The elevator shuddered into its bay. Darravon hauled the gate open. ‘We need to make this fast. Someone’s bound to notice the elevator’s gone.’
Azra nodded at the short, straight stair leading to the roof. ‘Then you’d better secure the barge, hadn’t you? Keep it quiet. No shriekers and no screams.’
He shot her a look of pure poison and drew his dagger. ‘I’ll handle it.’
Skerrik in tow, an unhappy Darravon made for the stairs. Kat and Azra skirted the double spiral of the main stairwell and passed beneath the honeycomb archway of the vault approach. Storerooms filled wall to wall with impounded possessions passed away to either side.
‘Darravon’s about to have a seizure,’ said Kat.
Azra shrugged. ‘Let him. He provided the uniforms and the layout. Now he needs us far more than we need him.’
The muffled thud of a falling body whispered down the corridor, so quiet that Kat doubted she’d have noticed had she not been specifically listening out. Darravon indeed knew his business. The mooring house sentries were formality more than anything else, set to guard against the unlikely possibility of skelders scaling the temple’s outer walls. Likely they hadn’t even seen him coming.
The corridor widened out to a pillared hallway. Scores of alcoves yawned wide, half hidden in the shadows beneath vaulted windows. A skeletal koilos stood within each, arms folded across its black-robed chest and yoke-like collar, gilded letters embossed into each naked skull. Scraps of broken chain hung from ceremonial bands about their wrists, representations of the shackles of avarice that had sealed their fate. Misers, debtors and cozeners all, their penance was to guard in death that which had ruled them in life. A gentle probe confirmed that her stolen glyphs held no sway over these koilos. If they woke, it would get very nasty very quickly.
Kat shuddered and kept to the centre of the hall. Did a koilos know anything of the person they’d been or the slaves they’d become? Would she, if her turn came? Even the thought of being trapped behind those empty eyes, screaming as Alabastra made a puppet of her body …
Better to settle the debt and never know the truth.
The vault door stood three times Kat’s height, with dizzying golden curlicues etched into the polished stone. It was otherwise smooth, with neither lock nor hinges to mar the perfect surface.
Azra tossed her mask away and offered a brilliant smile. ‘Well, darling. This is it.’
Kat nodded and removed her own mask and gloves. Pressing her fingertips to the cold stone, she slipped into the spirit world. The flames of ifrîti filled the darkness, coiling and squeezing through a space that seemed entirely too small to contain them. Their thoughts pressed in, smothering, stifling.
‘There are so many,’ she whispered.
‘You can do this.’ Azra’s voice echoed through the blackness, indistinct and breathy. A dream in a place that was itself barely real. ‘Take your time.’
Drawing strength from the words, Kat examined the flames, probing their form and desires. A handful belonged to hestics similar to those that guarded the checkpoints below. Slowly, carefully she let them inspect her tattoo’s glyphs. They retreated, a measure of her claustrophobia fading alongside.
Encouraged, she examined anew those that remained, sifting them into a knot of dull, heavy motics, each responsible for one of the vault door’s heavy lockstones. They rumbled with displeasure, finding her soul-glyphs wanting, but in their voiceless complaint offered after-images of the design they sought.
Focusing her thoughts, Kat teased apart the glyphs on her outer forearm and rewove them line by line. She was rewarded by a chorus of dull, grinding rumbles as the motics retreated, drawing back the lockstones with them. The oldest of the ifrîti required the most cajoling – a last reknotting of a swirling nine-bladed cross that left her dizzy – but with a sigh like thunder it at last sank away.
Azra’s laughter pealed brightly through the spirit world. ‘You see? I knew you could do it!’
Dizziness fading, Kat re-emerged into the light of the living in time to see the vault door’s trailing edge slide away into the ceiling. A narrow archway beckoned.
A smile crawled unbidden across her face.
She’d done it. She’d actually done it.
So why was her stomach turning somersaults?
Azra hugged her. ‘What are we waiting for?’
She started for the threshold. Kat grabbed her arm. ‘Wait.’
She frowned. ‘What is it?’
‘I don’t …’ That was it. The emptiness at Javar’s mansion that hadn’t been emptiness at all but a koilos awaiting transgression. This sensation was the same. ‘There’s something else here.’
Kat closed her eyes and probed the vault anew, casting her frame of reference wider.
At last she saw it, a brooding, throbbing flame so black as to be invisible against the darkness. It permeated everything, suckling off the lesser ifrîti to feed its own roiling majesty.
‘There’s something else,’ she murmured again, not knowing if Azra heard her. ‘Something I’ve never seen before.’
The black flame was bound not only to the vault’s ifrîti but also to the ranks of koilos in the corridor approach. Maybe even to every other ifrît in the building. Dredging up the last of her failing tattoo’s power, Kat brushed the black flame’s edges. It hissed and recoiled from her glyphs, offering no clue as to what she might do to placate it.
That left instinct.
She worked slowly at first, halting at every disapproving growl, but faster and faster as her confidence grew. Through the spirit world’s suffocating murk she felt the winnowing of her tattoo’s fires. As it fell dark, the black flame burrowed through its defences, cold and leaden beneath her skin. Her hurried breaths scraped and scratched at lungs. Ice trickled through her thoughts as the blackness claimed her.
With a sick start, Kat realised it wasn’t a hestic at all.
It was a qalimîri, and it wanted her body for its own.
With a scream, she tore free of the spirit world, the qalimîri’s tendrils scattering like smoke into the light.
‘Kat?’ Azra crowded in, eyes welling with concern. ‘What is it? Talk to me!’
‘There’s … there’s a qalimîri on the threshold. It nearly had me.’ Gagging, Kat clenched chattering teeth, frantically rubbing warmth back into her limbs. She’d nearly ended up like that poor girl Marida wore. With utmost caution, she probed the threshold again. She felt only the dregs of the black flame. The qalimîri had retreated to its prism to lick its wounds, its connection to the other ifrîti severed. At least for the moment. ‘It’s gone now.’
Azra paled. ‘Blessed Nyssa. I thought archons banished those things, not kept them as pets.’
Kat snorted. ‘And discard something useful?’ Still shivering, she stumbled for the vault. ‘Come on. We’ve maybe a few minutes before the qalimîri recovers its courage. It won’t back down as easily next time.’
Before her nerve failed, Kat crossed the threshold into a shadow-cast space easily ten times the size of her room at Tellwind Manse. Drape-fronted cabinets waited in serried ranks on the thick carpet. She pulled back the curtain on the nearest. Octagonal crystal tetrams the size of her palm glimmered in the light of a lone lumani. Ten coins to a stack, six leather-packed stacks to each wooden crate. A dozen wooden crates snap-clasped and chained to a shelf. A king’s ransom, theirs for the taking once the locks were broken.
Azra laughed. ‘We’re rich!’
A high-pitched whine of a shrieker shot echoed down the passageway, a gargled scream on its heels.