The sweeper sprinted and pushed through arms reaching out for him. Gunshots erupted. Smoke exploded from the barrels of singleshot carbines and pistols. It's just the shutter going off for photographs, Elliot reassured himself, as a pellet zipped by his head, taking off a small chunk of his ear.
I murdered Layla. Did I truly have it in me, or did the spell do the work?
Elliot felt a bond with his wand as the pulse of his palm beat against the wood; it was a dark secret he'd rather have fostered with the dread ivory wand his mother left him after she died. To banish creatures back to Gehen was one kind of killing—this was different. His heart ached for the wand. Somewhere along that attachment, he worried for Carina as well. He knew that whoever had taken her need only wait for him to arrive to propose some horrendous ultimatum. Why else had Layla been escorting him there?
He needs me alive, he realized.
So the sweeper stopped running.
He was far from Crux Court right now, panting in a square crowded by the homeless.
“So come after me yourself,” he muttered.
Once the crowds were pushed away by the watchmen that had been pursuing him, Elliot felt hands grip his shoulders. Shouts concerning his arrest were muffled far off in his consciousness. Qalmorian steel clasps snapped around his wrists.
Elliot scanned the roofstops around the courtyard, expecting a hint of someone above the squalor surrounding them. Somebody watching it all like a game.
The watchmen were berrating him with questions. When the sweeper didn't acknowledge them, he was struck by a truncheon. The blow staggered him sideways, sparking a ringing din that drowned out all other noise. His sense of balance and time was left on the ground where he'd fallen, though a darkness didn't consume him, rather a scorching light that blasted away everything else.
Then the screams came. Loud enough to pierce even through the ringing in his ears.
Is this what they hear when I shriek?
Then the chaos winked away.
The ringing was gone and a silence had replaced it. Now he heard something else. A voice, too close to be anywhere besides his own head. A voice he'd only heard once before in the alleyway of Chapel Way.
"You've forced my hand," it said.
Elliot made an attempt to return to his feet. Once he'd gotten there, the surreality of his surroundings hit him harder than the truncheon.
Carina's body was belted to an uprighted slate that appeared to be used for surgeries. Dried blood, ammonia, and the fumes of intoxicant smells pervaded the air of the derelict chamber, even with one of its shattered windows letting in the night air.
They were still in Moram, situated at the peak of an abandoned Nocturosian Sanctuary. Elliot could sense the hollowness of the chapel beneath them.
“Do you know where we are? You should. It's where all this started," a masked woman said from a corner. A stack of candles on the ground struggled to illuminate her silhouette. The sides of her cloak were still smoldering from having passed through a fire, still marked with dust from the street they'd just left. Elliot couldn't be sure whether it was her magick that transported them here, or simply the lapse of consciousness that made the delivery seem brief.
“Nobody goes into the chapels on Chapel Way," she continued. "Haunted."
Then the cinders of her cloak smoldered out, filling the room with the smell of burnt wool. It was then that he noticed a complex pattern of glyphs and symbols etched into the ground, still warm and illuminant from the transportation to its center. A waypoint.
The shackles were gone. Broken in neat cuts, laying at his feet. But his wand, he still had his wand tucked into his sleeve.
“Your voice," Elliot said.
“Illusions are a damnable thing, Mr. Shriek."
“That man in the alleyway," the sweeper began, "that wasn't you?"
“What do you think?"
“I think none of this was according to plan."
“Oh?" The woman turned away from the light, revealing one white eye and another the color of dull embers. Moonlight fell on the right half of her face, comprised of pale scales the texture of bone. That formation collided with the rest of her, scarred but otherwise human. The scales, however, stretched down to her right hand, where the dread ivory wand appeared as a mere extension of that flesh. Or, it would have, were it not for the burn wounds which blackened her fingers.
“You took something from me. You thought," the sweeper chuckled bitterly, “oh 'fair is fair' and, 'what's mine is mine'. Then you realized there was something wrong. Something stopping you. It explains the pause between your perfect plan. That awkward misstep wherein I should have been in this very position over a week ago.”
“A true practitioner seldom fails, Elliot. That is what casters today don't understand. The power of plans. So what went wrong with mine?"
“What do you think?" Elliot mocked.
The woman's silhouette slipped from the corner of the room, appearing just a breath away from Elliot's face. Her shadow slunk along the walls, playing catch-up with her figure. The way her freakish beauty careened over him made his spine exude a confused shudder of allure and terror.
When her mouth opened, her tongue was nestled behind an upper row of daggerlike, serrated teeth, while the bottom appeared quite normal.
“Siren," Elliot said.
“Rimora Fin. Pleased to meet you officially. A dread siren, technically. And you know what I know about you that I could never have gleaned from my sources? Your mother. She didn't just love you. She adored you, so much so that she was willing to bet the life of somebody else against the protection of your own. That's not just a mother's love, it’s a desperation, and a selfish one. A murderer's instinct, Mr. Shriek. And oh, does it run in your blood. The way you just snapped that girl into oblivion!" The woman's body squirmed with a groan. "Ugh! True theatrics, Mr. Shriek. Even better than when you popped the skulls open of those rats in Reaver's Hollow."
“What are you talking about?" Elliot seethed.
“Why, you don't know, do you?"
“My mother offered a common parting blessing on the wand upon her death. Is that what's stopping you from using it?" he laughed.
“Common parting blessing? Is that what this is?" Rimora held up her right hand, giving Elliot a closer looked at the scorch marks running down her arm.
“Poor energy manipulation, perhaps? You should practice more."
“Oh, you're funny," Rimora smirked. “What your mother engrained in this wand is something much more sinister, Mr. Shriek; it's no large wonder why she lied to you about it. It is an old, old curse. Loosely translated, it means 'torment's offering'. Quite simple, really. This wand can't be used by another unless its bond is relinquished by the original caster."
“So I'll relinquish it. I don't have any interest in being fish food. Return Carina to her life, this doesn't involve her."
“Oh but it does. Young love," she sighed dreamily. "Young ... hatred perhaps? You two weren't exactly an ideal match. I'm only grateful it was her who did the breaking. It means your heart still throbs at her name."
Elliot resisted the urge to look at Carina. From the corner of his eye, he could see that she was bleeding from her head, that her eyes were sunken in with exhaustion.
“You want me to give my life for her?"
“No. I want you to give her life for your wand's. You see. The bond is broken by a ‘death willingly offered'. But, and here's the sweet part: you can't sacrifice your own life to break the bond. That's what makes what your mother so damnable. And here you thought," she chuckled, "that I was bad? Isn't this delectable? Look at the shock on your face. You must be thinking 'how could this be?! My sweet, innocent mother.' "
“Anger! Yes!" the siren cackled. “Wake up sweetie!" She danced over to Carina's body and gripped her head, shaking it until the slate she was on rattled against the wall. "
“What would a practitioner like you do with a wand anyways?"
The siren whipped towards Elliot. “It isn't a matter of practicality. Dread ivory belongs to Dread creatures. Simple as that. It is a birthright. Dread pieces like these are locked up in those wretched cages you people call 'museums'."
"It was a gift," Elliot said, "from my mother." More than a small piece of his courage had left. His willingness to fight drained from him and slipped through the floorboards. He felt like a ghost preparing to slough off his skin. He thought about how it felt to wake up early on bitter, winter mornings, to groan into a patched coat, marching out into the South District. He would do a thankless job for payment that scarcely covered necessities. Barely standing in that chamber howling with wind, Elliot wondered how he'd had the strength to do it all these years. How he could even stand there now.
“Go ahead," he said. “Kill her."
“What's that?" the siren's eyes lit up and she bent her head towards him. “Did you ... just?"
“Correct! Kill her. I'm offering her life. Giving it freely. Putting it on a platter. How many ways can I say it? It really isn't all that hard to understand."
After a stunned, confused stare, Rimora said, "You are something else, Mr. Shriek."
When she turned from him, the banshee didn't need to walk to the edge of the well, uncover its lid; Elliot didn't need to so much as dip his finger into that abyss of dark memories. There was an abundance of it in the room, in his chest. It surged through him and blared out, ricocheting around the decaying chamber. Splinters and cracks snapped along the wooden panels of the floor, climbing up the walls and shattering what windows remains. His scream reached higher, finding a resonance in the old, rusted bell at the top of the chapel, causing the iron to moan loud enough for all of Moram to hear.
Rimora's body began convulsing, the half of her that was human succumbing to the sound.
But Elliot didn't have long. A thin trail of blood started from Carina's nose. More pressingly, the entire chapel spire was beginning to implode. The foundations had already begun to crumble away, causing the rest of the structure to groan as its wooden bones writhed before snapping entirely.
The sweeper flung a spell to bind Rimora's hands to the ground and another to undo the straps on Carina's hands. The air became filled with mold and dust kicked up from snapped wooden beams. While he dragged Carina towards the windows, the sky itself shook and screams rose up from the streets far, far below.
It was then that Carina Sister stirred from her unconsciousness. “What is this?" she muttered. “Where is that … creature?”
“A nightmare! Only a nightmare," Elliot said, weaving an enchantment around her before pushing her off the edge of the chapel. “It’ll just be a moment then, poof, like nothing, you’ll be awake!”
“What are you doing?" Carina screamed, though the panic wasn't for herself. The spell activated. A flutter of dim, glowing humingbirds surrounding Carina and slowed her descent.
The sweeper stood at the edge of the crumbling structure, wind lashing against his bloodied face. Behind him, Rimora was loosing her own scream, freeing herself of the bindings and crawling towards him. Elliot's torn expression was shrinking away from Carina's view as she drifted away.
“I'm sorry," he said, before throwing her the wand he’d snatched from Rimora’s hand.
Then the last of the chapel’s strength was finally broken and the old, unkempt sanctuary fell inwards, swallowing itself and all that remained inside.