No Death sense twitched, but Sabriel could almost smell the Free Magic; tangy, unnatural, nerve-jangling, tainting the thick odor of natural smoke. Then she saw the white fire-lines again, streaming out, converging, roiling, coming together- and a blazing, blue-white creature stepped out from the funeral pyre of the Paperwing.
Sabriel couldn't look at it directly, but from the corners of her arm-shielded eyes, she saw something human in shape, taller than her, and thin, almost starved. It had no legs, the torso and head balanced upon a column of twisting, whirling force.
"Free, save for the blood price," it said, advancing. All trace of Mogget's voice was lost now, submerged in zapping, crackling menace.
Sabriel had no doubt about the meaning of a blood price and who would pay it. Summoning all her remaining energies, she called three Charter marks to the forefront of her mind, and hurled them toward the thing, shouting their names.
"Anet! Calew! Ferhan!"
The marks became silver blades as they left her hand, mind and voice, flashing through the air swifter than any thrown dagger - and went straight through the shining figure, apparently without effect.
It laughed, a series of rises and falls like a dog screaming in pain, and lazily slid forward. Its languid motion seemed to declare it would have no more trouble disposing of Sabriel than it had in burning the Paperwing.
Sabriel drew her sword and backed away, determined not to panic as she had done when faced by the Mordicant. Her head flicked backwards and forwards, neck pain forgotten, checking the ground behind her and marking her opponent. Her mind raced, considering options. perhaps one of the bells- but that would mean dropping her candle. Could she count on the creature's blazing presence to light her way?
Almost as if it could read her mind, the creature suddenly started to lose it s brilliance, sucking darkness into its swirling body like a sponge soaking up ink. Within a few second, Sabriel could barely make it out - a fearful silhouette, backlit by the orange glow of the burning Paperwing.
Desperately, Sabriel tried to remember what she knew about Free Magick elementals and constructs. her father had rarely mentioned them, and Magistrix Greenwood had only lightly delved into the subject. Sabriel knew the binding spells for two of the lesser kindred of Free Magic beings, but the creature before her was neither Margrue nor Stilken.
"Keep thinking, Abhorsen," laughed the creature, advancing again. "Such a pity your head doesn't work too well."
"You saved it from not working forever," Sabriel replied warily.
"Sentiment," the thing replied, still silently sliding forward. It laughed again and a dark, tendril-like arm suddenly unleashed itself, snapping across the intervening space to strike Sabriel across the face.
"A memory, now purged," it added, as Sabriel staggered back from a second attack, sword flashing across to parry. Unlike the silver spell-darts, the Charter-etched blade did connect with the unnatural flesh of the creature, but had no effect apart from jarring Sabriel's arm.
"Memories, yes, many memories," continued the creature. It was circling around her now, pushing her back the way they'd come, back toward the fading fire of the Paperwing. That would burn out soon, and then there would only be darkness.
"Millenia of servitude, Abhorsen. Chained by trickery, treachery... captive in a repulsive, fixed-flesh shape... but there will be payment, slow payment - not quick, not quick at all!"
Lalala it catches her.
Swordarm pinioned to her side, it tightened its grip till she was close against its chest, her face a finger-width from its boiling, constantly moving flesh. Another arm gripped the back of her helmet, forcing her to look up, till she saw its head, directly above her. A thing of most basic anatomy, its eyes were like the sinkhole, deep pits without apparent bottom. It had no nose, but a mouth that split the horrid face in two, a mouth slightly parted to reveal the burning blue-white glare that it had first used as flesh.
All Charter Magic had fled from Sabriel's mind. her sword was trapped, her bells likewise, and even if they weren't she didn't know how to use them properly against things not Dead. She ran over them mentally anyway, in a frantic, lightning inventory of anything that might help.
It was then her tired, concussed mind remembered the ring. It was on her left hand, her free hand, cool silver on the index finger.
But she didn't know what to do with it- and the creature's head was bowing down towards her own, its neck stretching impossibly long, till it was like a snake's head rearing over her, the mouth opening wider, growing brighter, fizzing with white-hot sparks that fell upon her helmet and face, leaving tiny, tattoo-like scars. The ring felt loose on her finger. Sabriel instinctively curled her hand, at eh ring felt looser still, slipping down her finger, expanding, growing, till without looking, Sabriel knew she held a silver hoop as wide or wider than the creature's slender head. And she knew what to do.
"First, the plucking of an eye," said the thing, breath as hot as the falling sparks, scorching her face with instant sunburn. It tilted its head sideways and opened its mouth still wider, lower jaw dislocating out.
Sabriel took one last careful look, screwed her eyes tight against the terrible glare, and flipped the silver hoop up, and she hoped, over the thing's neck. For a second, as the heat increased and there was a terrible burning pain against her eye, Sabriel thought she'd missed. Then the hoop was wrenched out of her hand, and she was thrown away, hurled out like an angry fisherman's minnow.
She had put the silver hoop over the thing's head, and it was slowly sliding down that long, sinuous neck. The ring was shrinking again as it slid, impervious to the creature's desperate attempts to get it off. It had six or seven hand now, formed directly from its shoulders, all squirming about, trying to force fingers under the ring. But the metal seemed inimical to the creature's substance, like a hot pan to human fingers, for the fingers flinched and danced around it, but could not take hold for longer than a second.
Still the creature fought with the ring, blazing hands forming and reforming, body twisting and turning, even bucking, as if it could throw the ring like a rider from a horse. Finally, it gave up and turns toward Sabriel, screaming and crackling. Two long arms sprang out from it, reaching towards Sabriel's sprawling body, talons growing from the hands, raking the stone with deep gouges as they sought her.
"No!" howled the thing, its whole twisting, coiling body lurched forward, killing arms outstretched, again falling short. Then the silver ring contracted once more, and a terrible shout of anguish, rage and despair came from the very center of the white-flaming thing. Its arms suddenly shrank back to its torso; the head fell into the shoulders, and the whole body sank into an amorphous blod of shimmering white, with a single, still-large silver band around the middle, the ruby glittering like a drop of blood.
It seemed to her that something was left undone. Wearily, she got up on her knees and fumbled with the bell-bandolier. Saraneth was heavy, almost beyhond her strength, but she managed, and the deep, compelling voice rang throughout he sinkhole, seeming to pierce the glowing, silver-bound mass.
The ring hummed in answer to the bell and exuded a pear-shaped drop of its own metal, which cooled to become a miniature Saraneth. At the same time, the ring changed color and consistency. The ruby's color seemed to run, and a red wash spread through the silver. it was now dull and ordinary, a red leather collar, with a miniature silver bell. With this change, the white mass quivered, and shone bright again, till Sabriel had to shield her eyes once more. When the shadows grew together again, she looked back, and there was Mogget, collared in red leather, sitting up and looking like he was about to throw up a hairball. It wasn't a hairball, but a silver ring, the ruby reflecting Mogget's internal light. It rolled to Sabriel, who picked it up and slid it back on her finger.
Mogget's glow faded, and the burning Paperwing was now only faint embers, sad memories and ash. Darkness returned, cloaking Sabriel, wrapping her up with all her hurts and fears.
A little later, she felt a soft cat nose against her folded hands, and a candle, damp from Mogget's mouth.
"Your nose is still bleeding," said a familiar, didactic tone. "Light the candle, pinch your nose, and get some blankets out for us to sleep. It's getting cold."