The Labyrinth of Flame
"You want water, boys? It'll cost you." The clansman bared yellowed teeth at me and Kiran in a shrewd, fierce grin. A rat's nest of graying curls threaded with agate chips and bits of carved bone framed his sun-wizened face. Both his rough-woven clothes and leathery skin were the same deep, rusty copper as the sandstone of the natural rock bowl surrounding us. The bowl itself was hundreds of yards wide, its smooth sweep of stone broken by patches of crusted sand choked with spinebrush and pear cactus. Giant boulders loomed at the bowl's lip. Their shapes were oddly sinuous, like humped, drowsing beasts.
"We've goods to bargain," I assured the clansman. Another hulking boulder nearby bore a series of scratched symbols to signify this was a trading ground for the fiercely territorial clans who haunted the borderlands between Arkennland and Varkevia. The trade ground hadn't been easy to find; we were in untracked terrain here, far distant from the regular routes traveled by merchant house convoys. I hadn't even been sure any clanfolk would show when I blew on the cracked bone flute Kiran had found tucked inside a hole beneath the boulder's symbols. I'd been relieved beyond the telling when this oldster ghosted out of the rocks in response to the flute's thin, eerie wail. Kiran and I had mere dregs left in our waterskins, and at least fifty miles yet to go across this barren maze of buttes and canyons to reach the border city of Prosul Akheba.
A destination we had to reach fast. Otherwise, Kiran was a dead man. We had only a scant supply left of the drug that was keeping him alive, and no way of making more. The famed scholars of Prosul Akheba's collegium were our best hope, and I'd do a hell of a lot worse than risk a shortcut across barren desert to make sure Kiran survived. Without Kiran's help, I'd never stop his master Ruslan from sending demons from the darkest of legends to rip me and everyone I loved to bloody, screaming shreds.
"Show me what you have to trade." The clansman's sharp black eyes shifted from me to Kiran, who was crouched beside our packs with his night-dark hair obscuring his grimy face. "You'd best not stint, either. From the looks of those..." The clansman twitched a contemptuous finger at our pile of flaccid waterskins. "Without my aid, you'll soon be visiting Shaikar's hells. Unless you boys are mages powerful enough to conjure water from stone." He chuckled, a dry, hissing sound like a snake slithering through sand.
Kiran raised his head. His blue eyes met mine, full of bitter amusement.
Yeah, if this oldster knew the truth, he wouldn't be laughing. Looking at Kiran, all he saw was a weary, travel-stained youth so skinny a strong blow might snap him in two. He'd never guess Kiran was a blood mage, trained to fuel spells with torture and murder, capable of snuffing out a life with a single touch...or conjuring enough water to drown this clansman where he stood.
I sighed. Too bad Kiran couldn't cast even a wisp of a spell here in Arkennland without bringing his sadistic viper of a master down on our heads.
"Go on," I said to Kiran, with a sardonic lift of my brows. "Show him a stone."
Kiran rummaged in his battered pack and produced a crimson carcabon stone the size of his thumb. We'd chipped a handful of stones that large as we'd descended the cliffs of the Whitefires' southernmost peaks, which stabbed skyward like bared fangs above the boulders. This late in the summer, no snow lined those stark granite pinnacles, which meant we hadn't seen water since we crossed the range's crest. The red-rock desert surrounding us wasn't quite as arid as the alkali flats of the Painted Valley some hundred miles to the north, where my home city of Ninavel depended entirely upon mages' spellcasting for water. Here, seeps lay hidden deep in caves and canyons, but their exact locations were jealously guarded secrets.
Which left us at one hell of a disadvantage in this trade, but I'd make it work. I had to.
The clansman squinted at the carcabon. "A promising start, but far from enough. How many gems this size do you have?"
Apparently he thought us such idiots we might blurt out the full extent of our stash. "Enough to give you two stones per filled waterskin."
The clansman's smile sharpened. I crossed my arms, letting the warding charms banding my wrists catch the light of the afternoon sun. A warning: we were no easy prey, even if not for the reason he'd think. The charms I wore were Alathian-made, stolen from the mages of the Council's Watch before Kiran and I escaped through their warded eastern border into the Whitefires, and the magic bound within their rune-marked silver met the ridiculously strict Alathian legal standards. The wards would stop a blade, maybe even a dragonclaw charm, but they wouldn't so much as singe an attacker's hand. The runes looked close enough to those seen on far nastier charms made in Ninavel that I hoped the clansman wouldn't know the difference. Alathians didn't often cross the mountains.
"Two stones, you say? I say your lives are worth far more." The clansman pursed his lips. "Ten stones per skin."
We didn't have anywhere near so many gems. Kiran and I exchanged another swift, speaking glance; his dark with worry, mine a reassurance: take it easy. I've got this.
"Khalmet wasn't so kind to a pair of footsore prospectors this trip," I said. Kiran bowed his head again. I couldn't see his eyes anymore, hidden as they were by his hair, but irony was plain in the slant of his mouth. Yeah, "not so kind" was quite the understatement. These last months, I'd begun to suspect the god of luck's skeletal bad hand was permanently fixed to my shoulder, dooming me to disaster – and I hadn't endured half of what Kiran had suffered.
I continued, "Most I can give is three stones per waterskin, but every stone is top quality. Plus I'll throw in a bonemender charm, the best you've ever sparked." The bit about the bonemender wasn't even a lie. The Alathian Council wasn't half so tight-assed about healing spells as they were about every other kind of magic.
The clansman's black eyes glittered. "Give me those warding charms on your wrists along with the bonemender, boy, and you'll have a deal."
I snorted. "Do we look like soft-headed merchanter marks to you? Fuck if I'll hand over my protection so you can jump us the minute we turn our backs."
The clansman released another hissing chuckle. "No need for fighting, not here in Shaikar's furnace. You'd best take my terms, or all I need do is wait, and take gems and charms alike from your parched corpses."
Kiran tensed, and I willed him not to raise his head again. I didn't want the clansman to get too good a look at him. I'd have left Kiran hidden in the rocks, but tales I'd heard in my convoy days had left me leery of that idea. Supposedly clanfolk never came to a bargain alone, and they didn't take well to the suggestion of ambush.
I said, "Leave us to die of thirst, and we'll see you get nothing. Pound the carcabon to powder, and slag our charms. You want to profit from us, you've got to trade for it."
"You have a ringtail's boldness," the clansman said, with a yellowed smirk. "Yet I am no fool. Men do not avoid the trade road and risk dying waterless without reason. Such travelers had best offer enough to buy my clan's silence as well as our water."
Great. If I gave into his arm-twisting, I'd only confirm we had something to hide, and I sure as hell didn't trust we could purchase his silence.
"Reason?" I kicked Kiran's pack, sourly. It slumped over onto the sandstone without any clinking of gems or ingots. "Only thing to do with a prospecting trip as Khalmet-cursed as this one is to end it, fast. Plodding all the way out Firestrike Canyon to the convoy route wastes weeks. We shortcut across the desert and resupply in Prosul Akheba quick enough, we can gem-hunt in a different mountain cirque before the snows come. Otherwise, we'll be starving this winter. Avoiding that is worth a little risk, and I don't give a damn who knows it."
Kiran muttered in agreement, sounding properly glum about it. He'd gotten a lot better at playacting since I first met him. Helpful as it was right now, I wasn't so sure it was a good change.
The clansman's weathered face gave me no clues about whether he was buying my little tale. "Might be starving sooner," he said. "The Akhebans are jumpy these days. Doubt they'll let a pair of convoy-less stragglers inside the city's wards without good reason."
Was he lying, hoping to suss out if we were truly destitute or not? Suliyya grant he was lying! We couldn't afford any delays in reaching the collegium.
I let a little of my nerves show. "What's got the Akhebans so spooked?"
The clansman twisted a hand in a gesture I couldn't read. Fading blue tattoos covered his bony knuckles and spiraled up his wrists. "New demon cult's on the rise."
The word "demon" set my heart hammering; beside me, Kiran had frozen into utter stillness.
Damn it, this news might have nothing to do with us. I'd heard enough tales from convoy drovers to know that cults continuously bloomed and faded in Varkevian cities, as disciples of each new doctrinal craze fought to gain power and sweep aside the old. Sounded crazy to me, but the Varkevian-born drovers I'd known panted after every bit of cult-related news with all the passion of streetside gamblers watching a snakefight. They did love their stories of gods and demons.
Yet certain of those stories contained cold, hard truth. I couldn't stop a glance at Kiran, who remained rigid as stone.
The clansman was watching Kiran too. Unease rippled through me.
"Cityfolk chase after nonsense, but we vashaidah know the truth." A sudden, dark fervor colored the clansman's voice, and his guttural accent grew thicker. "Shaikar is master over all, and rare are the mortals blessed with a chance to gain his favor."
I'd heard some clans claimed descent from the infamous black-dagger Kaithans, who'd long ago been exiled from the tribelands beyond the southern blight. The other Kaithan tribes apparently hadn't taken too well to the black-daggers' insistence that Shaikar, lord and guardian of the deathless hells, wasn't merely the brother of all the other gods in the southern pantheon, but their creator and master.
I shrugged, carefully noncommittal. "All I know about the gods is that right now they don't like me. So trade us water, and let a pair of Khalmet-touched prospectors cross out of your clan's territory before our misfortune spills over onto you."
The clansman's gaze still rested on Kiran, and his eyes had gone opaque in a way I didn't much like. Bad enough that Kiran's bone-pale skin marked him as foreign in ancestry. But his pallor hadn't changed a whit even after a solid month of traveling in fierce high altitude sun. Pasty-skinned immigrants from the far north often wore sun-shroud charms to stop themselves from burning and blistering, but no sun-shroud was so strong as to prevent them from tanning entirely. I'd made Kiran grime his face, neck, and hands with coppery dirt to hide their lack of color, and clothe every inch of the rest of his skin despite the heat, but still. The last thing I wanted was for some tale of a bizarrely pallid young prospector to reach Ninavel.
The clansman spoke. "True enough that we want none of strangers' misfortune." His eyes flicked back to me. "What other healing charms have you?"
Not many. Some skinseal charms, a lone bloodfreeze...no, I wasn't going to give up the one charm we had that could stop serious bleeding, and skinseals were common as sand, hardly worth ten decets. I did have one other charm that might work as a bargaining token.
"I've a frostflower I'm willing to trade." Weak like most Alathian charms, its magic likely to fade within an hour of being sparked, but it could save a man from death by heatstroke. I didn't much like trading the frostflower away before we finished traveling the desert, but I wasn't carrying much else of value, and the frostflower wasn't half so vital as my warding charms.
The clansman grunted in grudging approval. "Give me frostflower, bonemender, and the gemstones, and you'll have your water."
"Done," I said. "So long as you give us the water first."
The clansman grinned wide. He spat on a palm and held it up – a gesture I'd seen Varkevian immigrants use to mean a pact sealed. "Don't worry, young ringtail. We vashaidah hold to our bargains. Give me your waterskins and wait here."
"How long?" I asked.
"Not long," the clansman said. "Certain of my kin are close, and they carry enough water to fill your skins."
By close he probably meant watching from the rocks right now, ready to gut you if I order it. I surveyed the humped wall of boulders yet again, and saw nothing. It didn't stop the itch of my nerves.
I shook the last few drops from my three waterskins into my mouth. Kiran had enough remaining in his skins to manage several gulping swallows before we handed the lot over. The brief taste of wetness on my tongue only made my parched throat cry out for more.
The clansman took our waterskins and slipped back into the boulders. Kiran stood, raking his hair off his face. His eyes looked eerily blue against the dirt darkening his skin.
"You look worried," he said quietly.
"He rolled over awfully easy at the end." I kept my voice just as low and my eyes on the rocks above. Damn, but I wished I had a proper weapon. A boneshatter charm, or a heart-rot...but all I had besides the warding charms on my wrists was the knife at my belt. A simple, short blade meant for camp chores and cutting rope to make belay slings. I was a mountain outrider by trade, far better at scaling crags and icefields than fighting.
"You think his clan is so superstitious they might decide to avoid any supposed misfortune by killing us instead of trading?" Kiran glanced around at the silent desert. One hand drifted up to his chest. I knew he was thinking of the amulet that lay hidden beneath his tightly-laced shirt. The one powerful charm we possessed – it kept us hidden from the strongest of seeking spells, and blocked Kiran's mental bond with his master Ruslan – but it could only hide Kiran so long as he didn't cast any magic, and the charm wouldn't do a damn thing to help us in a physical fight.
"I don't know how clansmen think." I'd never been so far south before. "Wish Cara was here. She's worked all the desert routes; she might've had dealings with clanfolk."
"I wish we were with her," Kiran said, with a wry ghost of a grin. "Traveling in the cool air of the mountains. Preferably wading along a stream, drinking whenever we felt like it." He licked cracked lips and sighed.
I heaved a sigh of my own, but not out of desire for snowmelt streams. Lover, climbing partner, the one friend in the world I'd learned to trust without reservation...it'd been two weeks now since Cara left us to head north, and the ache of her absence gnawed deeper with each passing day.
She'd left for good reason, shepherding two orphaned kids to safety. One of those kids was a girl I'd vowed on my life to protect, the daughter of the outrider who'd not only taught me everything I knew of the mountains, but saved me in every possible sense of the word. I'd do damn near anything to keep Melly safe – a truth Ruslan had used against me before. Logic said Cara taking Melly out of reach of our enemies while I kept on with Kiran was the smart move. Cara meant to rejoin us as soon as she had Melly and Janek settled with her kin in the Tarnspike Mountains near Arkennland's northern border.
But any reunion would be months away, and I didn't know if any of us would survive to see it.
I turned to Kiran. "Can you sense how many clanfolk might be skulking about in those rocks?"
Kiran gave a hollow laugh. "Right now I can barely sense you. If I dared drop my barriers..." Yearning flashed across his face.
"Never mind," I said hastily. One hint to Ruslan through their mental bond that Kiran was no longer captive in Alathia, and we'd be fucked. I knelt beside my pack and beckoned Kiran to crouch with me, as if we were checking over its contents in preparation for the trade.
Moving my mouth as little as possible, I muttered, "You're carrying the drug vial on you, not in your pack, I hope?"
He nodded, touching the sash bound tight around his waist.
"If this goes bad and we have to run, ditch your pack. See those rocks with the purplish streaks?" I jerked my chin at the jagged-edged slabs poking skyward on the bowl's far side like a giant stack of broken plates turned on end. Two of the slabs midway along the line had purple layers of azemite slashing across their ruddy sandstone surface. "Make for the crevice between them."
Before ever blowing that bone flute, I'd scouted an escape route through and over the slabs. Clanfolk must have some skill at climbing, living as they did in this wilderness of stone, so I couldn't count on us simply spidering up to safety. But in a slot as tight as that crevice, any attackers would be forced to come after us one at a time. If we could stem up the walls quickly enough, we could kick rocks down on pursuers' heads, then climb out and over the slab's back side to escape into the maze of stone fins and canyons behind it.
Assuming I could get Kiran up any difficult climbs fast enough. After a month spent scrambling over the Whitefires' ridges and couloirs, he'd gotten a lot more agile, but he was still far from an expert. I resettled my pack's contents so our coil of makeshift rope sat right on top, ready for quick access.
Eyeing the rope, Kiran shook his head. "If it comes to a fight – you run. I only have to touch any attackers to stop them. Then we might at least gain any water they carry."
Touch them, and rip the life straight out of them. Memories of blackened trees and dead drovers flashed through my head. "Awfully risky, don't you think? What if Ruslan feels you do it?"
"He won't," Kiran said, all cool assurance. "It's not spellcasting. Ikilhia drawn by touch causes no traces in the aether, and I don't have to drop my barriers to take it. So long as I wear the amulet and my barriers remain in place –"
"Yeah, yeah, Ruslan can't find you. You said that last time. Next thing we knew, Ruslan was seeing through your eyes, about to tear straight through your amulet's warding."
Kiran's eyes dropped from mine. I knew he didn't remember it, not directly. During our unwilling visit to Ninavel last month, Ruslan had burned away years' worth of Kiran's memories, including those of our first desperate flight through the Whitefires earlier this year. But Kiran had seen my own memories of that trip – hell, he'd scrutinized them so hard and for so long, seeking some sign they were false, he probably knew them better than I did. So why would he be so cavalier about the risk?
Kiran said, "Last time, Ruslan was actively seeking me – or pretending to, anyway. He isn't now. Since he believes me a prisoner in Alathia, unreachable behind their border wards, his attention will be on...other matters."
Like the demons of legend. Specifically, how to find them and convince them into razing all of Alathia to blood and ashes. Not to mention savaging Cara and Melly, since Ruslan hated me almost as much as he hated the Alathians. He wanted us all to pay for helping Kiran escape him, but he couldn't take revenge in person. He'd made a blood vow never to cast against either me or Alathia in exchange for getting his hands on Kiran when the Alathians dragged us to Ninavel last month. If he broke the vow, he'd burn. But a man as viciously clever and determined as Ruslan wasn't about to let a vow stop him – especially after an Alathian mage had forced him into giving Kiran back.
So we had to stop him. A task so difficult as to approach impossibility, but I had to believe that together, Kiran and I could pull it off. The alternative was too terrible.
Kiran's eyes had darkened, the bruised shadows beneath them all the more pronounced. Not hard to guess his thoughts had followed paths as grim as mine.
I said, "Just tell me you're being honest in weighing the risk. That you won't get sloppy because part of you still thinks the solution is to turn yourself over to him." While captive in Alathia, Kiran had insisted he could somehow talk Ruslan out of bargaining with demons – as if Ruslan would listen to a word he said, rather than use the mark-bond to fuck with his mind again until he became the devoted, willing tool that Ruslan wanted.
I'd promised Kiran we'd find a better way, one that wouldn't condemn him to life as Ruslan's lapdog. Yet I had the uncomfortable suspicion that I hadn't done as good a job of changing Kiran's mind as I'd hoped.
"That's not why!" Kiran protested. At my sharp gesture, he lowered his voice back to a near-whisper. "I would never reveal myself to Ruslan, not while I travel with you. I wouldn't risk you that way."
Not while I travel with you... Oh yeah, he was still thinking about it. I swallowed harsh words; now wasn't the time for an argument. He sounded sincere enough in his concern for me – a damn good thing, since if Ruslan got hold of Kiran through the mark-bond, the very first thing he'd do is compel Kiran to slit my throat. The blood oath prevented Ruslan from casting against me, but it didn't prevent him from killing me by physical means.
Yet for all Kiran's evident care for my survival, I still felt unsettled. The old Kiran, the one I'd known before Ruslan took his memories – he wouldn't have so readily suggested draining men's lives with magic. This Kiran...I got another flash of memory: Kiran with his head thrown back in ecstasy, his knife buried in the heart of Stevannes, an Alathian mage who'd been our ally.
He'd killed Stevan to spare Melly from dying at Ruslan's hand, and he'd used the death-born power to save all of Ninavel. I couldn't fault his reasons. How could I, when he'd saved everyone I loved? I wasn't so blindly prejudiced as the Alathian Council, who saw only that he'd murdered their top arcanist and cast the very sort of magic they loathed Ninavel for tolerating. Yet these last weeks I'd suffered far too many nightmares in which Kiran licked blood off a blade and looked at me with Ruslan's cold, cruel smile.
I said, "Look, how about you try running first? Save the...other thing, for if that fails. Safer if we can double back on any pursuers and track them to water. Assuming we need to do anything at all. Chances are the trade'll go just fine."
"Because things always go so well for us," Kiran said, with a crooked little smile. I opened my mouth, but he spoke again. "I'll run, if that's what you want. But, Dev...if you trust me in anything, trust this: I'd never do anything to harm you."
His eyes on mine were dead serious, and his shoulders were tight with strain. He knew the Alathians weren't the only ones upset by his killing Stevan.
"Glad to hear it," I said, with perfect truth. Did I trust him? I wanted to. The old Kiran I would've, no question. But Stevan's death wasn't the only dismaying decision I'd seen Kiran make in Ninavel.
Kiran added, lower yet, "If I ever must take ikilhia, I promise you I'll take as little as I can. Enough to stop an attacker, but not to kill."
Slowly, I nodded. Might be safer in the long run to kill anyone that threatened us, but I couldn't help feeling a little wash of relief at his words.
Silence fell. Sweat trickled down my sides. Not long, the clansman had said, but it already felt an eternity. The way he'd stared at Kiran kept nagging at me. What had he seen? I squinted at Kiran again. His shirt was laced tight, hiding his amulet, and I didn't see anywhere the dirt had rubbed off his skin.
Kiran gave me a quizzical, wary glance. "What?"
"Nothing." I hadn't ever asked Kiran why he stayed so freakishly pale, but I had my suspicions. The demon we'd faced in the Cirque of the Knives had had hair black as Kiran's – if the demon's snaky, subtly moving braids were truly hair – and skin the stark, inhuman white of moonlit ice. He'd said of Kiran that he was molded in our image ...
A gust of wind hot as a dragon's breath skirled through the rock bowl, stinging my skin with sand. I blinked away grit and caught movement in the rocks above. I hissed at Kiran in warning; he stood, his face taut with worry.
The clansman eeled around a boulder with fat, sloshing waterskins dangling from his hands. To my surprise, he wasn't alone; a young woman stalked right behind him. Her trousers and tunic were of the same coarse cloth as his, but her skin was ordinary Arkennlander brown like mine, without the coppery hue that spoke of Varkevian descent. She looked whipcord-tough, with a lean, rangy build, a fox-sharp chin and prominent cheekbones. Her thick dark hair was caught up in a topknot bound by rune-marked jade, and a bronze amulet hung from a chain around her neck. The amulet's spiked, interlocking loops reminded me of the useless little devil-ward charms that superstitious streetsiders wore in Ninavel, but this amulet was far larger and more complex than any devil-ward I'd ever seen.
She couldn't be any older than I was, early twenties at the most, but she moved with all the arrogant confidence of the wealthiest of Ninavel highsiders.
Or Ninavel's mages. Oh, hell! Kiran had told me a mage's life energies burned so brightly there was no hiding it from another, not this close. The gods only knew what'd happen if she sensed the truth of him. I cut my eyes at Kiran, my brows raised in urgent question.
He shook his head minutely, his brow furrowed. She wasn't a mage? Thank Khalmet. But still...
"Who's this?" I demanded of the clansman.
He halted some twenty paces away. "Our godspeaker wished to see you. To determine if you are touched by Khalmet, as you said."
I was beginning to wish I'd come up with some other story. Any other story. I racked my brain for any mention of a godspeaker in tales I'd heard from convoy drovers, and came up with nothing. Maybe the clansman meant to squeeze more profit out of us by claiming this "godspeaker" could lift our misfortune.
"Thought we had a bargain," I said, as the godspeaker began to stalk around us in a wide circle. She moved with a sandcat's lithe, predatory grace, and her black eyes were unnervingly piercing, never once leaving us. Could Kiran be wrong about her? She sure acted like a mage. A cold pit yawned open in my stomach.
"We do." The clansman held out the waterskins. "Full as they'll hold. Give over the price."
"Wait." I approached, warily, and first sniffed, then tasted the water in each skin. No warning bitterness or other hint of contamination. Safer to check for poison or foulness with a sweetwater charm, but we didn't have one. In the end, I gestured to Kiran, all too aware of the godspeaker still circling at my back.
Kiran tossed an oilskin packet containing gems and charms to the clansman. I slung one waterskin over my shoulder and retreated to tie the others to our packs, moving as fast as I dared. The godspeaker prowled back around to the clansman's side. He asked her a soft question in what sounded like oddly inflected Varkevian.
The godspeaker smiled, wide and triumphant. "My dream spoke truth," she said, in a high, clear voice pitched far too loud to be for his ears alone. "Today we are Shaikar's hands, and will earn his favor. Khadijjah ashtok meit vas!"
She stabbed a slender finger straight at us, and a horde of yelling, knife-wielding clanfolk boiled out of the rocks.
Read the second chapter.