Stellia gasps and jumps back, bumping into Frithil.
Nevynne holds her ground, and raises her dagger. It seems woefully short compared to the deadly reach of the shadow’s sword. But no blow falls for her to parry. The shadow merely crosses the tip of his weapon with hers, so lightly that only the softest scraping sound tells of the touching of the blades. Absurdly, Stellia feels that she is witnessing a caress.
“You are brave,” the shadow says to Nevynne, and once more his voice echoes with a lingering warmth, a faint flicker of fire almost dead. “Though I am not surprised to find you so. I pray that your courage will hold in the days to come. Yet it is not I who shall test it.”
The shadow casts his sword aside. Before Nevynne can react, he seizes her by the wrist, pulls her forward—and plunges her dagger into his own chest.
Stellia cries out. Behind her, Frithil makes a strangled noise. Nevynne staggers backwards, abandoning her weapon. The shadow falls to his knees, the dagger sunk to the cross guard into his heart. From within the darkness of his cowl comes a terrible sigh, a rattle of failing breath. He grips the jeweled hilt and with a tortured groan pulls the blade from his chest. Blood spurts onto the forest floor.
Unbelievably, he stands up again.
For a moment he sways on unsteady feet, breathing harshly. Then, holding the dagger by the dripping blade, he extends it toward Nevynne. She stares at the weapon as though it were a viper rearing to strike her.
An icy tingle passes through Stellia’s limbs. It leaves her feeling numb, almost disembodied. She is distantly aware of Frithil’s hands on her shoulders, steadying her. The friar’s voice reaches her as though over leagues of fog.
“This cannot be,” he mutters. “It is an illusion, some manner of trick. It must be!”
“No.” Nevynne’s voice trembles. “The blade pierced his heart. I saw it, felt it.”
She recoils from the figure that stands silently before her with the dagger still in its outstretched hand. Her heel snags on a root; she falls and scrambles backwards through the fallen leaves, away from the apparition. “He should be dead! No man could suffer that wound and live!”
A frightened whimper escapes from Stellia’s throat. More than the spectral presence facing them, it is the sight of Nevynne so unnerved that terrifies her. She shrinks back against Frithil. “What kind of being is this?”
“I don’t know,” the friar says. “But I don’t think he means us harm.”
“Indeed not.” The shadow wipes the dagger’s blade clean on his cloak, and once again offers the weapon to Nevynne. “Take back what is yours, child.”
Nevynne remains crouched at a distance, hesitant to approach. At last she springs to her feet and snatches the dagger from the shadow’s gauntleted hand. She retreats again with equal swiftness. After hefting the dagger doubtfully for a few moments, she sheathes it. Although the blade offers no further hope of defense, its recovery nevertheless seems to restore some of her composure.
“So you can’t be killed,” she says. “A useful talent, I admit. But why waylay us for this dramatic demonstration?”
Frithil steps forward. “More important is the question how such a thing is possible. No soul may maintain its abode in a mortally wounded body. It is the Shaper’s law.”
“How it was done I cannot say,” the shadow replies. “That it can be done is what I must make you understand! For I bring a warning that you must deliver, lest one day you shall all suffer my fate, and all the world end up in wretchedness and decay. Mine is no talent, young Nevynne. It is a curse and a torment, crueler than any torturer could devise! And if it is useful, it is so only to the designs of the fiend who afflicted me with it.”
Stellia whispers, reluctant to speak the name out loud. “Ingharad.”
NEXT: The Stillborn Queen’s Blessing