Panicked, he whirled around in search of Seoc and Simon and the horses, but they were not there. Gone too was the forest from which they had just emerged. In its place was a barren landscape, all of rocks and dirt, rising in treacherous hills to meet the Border Mountains, which were snowless now, stabbing upwards like rows of fearsome teeth. The sky was deep grey, buckling under the weight of an impending storm. Lightning sparked in the roiling clouds and thunder rumbled, echoing across the desolate valley in great waves, so powerful that the ground shook beneath Seymour’s feet.
But he knew where he was. He’d been here before, in a dream. This was the Land of the In-Between. Which could only mean one thing…
He turned back slowly to face the river, and sure enough, there she stood, ankle deep in the crimson current, the her raven hair and the shreds of her ragged white dress blown backward as if in a heavy wind.
“Good evening, Seymour de Winter,” she greeted him, baring her fangs in a terrible smile.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
Moriba smirked, fixing her empty blue eyes on him. “Night is nearly fallen, young one. The Worm shall soon be upon you, and if nobody intervenes, it shall kill all three of you. And then,” she continued with a shrug, “all will be lost.”
Seymour glared defiantly back at her. He had a strong suspicion as to where this conversation would lead. “But you can hold it off, can’t you?”
“Yesss,” she replied. “But it will take a good deal of energy to protect you. I will need…extra strength.”
Seymour dropped his gaze and sighed heavily. “Right. Go ahead. Bite me. Drink my blood—I don’t care. Just get us safe to Carviliet.”
She laughed. “What would I want with your blood, Seymour? It is so dark…so bitter. No, child. I brought you here to offer you a choice.”
“Yesssssss, a choice,” she hissed. “Either I drink Seoc’s blood—”
“No!” Seymour interrupted. “I choose the other option.”
“But you haven’t even heard the other option, young one. Let us not be hasty.” She smiled again, and Seymour shivered. “Either I drink Seoc’s blood,” she began anew, “just a bit, mind you, not enough to harm him, or,” she continued, “I drink the blood of the Aechyed slave called Marka—all of it.”
“I still choose the second option,” Seymour said stubbornly.
“She would die, Seymour. An innocent girl.”
“What does she matter to me? Why should I value the life of a girl I met once and would never see again over the welfare of the man I love?”
Moriba frowned in mock severity. “Now, that’s rather cold reasoning, isn’t it now? I might even call it cowardly.” The smirk returned. “But I think you know the answer to that question, child.”
“Perhaps not in your head, but in your heart, you do,” she clarified. “Don’t you remember what she called you, Seymour? Back in Waelyngar, in those cold dungeons. What did she call you when she wished you goodbye?”
Seymour thought about it. He had nearly forgotten about the Aechyed slave girl who had helped him to free Seoc and Simon, but now the interaction was coming back to him. “Agmerro, I think.”
“Do you know what that means, young one?”
Seymour shook his head.
“It means ‘my brother’,” Moriba informed him, her smile wider than ever.
Seymour’s blood ran cold, but he tried to hide it. “That doesn’t mean anything,” he insisted. “It’s common in many cultures to call non-relatives by familial terms…”
“Not in Aechyed culture, Seymour. Marka is, by blood, your only sibling. She recognized you by your resemblance to your father.” She grinned. “It is, after all, a seldom occurrence to happen across an adult male Aechyed of such small stature, or one so…handsome.”