Sorry for the delay, guys. I had a final.
“You’re not the Snake.” The words tripped out of the Fang’s mouth as if he had to say something. “You’re not Father Snake, you’re the Bear, you’re just a Claw of the Bear, and there’s no reason – no reason I should be afraid of you. You’re not-“
She leaned down until her face was a hand-span from his and stared into his eyes. “I’m not?”
He couldn’t look away. “Tell me,” Aucheria growled. The room shook again. “Tell me who, and tell me where.”
“Tell usss,” Deline hissed. The Father Snake hissed. The room trembled.
“All over, you can’t stop us. There’s – we’re everywhere.”
“Nobody is everywhere,” Aucheria snarled. “Nobody is everyone.”
The Fang leaned back further. “You can’t fool me! This is just magery! This isn’t – you’re not really – you can’t really be-“
“But we can.” Deline’s consciousness was still there, but the longer she stared at the Fang, the more she could feel Father Snake steering, taking over, becoming her.
There was a reason, she knew, in some small part of her mind, that the Priests of Axes did this incredibly rarely and with ritual surrounding them.
“There are – there are twenty of us in the Claws and another ten that I know of, another ten please don’t bite me, Father Snake, I have done as you guide and I will live as you guide but I don’t wish to die by your fang, not today, not today, Father Snake!”
“Tell us more.” Aucheria grabbed the man’s neck with a hand that might as well have been a paw from the strength it showed. “Targets.”
“Targets, here, of course, the Emperor, the Wives, the Governors, anyone who is a potential heir. They’re all dead, they’re all dead already-“
Deline grabbed Carrone’s hand and started running. “Governor’sss wing,” she told him. “We’ve got to-“
“They’re all dead,” the Fang laughed. “It’s been too long. We started so long ago, so long-“
Deline ran anyway.
Next to her, Carrone ran too. Their feet pounded on the tile of the Imperial complex. Her heart was pounding in her chest. Her hand on his was tighter than she thought she’d ever held anyone before. Anyone in line for the throne. She grabbed a Claw as she passed and pulled their necklace out from their shirt. Two claws. “Go to the nursery,” she hissed, although she was fairly certain Aucheria would already be going in that direction. “Go now and protect everyone in there and if I find out you’ve betrayed us, I will ruin you in ways that will make your descendants whimper. Do you understand?”
“Yes – yes, Chief among us.” The Claw ran off even faster than Deline had been running; she and Carrone ran again. Faster, faster, but the Fang’s words were hissing in her ears.
They’re all dead.
They’re all — no. Some of those governors were her friends. Some of them were important to holding up the structure of the Empire. Some of them had knowledge that nobody else had an inkling at. Two she’d trained with as a Claw.
And almost all the governors would be here right now, because it was time for the Decisions. The meeting took place every year once the roads had cleared, everyone who ran anything in the Empire or who kept an official finger on the pulse of Dekleg, Halor, Carrup, Forenet, or the Empire. They were all here.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she muttered in between breaths that were coming more and more ragged. Almost there, almost—
“Deline, save your – breath and beat — beat someone else up.” Carrone patted her shoulder as he panted out his advice. “Where are we—”
She skidded to a halt, muttered a heartbeat-long pardon to the household rules, and flung open a door while she gestured out at the next door to Carrone.
Dead. The woman on the floor was not one of Deline’s friends, but she’d been a competent Governor for the Eastern coastal territory. Deline hissed out a prayer and hurried to the next door.
Dead — but Governor Sancunne had taken two killers with her.
“Here!” hissed Carrone from the fourth door. He dove in and Deline hurried to follow, pulling up the few supplies she had in this pouch and throwing together another shield as fast as she could.
It glowed pink and green, like the scales of the northern viper. Deline spared a half a thought to check exactly what she’d just tried to make a shield with — later. After they survived this.
A scream from the governor’s suite in front of her sent her rushing in — to find a swords-bearer with their arm halfway through Carrone’s shield and their skin turning the same pink and green.
Father Snake protect us. She mouthed the words and dove for the third attacker, the one still focusing on Governor Catikee.
Catikee had been the one who’d trained with Deline, a Fang of the Snake and a brilliant woman in a tight situation, as the assassins were finding out. A fourth lay incapacitated on the floor.
Deline came up from low, hamstrung the assassin, and whirled as the last one dove at her.
They learned fast, at least; this one remembered not to touch her shield and instead sent dart after dart at it until one pierced.
Carrone froze. Deline froze. And then the Father of all Snakes inside her laughed. “Idiot,” she/he hissed. “Idiot, to think that poison could hurt the Father of Snakes or the vessel who carries him. Idiot.” His/her left hand made a gesture she didn’t recognize and the pouch on the assassin’s hip exploded.
Deline gestured Carrone on. “Next. There’s more,” she told Catikee, and the Governor followed with them.Want more?