My blood froze when those two words fell from Miss Datsia’s muzzle. Almost at once, my paws and hinds went numb, and my breathing went very still. The heaviness I knew well still settled into my limbs, but every trace of warmth from the feeling was gone. I shuddered against the sudden cold, but I couldn’t shake off the chill that suffused me. Miss Aura’s admonitions against letting others know that phrase rang crystal-clear in my ears as that grey haze that settled around the edges of my vision.
“I am ready.” I struggled against the words, fought not to say them. I didn’t want them to be true. I could no more deny them than I could deny the chill itself. Already the twelve lights danced around me, inviting me to count them. I was kneeling in Miss Aura’s study. I was standing on the roof of Deterikh Keep. I was lying beside Mister Valentin’s bed in Krolik Tower. I was frozen in place half a dozen paces from the woman who had just stabbed my master, my pet, my love. My stomach knotted and every muscle shook, but still I responded as I’d been trained. I was doing as I was told, and doing it very well.
Miss Datsia sighed as she pulled a long knife from within her jacket. Golden light glinted off the blade as she beckoned me towards her with it. “I said come here, little light. I don’t like repeating myself.”
I clenched my jaw, but the response forced itself out of me regardless. “Yes, ma’am. I am ready.” Frozen, each motion was a struggle, the desire to rebel at war with the compulsion to obey. I fought to hold position, to reject my training, but I couldn’t. The need to submit was too strong, too deeply ingrained. My half-lidded eyes focused on the blade in the regent’s paw, but despite the terror it inspired, I felt myself moving towards her. My body responded even as my mind refused, pushing me up onto the dais. As my hind hit the platform, I reflexively counted one.
I tore my eyes to the side, down to Erik’s fallen form. My heart ached, and a sob welled in my throat, but it crumbled to dust in my muzzle before I could set it free. I wanted to comfort him, to hold him, to tell him I could take away his pain. Not even that anguish and longing could pull me from my course. My left hind left the ground and dragged me towards inevitability, my silver chain rattling against the ground. Two.
I wanted this too much; there was no other reason. Not the specifics, perhaps, but the condition, the state of being owned. Miss Aura understood it, though she hadn’t told me. Mister Iladin explained it to Mister Valentin, though I hadn’t understood. I knew I needed servitude, and I sought it with the diligence any other would have sought mastery of a trade. I needed an owner, someone to lift the burden of responsibility from my shoulders, in exchange for power over me. Having been given that freedom, I was helpless to fight against it. Three.
If I couldn’t resist it, then any escape would be in complying. With a heavy sigh, I stopped struggling against the words and sank deeper into trance, closing my eyes against the world. The weight in my arms and legs increased, and the haze drew thicker around the edges of my mind. I imagined, behind my eyelids, a spark deep within, the familiar trickle of heat and light from the circles Miss Aura had cast around me. It flickered, then flared inside, darting along my spine. When my head swayed, Miss Datsia’s ankle glowed dimly, a fresh irritation on an old injury improperly healed. The witchlights around the room still glowed, but they were nothing compared to the conflagration searing through Erik’s chest, consuming him from within. Four.
At the end of my left arm, the vessel Miss Aura had crafted began to itch, a burning chill that pulsed in time with my heartbeat. I envisioned a complex pattern of lines woven around my paw, trapping the darkness within me. Across the palm, sigils pinned the meshwork closed, a circle of symbols etched in white light pulled taut over deepest black. Two signs interwoven capped the design, one searing red, the other a liquid blue. Pinned between them, black on black, I imagined I could see that sickeningly familiar design from the vial of poison: a circle, and three dots in a triangle within. Mirgalva, the death’s head. Five.
A fresh jolt ran up and down my back, from the back of my neck through my tail. My stomach clenched tighter, but a fresh fire ignited in my chest as the sparks collided. Mister Valentin’s words came to me, as I was begging to pleasure him: Pet, henceforth, if you think your life or mine is in danger, you are to take whatever steps you feel are necessary. He might have no longer been my master, but Erik had never countered the sergeant’s command. In all the time I had served, I had never broken an order, except to follow another. I knew in that moment what had to happen, and when my hind landed in front of Miss Datsia, the chill had all but faded from my chest. Six.
“Very good, little light.” The regent’s voice was soft, almost soothing. I opened my eyes to see her bringing the blade of the knife up to my neck. “Tilt your head back for me. I’ll be quick about this. I don’t want you to suffer.”
I smiled as I bared my throat to her. “I am ready, yes, ma’am.” I pressed one paw to the other, tapping the three dots in the middle of my palm. “Good-bye.”
Miss Datsia’s ears arched upwards at the farewell, and her tail curled behind her. “Good-bye to you too, Taneh. I’m sorry about your role in all this, really, but you’ve done a great service to the barony.” The blade against my neck was cold, the edge ticklish even through my fur. “This will be just a moment.”
“Yes, ma’am.” There were no more words. I traced the circle around those points, and was rewarded with a rush of wind around me. All around the room, the witchlights went dim, and the guards murmured and clutched at their spears, suddenly on alert. Miss Datsia’s eyes widened, and she pressed in with the blade, pulling back against my throat. I felt the fine trickle of blood seep down my neck, but I ignored the stinging and pressed my paw against the regent’s chest.
As soon as the darkness touched her, Miss Datsia stiffened and the blade slipped from stiffened fingers. “What— I—” Her voice rose shrilly. Her eyes showed white all around, and her ears flattened against her head. “No, it’s… it’s not…” She began to shake, her breath coming in labored pants. Her tongue hung from her muzzle, starting to swell as she whined. “Not time!”
She tried to step back, to pull away, but I advanced as she withdrew, keeping contact with her. “It is,” I murmured. “Outside the Great Work, only darkness exists. I bring that darkness to you, a vessel filled with it. Where it touches, only darkness remains.”
“Shut up!” She was gasping now, each word forced out of her at personal cost. The wolfess grabbed my wrist and pulled, but she might as well have been trying to bend iron in her paws. As she sank to her knees, her eyes pleaded with me. “Please, you don’t… you’ll destroy the barony.” Her voice was nothing but a whisper. “Everything… everything….”
I brought my other paw to Miss Datsia’s cheek and cupped it, the only kindness I could offer her. “Respect the office, not the officer,” I said. “Barony Deterikh will survive. You… are no longer part of the Great Work. Only darkness remains.”
Miss Datsia’s eyes focused on mine, her own hollow and full of fear. “No….” Her muzzle froze in that ‘O’ of despair for a few seconds, then went slack. The light faded in her eyes and her ears fell limply against her head. She shuddered once, then fell backwards against the dais, a blackened stain on her chest where my paw had touched her. When the gloom lifted and the witchlights returned to full brightness, Miss Datsia, daughter of Stela, regent of Barony Deterikh, lay dead at my hinds.