They swept in from The Darkness by the hundreds. Maybe thousands. She couldn’t tell, couldn’t count, could barely see. She could not set foot beyond that last gate. It was forbidden. She and her unit had to fight teetering on the edge of nothing, dizzying falls into a seething ocean to the right and left, the only escape down the narrow rocky path at their backs.
She’d never seen this many vampires. They’d come out of nowhere, red eyes and pale skin glowing in the night, and taken the last gate before the alarm even tolled.
Flower ducked a fist that would have sent her flying over the cliff, and swung her broadsword around in a vicious blow that toppled the vampire at the knees. The motion sent her off balance. She rolled, came to her feet and drove her sword up through the ribs of a vampire so tall he blocked out the moon. The creature exploded in a fountain of blood. Way past caring about trifles like that, splattered red, she swung her sword wide, careless, pretty damn sure she’d hit someone undead along the way.
Franco had fallen minutes ago. Bettany screamed three feet away and disappeared under the enemy wave, but her piercing death call just merged in the hubbub of roars, of swords, of the ocean crashing far below. It never occurred to Flower that she, too, might die; she’d been fighting too long now. She punched a vampire in the teeth and followed with her sword, and then Harald had her arm, pulling her out of the fighting, yelling something she couldn’t hear over the roaring in her ears.
“What?” Flower ducked down by the crumbled remnants of a wall, pulling him closer to hear better.
“We can’t hold the tower!” Harald yelled.
“Of course we can hold the tower, we’ve held it for centuries!”
As if to punctuate her words, the last tower burst into flames behind him. The flames lit the fighting in dreadful red.
Flower sighed in irritation. There’d be hell to pay when the king found out.
“We need reinforcements!” Harald yelled. “We’ll fall back to the second tower, but we can’t hold it long. Go! Get the Champion!” He shoved her.
Flower stumbled, righted herself, and ran from the jumping red shadows, her feet finding a sure path. She knew every step of the Impasse, knew which rocks to avoid, and how not to fall off the edge. She’d been here for decades, walked this path every night, but never before had to run for the lives of her unit. The vampires had never dared come this close, not once. Here she could run too fast and not die, look up in dread to find the second tower in flames too, and dart through the narrow space between the forbidding, towering spikes of the first gate, its two halves just offset enough to allow one person passage through, or one person to hold the line. The skeletal branches of the lone dead tree rose before her, bathed red with firelight, red with the rising full moon, red in the shadows of the Bitter Tower, the sentinel that watched over the Impasse, implacable, eternal.
Flower experienced a cold dart of fear, something almost – almost – alien after all these decades of defending the border, as though the tower might fall like the others. She brushed it off. It could not. She’d reach the tower and raise the alarm and the vampires would be beaten back once again and tomorrow they’d talk of their deeds and the king-
A hand grasped her shoulder from the darkness. Flower yelped and skidded to a halt. She raised her sword, then lowered it at once, relief flooding her blood so hard she felt dizzy.
“Flower, report,” The Champion’s voice was a low growl.
Flower opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out. She gripped the champion’s sleeve. His face and hair, streaked red with blood, turned him into a stranger in the moonlight. She’d known Valentin for nearly three hundred years, and certainly the Champion inspired respect, awe, perhaps a little fear in all the muses, but never...
“Have they reached this far?” She wouldn’t let herself finish the thought. Her words sounded high and uncertain against the distant cacophony of war. “When were you attacked? The blood-”
“I said report.” His eyes looked right through her, curiously blank tonight, like murderous stone. “How many are attacking?”
“Hundreds,” she said. “Maybe thousands. The last two towers are on fire and the gates destroyed. I was sent to find you. They want to fall back. We’ve already lost half our people.”
“No.” The Champion tightened his grip on her shoulder.
She winced in pain, but did not let it show. One did not show weakness before her General.
“Go,” he said. “Find the king. Tell him we need reinforcements.”
Flower gave one sharp nod and broke free of that grip, trying not to think about how easy it would be for the Champion to kill any muse warrior without breaking a sweat. What a thought to have.
He strode through the gate, and she breathed a little easier. He could hold off the vampires alone if need be. She ran for the Bitter Tower, skirting the low, ancient walls, ducking under the dead tree. The Bitter Tower loomed ahead. She slowed. Something rose up deep within. A surge of horror, perhaps. A prickle of fear. It should not be so dark. It should not be so silent. Hundreds of warriors should be in there, sleeping, playing cards, talking, stirring the soup pot in the huge kitchen.
Her feet felt like lead. She could move no further.
A glow sparked in a lower window, and she breathed out. There. Of course life remained in the tower.
The glow leaped up, too suddenly, and spread fingers across that window. Then it spread. Another window. Shapes flickered. People shapes, but they moved too fast for muses, and the fire crept up, and up, and up, until the Bitter Tower burned, just like the smaller towers that guarded the path to the Darkness. She took a halting step forward, her sword hanging slack in her left hand.
Slow, measured footsteps came down the path. She ignored them, unable to look away from the end of everything, until a slim, long-fingered hand tipped up her chin, and an almost skeletal face swam into view. “Flower.”
She shook her head, refusing to believe the evidence of her eyes.
“Flower.” The voice became stern. “Look at me.”
Flower snapped her attention to the king. “My king – the tower –”
“What has happened?”
“The last gate has fallen. The towers burn.”
He nodded, as though unsurprised. “You survived again.”
What a strange thing to say. “The warriors in the tower – we must help them –”
“There is nobody left to help.” The king pushed a strand of hair back from her face. He seemed curiously tired tonight, as though he’d travelled far and not slept, and she remembered that he hadn’t been there, he’d been – he’d been – she couldn’t grasp it. A flash of memory stirred, something old, something about a cellar, flames... “Nobody?”
“I’m glad you were spared.” He smiled, a thinning of the lips that held no warmth. “You are my best and brightest, and I will need you.”
“Need me for what? We must return to the last gate and hold back the vampires!”
“It is too late for that, my dear. You must travel to Shadow City and raise what muses you can. There’s a fairy stronghold on the path between here and the city. We will make our stand there. The Ishtar clan will fight with us.”
“What are you talking about?” Her voice rose in protest. “We’re just letting them that far into Shadow?”
His grip on her face tightened, and Flower felt pain; not from the fingers. She couldn’t find the source of it, just a slow, cold drain from her body. “Did I raise you to question me, child?”
“No, my king.”
“Go to the city. Raise my army. Meet me at Ishtar Village.” He let go.
“Yes, my king.” Flower stepped away, unsure what had just happened. Flames spiralled from the Bitter Tower, lighting the sky like a day that brought the sun too close to Shadow. The king had already gone, a streak of darkness striding through the gate and into the hell that waited beyond.
Flower dropped her bloody sword, fingers nerveless and cold. She hadn’t left the Bitter Tower in so long. It had become home. She glanced up at the flames once more, and tried not to think about bodies.
Then she plunged into the darkness that hid the road beyond.