There is something contemptible about a man of five-and-twenty reminiscing about the good old days. This is especially true when the days in question were distinguished primarily by the number of your peers who didn’t survive them.

Twelve, I reminded myself as James droned on about how he and Annie and I foiled the hijacking of the Rook’s Landing Express. There had been a lot of casualties aboard the train that day, and twelve of our classmates hadn’t made it.

Mallory elbowed me in the ribs and rolled her eyes as James got to the bit with the fight on the locomotive. “‘And then,'” she mouthed along with him, “‘I slugged the Orphanmaker bastard right in the gob!'” She pressed a hand to her breasts, pinning a lock of fire-gold hair there as her expression became earnest to the point of imbecility.

“Be nice,” I said, leaning over so I could whisper in her ear. “Remember—James is a hero.”

“Hush, you,” Mallory said, giving my shoulder a gentle shove. I let my attention wander as James recounted how the three of us—meaning mostly him—had routed Morcanis’s lieutenants and stopped the train before it jumped the tracks. 

It was a rousing story, but I remembered things differently.

Around us, the reunion was in full swing. The Unstable Alembic still smelled like cider, hops, and eggnog spice, and the more sensible of our classmates had fled the press near the bar for the corners of the room, where it was quiet enough to have a conversation. The witch-lights hanging from the beams cast an even sepia glow over the assembly, edging the woodwork with flecks of gold and making everyone in the room look sallow and ill-fed.

For a heartbeat, as one of the lights dimmed, the assembly looked like a parliament of ghosts, and I had to touch my coat’s breast pocket to remind myself we’d actually won.

“Your turn, Simon,” James said, and I realized he’d brought his account to a close. “Don’t try to beg off. I know you have stories to tell. I was there for most of them!”

Those were precisely the stories I couldn’t tell, but it wouldn’t do to say so. So I forced a smile and gave in, racking my brain for a story that wouldn’t cast a pall over the evening.

“All right,” I said, taking a sip of my cider. “You remember Bastien Hansome?”

“Bastard Homely,” Annie confirmed, making a sour face. “I’m surprised he’s not here, stinking up the place.”

“Right, him,” I said, setting my drink down. “So this was in our second year. After my father... Well. You know.” Mallory patted my arm, and I gave her a weak smile before continuing. “Ellen and I were walking along the edge of the close, killing time before evening lessons, when we heard snapping noises, like something huge was coming at us through the trees.”

“Oh no,” Annie said, covering her mouth with her hands. The horrified snicker that slipped past them told me she knew where my story was headed.

“Oh yes,” I said. “A few seconds later, Bastien came tearing through the woods, stark bloody naked. Half his hair was singed off, and he hurtled over the ward-wall surrounding the close like it wasn’t even there. And right behind Bastard Homely, what were Ellen and I face-to-beak with but a Brightplume Dragon? A nesting mother, no less, with her feathers patched in green and brown.”

“What did you do?” Mallory asked as Annie’s eyes widened further.

“Nothing,” I said, wiping condensation from my mug and tracing patterns on the surface of the table. “That ward-wall was solid as bedrock, right up until the Day of Glass. The dragon bumped her head against the wards a few times, trumpeted, and stomped on home.”

“Ye gods,” James said, putting his arm over Annie’s shoulder. “Bastien, of all people, stealing an egg to prove himself to a mystery cult.”

“I know,” I said, shaking my head. “I wouldn’t want to be part of any mystery that would have him.”

That came uncomfortably close to what I couldn’t say, though, so I passed the lead to Mallory, who made a face before launching into an implausible story about a bat-racing league that left everyone else at the table in stitches.

“That was one of Ellen’s, wasn’t it?” I asked her in a low voice as Annie started in on how we’d saved Rooksworth University on the Day of Glass.

As Annie gesticulated, describing the arc of the Bloodsworn she’d flung from Orvenal Tower, Mallory nodded. “I should have known you’d recognize it,” she replied. “I still miss her, Simon. Every goddamned day.”

“Every day,” I agreed, thinking of how Ellen’s hair had smelled, and how she’d made us laugh. Before the hijacking and the Day of Glass, that is.

Before everything went wrong.

The day after Rooksworth University was vitrified, we went to ground. The mark of the Sanguine Grail was everywhere—painted over shop windows and burned into alley walls—and though they stopped short of parading through the streets in full regalia, the Bloodsworn were too. At least half our surviving classmates had turned, and the rest had too many friends in Morcanis’s camp to be trusted. My parents’ estate was an island of safety in a world grown barbed and jagged.

I hadn’t been back to Waxwood Manor since my mother died, and to my surprise, I found I’d missed it. The peaty scent of the bogs and the tenuous sunlight that slanted through gaps in the clouds struck a chord in my soul, telling me I belonged here; that this was my home. Even the musty scent of the rooms and the sound of the house cleaning itself were welcoming. 

“We have to strike back,” James said, his hands balled at his sides as he paced in front of the parlor fire.

How?” Annie demanded, waving her bandaged arm. “You saw Morcanis. The bastard shrugged off everything Master Lansdowne threw at him, then tore out his heart.”

“Are those real?” Ellen asked me, pointing at the set of goat, lion, and serpent heads that were mounted on a shield over the fireplace.

“Don’t be daft,” James said, pausing to stare at her. “Chimeras have been extinct for centuries.”

“They’re real,” I said, giving him a quelling look. “So are the dragon heads in the library. My family’s been collecting trophies for ages.”

“Look,” James said, raising a hand to forestall further argument. “I don’t want to be ungrateful, but even your family’s Fellhounds will only hold off Morcanis and the Bloodsworn for so long. And you know full well they’ll come after us. So we have to hit them first.”

“That’s very noble,” I said into the silence that followed. “Very brave. And just the sort of idiotic blather that got our parents and Lansdowne killed.”

James gaped silently at me as I rose from the chaise and stirred the fire with a poker. “What are you saying?” Annie asked as one of the logs cracked open, lofting a plume of cinders into the flue.

“I’m saying I read the coroner’s report on my father,” I said, still facing the flames. “His heart was torn out, and he’d been exsanguinated.” I wheeled on James then, jabbing the poker at his chest for emphasis. “This was Harold Waxwood. The preeminent duelist of his generation, with a double First in Evocation and Applied Metaphysics from Gravinward... and Morcanis butchered him like an hog.”

“Simon,” James said, backing away, “I didn’t mean—”

“Oh?” I snapped. “You didn’t mean to tell me all Gravinwards were traitors? Or perhaps you didn’t mean that we should charge in and die like fools? I must confess, I would think better of you if you hadn’t meant that.”

“Simon,” Ellen said, coming up behind me and resting a hand on my shoulder. “James didn’t know your father was a spy.”

“Of course he didn’t,” I whispered, letting the poker drop as my anger drained out of me. “No one knew. That was the whole fucking point.”

“Simon’s right, you know,” Mallory said as Ellen took my hand and squeezed with all her might. “My mum and dad didn’t have double Firsts, but they weren’t hedge wizards. And Morcanis turned them inside out, just for the hell of it.”

“All right!” James said, throwing up his hands. “No frontal assaults. Even if that means more children and grandparents abducted from their beds.” A grimace warped his features as he asked, “So. What do we do instead?”

“Did any of you recognize the last spell Lansdowne tried on Morcanis?” I asked. Everyone but Ellen shook their heads.

“It was one of the Five Detestable Runes,” Ellen said, glancing at me. “It should have disemboweled him.”

“Right,” I confirmed. “But Morcanis didn’t die; hells, he didn’t even blink. We need to learn why, and we need to learn how.” I gave my friends a frigid smile. “And then we’re going to end the bastard.”

I glanced from face to face, but there was no demurral. Instead, Mallory quoted the motto of Gravinward College, though her family had been Orvenals for three generations.

“We flinch from nothing,” she recited, looking around the circle. “Agreed?”

“Agreed,” James and Ellen replied, with Annie a heartbeat behind them.

The press around the bar of the Unstable Alembic was as thick as ever, but sharp elbows and my coldest stare let me wedge myself between Jorge Hoestler and Gretchen Temple so I could vie for the bartender’s attention.

“Simon!” Jorge said, sounding genuinely delighted to see me. “Ye gods, man. I haven’t seen you for ages! You need to get out of that decaying old pile you call a manor more often.”

“Hello, Jorge,” I said, shaking his thick-fingered paw. “I would, but I fear I’ve become a bit of a recluse.”

“Ah,” Jorge said, his ebullience draining away. “Still too soon, then?” He paused, then said, “I’m so sorry about Ellen, old chap. I don’t know if I ever said.”

He had, in fact—every time I’d seen him since it happened—but it didn’t pay to be ungracious. “I appreciate that,” I said, giving him a crooked smile. “Buy you a drink?”

“Oh, no, my man. I couldn’t, just couldn’t. Here, let me buy a round of drinks for you.” Jorge paused to gesture at my table, where James and Annie were greeting some of their fellow Hernes. “The lot of you saved Verdenwald from Morcanis. Heaven knows, that’s more than any number of drinks can repay.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. For an instant, I remembered Jorge as I’d seen him on the Day of Glass, clad in the crimson robe of a Bloodsworn initiate and clutching a vitrifying rod like a sword, and fury stirred in me, sending bile up the back of my throat. I forced myself to take a deep breath as Jorge waved and hallooed to get the bartender’s attention. That had been a different life—a different world—and besides, that Jorge was dead.

I’d killed him myself, tearing the rod from his hands and turning him into a pillar of carmine glass.

As the bartender finally deigned to notice Jorge, a hand descended on my shoulder, and a familiar nasal whine sounded in my ears. Before Bastien could activate a talisman, I wheeled to face him, grabbing his wrist and forcing his hand away. A heartbeat later, the tip of my athame was at his throat.

“—gods above, Simon, stop!” Bastien squeaked as my athame trembled, the counter-charms I’d etched into its blade ready to devour any magic he carried. For an instant, nothing changed, then the glamour concealing his thinning hair flickered and died, revealing a bald spot expanding from the back of his head.

For a frozen moment, I glanced between the murder-sharp blade of my athame and Bastien’s stricken expression, trying to reconcile the two. Part of me wasn’t sure why I hadn’t slit his throat for everything he’d done and all the people he’d betrayed.

Because he didn’t do any of that, the rational part of me insisted. Bastien is harmless. Trouble was, I remembered him stabbing Annie in the arm on the Day of Glass, and what Gretchen had become after he got to her in Gabbleford.

I could still see the smirk he’d worn as Morcanis tore out Lansdowne’s heart.

With an effort, I sheathed my athame and shoved Bastien away. “Don’t touch me,” I told him, the loathing I felt leaking into my voice. “Not ever.”

“All right,” Bastien whispered, backing away with his hands raised. He stared at me with the wariness of a man facing down a rabid dog.

“Simon?” Mallory said, pushing her way over as Jorge and the others who’d witnessed my reaction stared at me in silent shock. “Simon, what happened? Are you all right?”

“No,” I whispered. The surge of panic that had seized me when Bastien grabbed my shoulder was receding, leaving tremors in its wake. “I’m not all right, Mal. Can....” I forced myself to swallow, so my voice wouldn’t tremble and make me sound weak. “Can you take me outside? I think I need some air.”

The chatter started up before we were even out the door, with people whispering to their neighbors that Waxwood had finally lost it; or that my response to Bastien had been perfectly reasonable; or (with varying degrees of pity) that my nerves had been a wreck ever since Ellen died. There didn’t seem to be much sympathy for Bastien, but that was cold comfort, since I’d been a heartbeat away from killing him.

“What happened?” Mallory repeated as she sat me down on the Alembic’s front steps.

“Bastien came up behind me,” I said, watching my hands shake as I laid them on my knees. “Grabbed my shoulder. I thought he was going to hex me or douse me with something.”

“So you drew steel and blew the glamour on his scalp to bits,” Mallory said, the skin around her eyes crinkling. “So what? I’ve been tempted to do the same myself.”

“It’s not funny, Mal,” I said, balling my trembling fingers into fists. “I nearly killed him.”

Mallory laid her hand on my arm. “You didn’t, though.”

I waited as a pair of women wearing Orvenal colors headed past us into the Alembic, then whispered, “I wanted to.”

Mallory’s fingers dug into my forearm. “But you didn’t. You’re not like Morcanis and the Bloodsworn, Simon.”

“No, I’m not,” I said, my every word edged with self-loathing. “Just one of the walking wounded. James and Annie can forget enough of the bad parts to tell war stories. I can’t.” The laugh that passed my lips was an awful creaking sound. “Most nights I wake up screaming, did I ever tell you that?”

“Simon,” Mallory said, shifting so she could take my hands in hers. “Have you ever thought that you shouldn’t be left alone with your ghosts? We could find you a place in the city. You could stay in my guest room while you look.”

“It’s not my ghosts that are the problem,” I told her. “It’s what I saw in the Maze of Eternity. It’s the price we paid to kill Morcanis.”

Mallory closed her eyes and squeezed my fingers as hard as she could, and I knew she was thinking of Ellen. But Ellen’s fate was only a fraction of what I’d meant—a jeweled teardrop suspended in a briny ocean of grief.

I had to watch, part of me wanted to tell Mallory, though prudence stilled my lips. I had to watch you die.

The Maze of Eternity was once the Bloodsworn’s most closely guarded secret, but three years after the Day of Glass, the cave complex that served as Morcanis’s sanctum was ringed by earthworks and guard barracks, with the mark of the Sanguine Grail flying on pennants and banners. The guards had been vigilant once, but now Verdenwald lay supine at their feet. Morcanis’s apotheosis was at hand, and who was left to resist him?

“Who’s that on the western wall?” Ellen whispered to me as I surveyed the camp through a set of field glasses.

“Bastien and Grigori,” I whispered back, passing her the binoculars. “Gretchen will like that.”

Ellen grunted agreement as she finished her own observations. “Looks clear. All right. Let’s get back to the others.”

We were a soft rustle in the bushes, a breath of wind in the grass as we retreated to where Mallory, Gretchen, James, and Annie waited for us. Gretchen sat with her arms around her knees, keening softly. Her eyes and cheeks were hollow and her hair fell lank and pallid around her bloodless cheeks.

“How’s she doing?” Ellen asked Mallory, jerking her chin at Gretchen as we shucked our stealth cloaks.

“Parched,” Mallory replied. “We’ve only got one vial of tears left, Ell.”

“Let her have it,” Ellen said, prompting Gretchen to look up, hope and desperation bright in her sunken eyes. “Morcanis is alone in there, aside from Bastien and his lot. It’s time to make our move.”

Gretchen snatched the vial of tears from Mallory and drank the few droplets it contained in a heartbeat, her tongue probing the vial’s mouth for residue. “Bastien,” she whispered through cracked lips, her voice dry as dust. “Mine?”

“All yours,” Ellen confirmed, and Gretchen smiled, her eyes gone black and hateful. Bastien had cursed her to the half-life of a tear-drinker, and only our intervention had kept her from madness and desiccation.

From the way Gretchen flexed her fingers, I guessed Bastien would be a long time dying.

“You all know the plan,” Ellen said, pitching her voice so it wouldn’t carry beyond the hollow we’d chosen for our camp. “We’re not going to get a second chance at this, so don’t get clever.” She turned to me, the rigid line of her lips softening. “Are you still up for this, Simon? Your part will be the hardest.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. All of us save Gretchen had drawn lots, but only Ellen knew I’d rigged the drawing so I would get the shortest straw. For all the blood on my friends’ hands, they hadn’t studied at Gravinward.

They hadn’t been trained to turn their hearts to stone.

“This is it, then,” Ellen said as Gretchen faded into the trees. “Cloaks on. Let’s go.”

We were a breeze shaking dew from the grass on our return trip, a thread of fog drifting just below the crest of a hill. If I looked out of the corners of my eyes, I could make out my friends by their silhouettes—James hunched like a giant trying to conceal its height, Ellen poised and still, Mallory limned in gilded fire—but it strained the concealment charms if you looked. So I gripped the ghost-stone I wore around my neck instead, and waited for Gretchen to make her move.

The first scream was Gretchen’s—shrill and piercing, the cry of a raptor stooping on its prey—but the ones that followed were wet and raw and agonized, and sent the handful of Bloodsworn in the camp running toward the western wall. “Now,” Ellen commanded, and then the five of us were in motion, slipping down the hill and through the compound’s gate towards the Maze’s unguarded entrance.

The air around me eddied and fell still at the mouth of the Maze, and as I halted, Ellen’s hand found my shoulder. “Luck,” she whispered, her lips brushing mine, and I let myself breathe in the scent of her hair before activating the ghost-stone and slipping beyond the veil of death.

The greylands were chill and clammy and scentless as ever, and even Ellen’s warmth faded swiftly as I followed my friends through the twisty paths of the Maze. Morcanis had been neglecting the wards of late, and in the few places where Ellen or Mallory couldn’t unravel them, James and Annie rent them asunder. There was a fair chance that Morcanis wouldn’t notice, given his preoccupation with the Sanguine Grail, but even if he did, it wouldn’t matter. We weren’t going to surprise him, and he wasn’t about to summon help.

As my friends stacked up outside the door to Morcanis’s innermost sanctum, I ghosted through the chamber’s far wall. Even rendered in threads of vapor and shades of grey, the Sanguine Grail dominated the room from atop its stone plinth, the lip of its jewel-encrusted chalice crusted black with decades of gore. The thirsty void inside the cup was as black and empty as its master’s heart.

Seen beside the Grail, Morcanis seemed a threadbare shadow; a scrap of midnight trapped in the orbit of a greater power. But appearances, as my friends and I had learned, were deceptive. The Sanguine Grail, for all its puissance, was just a tool. It was Morcanis’s will that had forged it, and Morcanis’s ambition that fed its hunger.

What were the lives of innocents, after all, if you gained the world by killing them?

Morcanis spun from contemplating the Grail as James and Annie breached the chamber’s door, tearing it off its hinges and sending it flying inward. “Who dares?” he demanded, tension written in every line of his body, then relaxed as James came through the door, tracing hexes in the air that would have paralyzed a lesser opponent. “Oh good. It’s the children’s crusade. I was in need of amusement.”

“Brave words, monster,” Annie snarled from the door as Morcanis flung James against the ceiling, impaling him on a stalactite.

She was halfway through a ward-shattering charm when Morcanis cut off her legs with a sweep of his hand.

It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t pretty, and because I had a job to do, I had to watch it all. I looked on, unable to intervene, as Annie crawled towards Morcanis, still chanting, until he stopped her heart with an arc of lightning. I watched the muscles in Ellen’s throat and chest lock up, suffocating her, as Mallory thrashed and writhed, her hands clawing at her throat as she drowned in her own blood. And as James bled out and Annie and Mallory and Ellen expired, I felt Morcanis’s power cascade through them to snuff out the lives of his heartwardens.

It’d taken months to learn why Lansdowne hadn’t slain Morcanis: he couldn’t die so long as his heartwardens lived. Being the sadist he was, Morcanis had ensured that anyone seeking his life would need to kill children, mothers, and beloved grandparents. We hadn’t flinched from that, once we knew what to do, but it took us far too long to grasp how he always had more of them.

It was Ellen who guessed the answer, in the end. Morcanis’s spell bound a new heartwarden to him whenever one died, unless he killed them himself. Which he wasn’t going to.

Not without assistance, anyway.

As Ellen’s death finished the last of his heartwardens—a gray-haired baker who made the best rolls in Farridge—I released my ghost-stone and fell into the gore-splashed ruin of the grail chamber. Morcanis had barely registered my arrival by the time I’d etched the last of the Five Detestable Runes into the air, and then there were blades of force carving into his chest and cracking open his ribcage.

“Imposs—” he began, and then his lungs were rent open and his diaphragm ruptured, silencing him forever. His legs and bowels failed as his heart tore free of his chest and flew, still beating, into the palm of my hand.

And with the savage ruthlessness of the condemned, I fed it to the Sanguine Grail.

Mallory and I shifted off the front step as the reunion wound down, and watched our classmates trickle out of the Unstable Alembic, chattering and laughing as they left the fan of light that spilled from the door. The night was clear and cold, and as I pulled my coat tighter, I glanced across the river at Rooksworth University, expecting to find the campus a shattered, glassy ruin. But no, there it was, its colleges standing proud and whole beyond the embankment.

“Herne’s windows are lit up like a candelabra,” Mallory said. “That’s courage, right there. Defying curfew.”

“Courage or bull-headedness,” I replied. “Gravinward and Tallowglass had curtains.”

Mallory snorted as she wrapped a scarf around her neck. “Orvenal too.” She paused, then asked, “Hey, Simon. Do you ever feel like the good times James and Annie talk about passed you by?”

I tried to smile, but the expression curdled into a moue as it touched my lips. “All the time, Mal.”

Mallory nodded, her breath steaming as she exhaled. “You don’t know why Bastien approached you in there, do you?”

“Not a clue,” I admitted.

“Professor Lansdowne’s brother—Gerald—died last week,” Mallory said. “I was the Runner he called in to make sure there wasn’t foul play.” For an instant, as she spoke, I saw her as Detective Inspector Mallory Sauvange, and then she was my friend again, ready to believe I had a good reason for everything I did. “There was an S.W. who showed up regularly in Gerald Lansdowne’s ledgers. Buying up phoenix and unicorn tears. You know—the sort of thing people believe can be used for resurrections.”

“Some people,” I said, “will believe anything.”

Mallory nodded brusquely. “Anyway, Bastien was Gerald’s assistant. He inherited most of his stock, along with his suppliers, and I gather he wants to keep his customers as well.”

“So he was trying to hit me up for business?”

“Probably,” Mallory said. “Be careful, Simon. There are still Bloodsworn who think they can bring Morcanis back.”

“He’s never coming back,” I said, my voice pitched low so it wouldn’t carry. “I made certain, Mal.”

“I believe you,” Mallory replied after a pause that lasted a heartbeat too long.

“...but you’re not the one I need to convince.”

Mallory’s smile was a crooked crescent in the lamplit dark. “I like that about you, Simon. I never have to spell things out.”

“Thanks for the warning,” I said after a moment. “But I’ll be fine.” I touched the breast of my coat, feeling the shape of my last line of defense through the fabric. “Waxwood Manor has the Fellhounds, and I can take care of myself.”

Mallory nodded, her smile gone. “I don’t doubt you can. I’d just rather not have to scrape up some idiot’s remains off your doorstep.” She paused, then asked, in a much gentler voice, “Simon. If I asked, would you tell me why you bought all those reagents from Gerald Lansdowne?”

“Probably,” I said, glancing at her. “Why?”

“Should I ask?”

“No,” I said, closing my eyes briefly. “No, you shouldn’t.” It would only bring you grief.

“All right,” Mallory said, and the trust in her voice nearly broke my heart. “Just remember what you told me about necromancy.”

“‘It’s worse than illegal,'” I quoted at her. “‘It doesn’t work.'”

“That’s it,” Mallory said, touching my shoulder with her hand. “I’m going to say my goodbyes to James and Annie. Remember what I said about moving to town.”

“I’ll remember,” I replied. “Take care, Mal.”

As Mallory slipped back into the Unstable Alembic, the spill of light from the door caught in her hair and made it blaze like a beacon; like a promise; like a funeral pyre.

Then she was gone, leaving me alone with the cold and the dark and my guilt.

The promise of the Sanguine Grail was a world remade, with Morcanis as its master and his favorite servants reigning at his side. But like most instruments, the Grail cared naught for the hand that held it. Whoever fed its bloodlust could wield its power.

Standing at the stony core of the Maze of Eternity, I watched the Sanguine Grail devour Morcanis’s heart and tried to ignore the threads of gore that were creeping up my arms. My attention was fixed on the Grail’s battered and tarnished metal, and on what I had to do.

Our parents were beyond recovery. They’d died too long ago, or (as in my father’s case) their hearts had been fed to the Sanguine Grail. My classmates were different. Morcanis had never gathered enough power to make himself god-king of Verdenwald, but surely I could alter the course of the hijacking and the Day of Glass. I could make it so my friends had never bloodied their hands. Never turned their coats. 

Never died while I stood by and did nothing.

As the last shred of Morcanis’s heart vanished into the Grail’s maw, I breathed a word of command, gathering his blood from the floor and draining it from his corpse in a carmine stream. With a sweep of my hand, I fed that stream to the Grail, making certain no droplet escaped.

Then, using Morcanis’s essence and those of his victims as fuel, I began to rewrite history.

A fetid mist rose from the Sanguine Grail, spilling over its lip and down from the pedestal it rested on to eddy and pool on the uneven floor. I fixed my attention on the vapor rising from the Grail and tried not to quail as the mist draped itself over the remains of my friends, caressing them with unclean fingers. With seeming reluctance, the mist above the Grail knit itself into an image of the hollow my friends and I had just occupied, only to have that image dissolve as I forced the intervention nexus further back in time.

Months and years flashed past in a torrent before the succession of images slowed to a crawl. I watched my friends exchanging oaths in the parlor of Waxwood Manor, and though I bent every fiber of my being to it, I could only push the Grail back to our arrival at the Manor’s gates.

I blinked as the mist and the Grail Chamber took on a ruddy cast, and as I did, I felt a droplet wend its way down the side of my nose. When I raised my hand to wipe it away, my knuckles came away covered by a film of gore.

I was bleeding from my tear ducts, as the Sanguine Grail sought to wring me dry.

“I flinch from nothing,” I whispered, more to steel my nerves than because I truly believed it. Stepping toward the Grail, I drew my athame and bared my left forearm, pressing the blade against my wrist.

“No,” a shaky voice called, and I spun to face Ellen, who’d risen to her hands and knees. “Don’t. The Grail will empty your veins if you do that.” Her face was drawn and pale, and the tips of her fingers seemed discolored.

“How...?” I said, gaping at her as she straightened, pulled a metal flask from her belt, and drank its contents down. The scent of brine was enough to betray the liquid’s provenance. “Oh gods, Ellen. You didn’t.”

“Of course I did,” Ellen said, licking her lips dry. “We needed a fallback in case Morcanis bested you. The curse Bastien used on Gretchen was all I could think of.” Her lips curled back in a pained smile. “Besides. The Grail wants more blood, and I can spare mine, now.”

I glanced between Ellen and the Grail, feeling heartsick. “You know what that will mean,” I whispered. What the Sanguine Grail consumed was gone forever. I couldn’t craft a world where she still lived.

“I know,” Ellen replied.

Her lips were dry and papery against mine as we embraced, and our kiss tasted of iron and salt.

Bastien was waiting by my carriage, standing apart from the gaggle of coachmen who were trading stories around a fire. “Mallory told you about Gerald, then?” he asked as I motioned him to follow me.

“She did,” I said, making sure not to stop until we were out of earshot of the coachmen. “My order still stands. A quart of unicorn and phoenix tears every month, with payment via the usual channels.”

Bastien sighed with evident relief. “I thought... Never mind. You won’t want to shake on it, I gather?”

I stared at Bastien for several heartbeats, revulsion warring with pragmatism and losing. “Actually,” I said, offering him my hand, “I rather think we should.”

The instant Bastien took my hand, warmth radiated from the tiny chalice I carried in my breast pocket. His eyes went wide as my fingers locked around his, and as a carmine glow pierced the fabric of my coat, he let out a terrified whimper.

“Who am I, Bastien?” I asked, pitching my voice low.

“My lord Morcanis,” Bastien breathed, blinking back tears of blood, “I—”

I tsked and twisted his fingers sharply, making him cry out. “Wrong. Morcanis is dust, never to return. Who am I?”

“Simon Waxwood,” Bastien whispered. “Master of the Sanguine Grail.”

“That’s right,” I said, releasing his hand and letting him sag to the ground. “I’m glad we understand each other. Just keep the deliveries coming, and pass on the names of any Bloodsworn you meet to my solicitor.” I turned to go, then added, “Oh. One more thing.”

“Yes?” Bastien said, pausing in daubing the blood from his cheeks with a handkerchief.

“Be more careful with the packaging, would you? The last delivery was short a few drams of unicorn tears because the jar wasn’t sealed properly.”

Leaving Bastien gaping at my back, I headed back to my carriage and closed my eyes as I settled into the passenger compartment. “Home,” I whispered, and without me lifting a finger, the coach rolled into motion, drawn by a team of spectral horses.

Waxwood Manor was the same as ever, with Fellhounds haunting the fens and gargoyles leering down at me from its roof. The witch-lights in the entry hall had dimmed to tiny motes when I opened the front door, but they flared to life as I stepped inside, and the sound of rapid footsteps came from the hall leading to the library.

Ellen paused on the landing, shadows dancing over her hollow-set eyes, and the tip of her tongue probed the air as she gazed at me. With ponderous care, she took the staircase one step at a time, so I would know she was still the mistress of her thirst, rather than the other way around.

“Welcome home, darling,” she said, taking me in her arms as I pressed my face into her colorless hair, breathing in the scent of brine and books and dust. “How is everyone?”

“Doing well,” I said, pulling back just enough to kiss her cheek. “James and Annie are as chatty as ever. Mallory wants me to move to town. She’s worried I’m cracking up out here, living on my own.”

Ellen drew back to study my expression. “You still don’t think we should tell her?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “She knows about the tear shipments. But she’s not our Mallory, Ell. She might not understand.”

“I think she would,” Ellen said after a moment. “You weren’t close with Mallory before the hijacking, Simon. She’s tougher than you think.”

“This isn’t about how tough she is. She doesn’t remember. The year we spent taking care of Gretchen never happened for her.” I paused to wet my lips. “You know what the Runners do with tear-drinkers, Ell. They lock them up in Pandaemon Asylum and let them starve.”

Ellen nodded once, twice—reluctant, jerky motions that told me she’d put the asylum out of her mind. I couldn’t afford to, though, just like I couldn’t forget that I had to protect her from our friends as well as the world. James, Annie, and Mallory hadn’t been through the wars with us.

They still thought telling right from wrong and heroes from monsters was easy.

“We’ll find a way to turn you back,” I told Ellen, hoping I was telling the truth. Hoping that the cure I sought wouldn’t be worse than the disease, and that I wouldn’t have to spill an ocean of blood to bring it into being.

And knowing—with crystalline, razor-edged certainty—that I would flinch from nothing in order to make Ellen whole.

“Oh, Simon,” Ellen sighed, stroking my hair. “You tell me the sweetest lies.”

I couldn’t bring myself to answer that, so I clung to her thirst-wracked frame, feeling like a barnacle clinging to a piling, or a lover who’d been parted from their beloved for far too long.

And when, at length, I wept, Ellen drank my tears with lips like parchment, and licked my cheeks clean of every trace of salt.

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Alec Austin enjoys fantasy fiction which draws on the complexity of real history. He's a game designer, media scholar, former nuclear reactor operator, and an alumnus of Clarion West and Viable Paradise. Alec's prior work has appeared in Analog, Strange Horizons, multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. He's @AlecAustin on Twitter.

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