowed.
Alanna knelt next to the distraught man. "What happened to Daine, Numair?" she prodded, softly but urgently.
Numair held up a fine chain that held nothing but a coil of wire. Alanna glanced at it, and then her eyes widened. "Ozorne did something to her, maybe, or the stress of fighting so many enemies got to her. The barrier I put in her mind crumbled, and she went mad. Ozorne got away."
"How? How could he have possibly escaped this? He would have had to have passed us!" Kaddar's shock was giving way to agitation.
"The Stormwing feather," Numair replied. He looked more stable, as if retelling the story was helping him recover. "He stabbed himself with it and transformed into a Stormwing himself, then took off." He looked away, bitterly. "Probably the smartest thing he's ever done in his life," Numair muttered. He fidgeted with the chain in his hands.
"And Daine?" Alanna said, voice grave. Lord Martin moved to stand at her shoulder, silent and stoic, sword in hand.
Numair swallowed and met Alanna's eyes. "I had to kill her," he said. "I couldn't calm her down. The beaver's claw evaporated the moment she passed away, leaving only this." He dangled the chain before them once more.
"Enough," Martin said, reaching down to haul Numair up by the arm. "We need to get moving."
Together, the four of them turned, leaving the unnaturally sterile room behind.
The Black God had, over the course of his immortal career, led off every kind of soul, of every shade of normal and crazy that could possibly exist. Usually, though, the act of death freed the souls from the torments of their cross-wired brains, and while a trace of their madness often remained stamped on their spirit, they were usually able to at least understand him.
Not that most needed to. He rarely had need to speak to mortals, dead or alive.
Unfortunately, this time he had to. This mortal shade had a choice to make, one no creature, god or not, could mandate for her.
Where do you want to go, shade? The Black God asked her, unable to draw a name off her soul.
She cocked her head at him, but there was no comprehension in her gaze.
The Black God felt, for the first time in eons, an urge to sigh. The not-space split down the middle into the comforting soft night of the grave and the harsh immortal light of a forest in the Divine Realms. The girl-shade snarled, snapped her teeth, and danced agitatedly down along the threshold.
You are both god and mortal, girl, the Black God tried again. Your mother was a human woman; your father was a forest god. Unlike most mortals, you get to choose. He gestured at the two realms.
A flicker of something that was not sanity, but a vicious reason, kindled in the depths of her eyes. Slowly, she straightened up, then loped into the forest, shrieking an inhuman cry as her divine blood asserted itself and scrambling for balance as her feet became horse's hooves. The Black God watched her transformation with faint curiosity, but within moments, she had vanished into the depths of the forest.
Something wicked this way comes, the Black God thought, wishing that he possessed neither foresight nor compassion.
Numair yawned, staggered over to the washbasin, and peered blearily into the mirror. The image he saw there brought him instantly to full alertness.
The face staring back at him was not his own, but that of a dead fifteen-year-old girl from whose curly moss-streaked brown hair grew, rather incongruously, an impressive rack of antlers. Her smoky blue eyes were slitted like a serpent's; when she bared her teeth in something that no one would mistake for a grin, they were impressively shark-like. Where once, very nearly three years ago, her eyes had been awash to his sight with unchecked copper fire, they were now glazed with silver-white ice so bright that Numair could hardly see their physical color through the gleam. A frog's sticky tongue abruptly shot out from her mouth towards Numair; he jerked back involuntarily, and the monster in the mirror slurped it back up, laughing like a hyena.
Daine cocked her head, graced him with a simpering, feral smile, and scratched at the other side of the mirror with badger's claws. Numair slammed his palm hard onto his side of the glass, and the image vanished.
There were claw marks scoring the back of the glass, breaking up Numair's reflection into tortured slivers. Gingerly, he touched one; all he felt was smooth glass. He hummed, picked up the mirror, and glanced at the back; nothing. Nothing was there when he peeled the backing off, either.
He haphazardly repaired the mirror and set it back on his washstand. "My life is never easy, is it," Numair asked the universe dryly, watching his tired smirk fracture across the surface of the glass.
It echoed back nothing but faint whooping laughter.
On Midwinter Day, every mage in Corus was torn from sleep as the greatest magical barrier ever constructed vanished, and the primal Magic underlying the world screamed back into the gap. The magics of every mage in Corus, Gifted or tribal or wild, great or small, sloshed into each other in the process, and every one of them instantly knew what every other one was doing. King Jonathan overturned his chair as he leaped to his feet; Onua Chamtong screamed war cries as she flew from her bath; Duke Baird cracked his head against the cabinet he was rummaging through; George Cooper clapped one hand over his flash-blinded eyes.
Numair Salmalin snapped his pen and hastily averted his eyes from the long missive he was writing home, but not before the other mages had seen what he was writing.
By the time Jonathan, Alanna, and some men from the Own made it to his door, Numair was long gone.