The Labyrinth of Flame
The clanfolk howled in savage chorus as they swept down the sandstone. Kiran froze, power flaring upward from his own ikilhia in sheer, instinctive defense. The urge to release his mental barriers and strike was overwhelming. But he must not cast...he must not. He struggled to rein in wild magic and hold his barriers firm, lost to all else.
A violent yank on his wrist sent him staggering. "Run, damn you!" Dev’s green eyes were white-rimmed in his mahogany face, his teeth bared in a snarl. The godspeaker was howling in concert with her oncoming kin, her head tipped to the sky and her slender arms thrown wide. The wizened trader remained in a defensive stance at her side, with a knife in one tattooed hand and the bag of gems and charms still clutched in the other.
Kiran lurched away in a stumbling run. He dodged clumps of wickedly thorny plants, his breath harsh in his throat and his ikilhia still roiling dangerously high. The very air seemed to resist his progress, as if he ran through thickened syrup. Sweat coursed into his eyes. The dark line of the crevice between the purple-streaked slabs looked impossibly distant across the open expanse of the bowl.
Dev overtook him, darting past with a pronghorn’s speed despite his shorter legs and the bulky packs clutched under each arm. Eager yells sounded close behind. Kiran strove to run faster.
Something struck his legs. He crashed down onto sun-heated stone, releasing an inarticulate shout. Ahead, Dev skidded to a halt, calling to him. Kiran struggled to rise, but his legs wouldn’t move. A leather strap weighted by two rocks was wound tight around them.
The frontrunning clansmen were closing fast. Kiran snatched up his belt knife and hacked through the leather. He kicked free of the strap and jumped to his feet. Thoughts tumbled through his head in a frantic, quicksilver rush.
Futile to run, with his pursuers so close. But to fight so many...when he’d spoken so confidently to Dev of taking ikilhia, he’d imagined facing a few men, not this...this army. He could take power by touch without alerting Ruslan, yes, but if he drew too much into his own ikilhia and did not release it in a spellcasting, his barriers would fail under the pressure. Or if the clansmen used the knives gleaming in their dusty hands, if they hurt Kiran too badly before he could stop them – his barriers would likewise crumble, his body reaching blindly for the power needed to heal. Either way, Ruslan would know instantly the truth of Kiran’s location.
A sick, terrible wave of temptation swept him. If discovery was inevitable, why not fight properly? Throw the gates of his ikilhia wide, let a glorious cataract of power blaze through his blood...one lash of magefire, and his attackers would be charred stains on the stone. An outcome Ruslan would applaud. He’d come to reclaim Kiran, take him back to Ninavel and the embrace of his mage-family, and when he did...Kiran knew exactly what offer he might make Ruslan that would turn him aside from his search for demonkind. An offer that would save countless lives, including Dev’s.
No! At his core, a voice screamed in furious, defiant refusal. The price of that salvation was far too high. How could he even consider surrender? There might still be a chance to prevail. The clanfolk were surely ignorant of the danger they faced in attacking him. If he could shock them, frighten them enough to inspire a retreat –
For that, he’d need to do more than take mere sips of ikilhia. Vivid and jagged as lightning, the memory of the soul-consuming joy he’d felt in killing Stevannes lanced through him. Kiran cast a wild glance over his shoulder at Dev, who had tossed aside the packs and was racing toward him.
"Stay back!" Kiran shouted. No time to see if Dev heeded the warning. Kiran sheathed his knife to free his hands, and faced the onrushing clanfolk.
The first to reach him was a young man who bounded over the sandstone with a swift energy terribly reminiscent of Dev’s. Sweat sheened the corded muscles of his bare arms, and his dark eyes were alight with the fierce, eager anticipation of a hunter who sees his prey falter. He leaped at Kiran, metal glinting in his hand – not a knife, but some type of charm.
Charms, Kiran didn’t fear. He grabbed for one ruddy brown arm.
The young man twisted aside with astonishing agility. A blow slammed Kiran facedown onto stone. Crude magic crawled over his barriers, seeking. The amulet flared hot against his chest in protective response, even as hands wrenched his arms behind his back. More hands on him, feet crowding all around, ululating cries of triumph ringing out – somewhere, Dev was shouting, the words lost in the clamor –
Kiran focused on the hands pinning his limbs and sought through the contact. Multiple dim coals of ikilhia flickered in his inner vision. He drew, savagely, all of it he could reach.
The victorious yells above turned to choked, agonized screams. Power poured into Kiran, the separate small coals of life merging into one intoxicating blaze. Not as strong as what he’d channeled from Stevannes’s rich fount of ikilhia – that inferno, Kiran could never have contained within his barriers – but oh, so sweet a fire after long weeks without a single spark!
The hands slackened and fell away. Kiran rolled and saw crumpled, lifeless bodies. Beyond, clansmen scrabbled back from him with panicked cries, their faces sallow with shock.
Kiran rose to his feet, buoyed by a swell of hectic satisfaction. A tide of power surged with every beat of his heart, the sensation so deliriously intense he wanted to shout for the joy of it. Dizziness swept over him, his vision blurring.
He must not betray weakness. Already, the song in his blood made it desperately hard to maintain his focus. If he took in any more ikilhia, he’d never succeed in holding his barriers.
He glanced back. Dev was crouched over their packs amid a sparse ring of clansmen, all of whom had twisted to gape at Kiran. The charms on Dev’s wrists glimmered with fading fire, and his chest heaved in harsh, rapid breaths. He, too, was staring at Kiran, his expression a tangled mixture of relief and dismay. He’d lost his little belt knife; the largest of the clansmen held it. Red streaked the blade, a sight that sent worry lancing through Kiran’s giddy intoxication. But another of the clansmen had a hand clamped over a forearm, blood trickling through his fingers, while Dev showed no sign of wounds.
The clansmen were turning back to Dev, their shock fading into grim resolve. Kiran yelled, "Touch him, and you die like your kin."
The men froze, darting narrow-eyed glances first at each other, then the sprawled bodies at Kiran’s feet. Five dead, he realized; all men in their prime, including that first eager young hunter. Their palms were blackened and charred where they’d once gripped him, and their mouths hung open in airless screams. Yet the beautiful, seductive fire that leaped behind his eyes left no room for horror or regret.
Kiran dragged his gaze up from the corpses. Eight men surrounded Dev, and at least another thirty clanfolk faced Kiran at a wary distance. These were a mixture of ages, from lanky youths up to grizzled, hard-eyed elders, and included a scattering of women, wiry and muscled as the men. Most of the crowd flinched from his gaze, but some few – close kin, perhaps, to those he’d killed – glared back at him, fingering their knives with hatred hot in their eyes.
"I am the bearer of Shaikar’s favor, not you," Kiran shouted at them. Ruslan had always dismissed gods as fables for the weak-minded, saying that akheli – blood mages, as the untalented called them – were the closest thing to gods that humankind would ever know. The creatures known as demons had proved to be real, but Kiran had seen no evidence of the divine. Yet if these nathahlen had such faith in Shaikar, he would use it. "Go. Now! Or every one of you will feel his wrath."
The ring of space around him widened further, men and women alike edging back up the slope toward the rocks. But a high voice rang out, sharp and biting as a blade.
"Oh, you are favored of Shaikar...that, I do not deny."
Silently, the sallow-faced crowd flowed apart to clear a path. The young godspeaker stood at the end, holding a long, curved knife as black as obsidian. Unlike the rest, she didn’t look at all afraid. Only ferociously, dismayingly resolute.
She called to Kiran, "Why else should the keepers of the sacred fire yearn for you so deeply that their desire touched my dreams?" Her gaze flicked to the corpses, and her teeth showed briefly in an expression far from a smile. "A viper in the guise of a lamb...that, the flame did not see fit to show me. Yet I shall not turn aside from the hunt."
The only part he fully understood was the last, but that threat was clear enough. "You’ll gain only death," Kiran warned. Curse the woman! If he felled her as he had the others, Ruslan would have him for certain.
The wizened trader, still crouched at the godspeaker’s side, muttered something to her. She shook her head in dismissal and laughed, bright and wild. "Favor comes only to those bold enough to seize it. So, come..." She stared straight into Kiran’s eyes and spread her arms in mocking invitation. "If my dream was false – if you already act in Shaikar’s name, and he does not wish you returned to his sanctum...then strike me down."
The clanfolk all tensed, looking from her to Kiran. Surprise scattered Kiran’s thoughts. Returned to...? Did she speak of Ruslan? The power seething inside him pressed all the harder against his barriers. Light sparked in his vision, his dizziness growing. It would be so easy to do as she challenged him.
"For fuck’s sake, stop goading him." The voice was Dev’s, cold and furious. He straightened from his crouch, glaring at the godspeaker. "Do you love Shaikar so much you want your entire clan consigned to his hells? My friend here is trying to show you idiots a little mercy. Trust me, you should run while you still can."
The godspeaker raised her black brows and put a slim hand to the charm at her throat. "Is it mercy he shows? Or weakness?" She looked at Kiran. "If you had the power to strike us all down, I think you would have wielded it at the first. There is more than one way to offer you to the flame."
She exploded into motion, charging straight at Kiran with her obsidian knife held low and ready. Caught off guard, he barely managed to dodge her first slash. Scrambling backward, he tripped over a corpse and fell. She sprang forward and stabbed again, so swiftly he could hardly see the blur of the blade. He rolled the only way he could, toward her.
She danced aside with a hiss. She’d guessed enough to fear his touch, but she didn’t know his handicap. Her knife...beyond the siren song of the power in his head, he could feel a faint, contained pulse of magic. A spell, bound in the blade. His barriers were already barely holding against the fire inside him. If they were put under more strain by deflecting a spell, failure was all the more certain. He had to dampen the blaze within. But how, without casting?
A chorus of yells, and Dev hurtled past to slam into the godspeaker. They both crashed to the stone in a tangle of limbs. Dev grabbed the godspeaker’s knife hand and hammered it against the rock, but she wrenched free of his grip and rolled to her feet in one swift motion. Before Dev could regain his own footing, she kicked him hard in the ribs. Dev’s charms flared silver, their magic warding his flesh from harm, but the force of the blow sent him sprawling. The godspeaker leaped back toward Kiran.
The brief respite gave him a vital instant to think. There was indeed a way to use up the power burning in his blood, one that did not require a spellcasting. The risk was frighteningly high, but he must take it.
The godspeaker struck again with her spelled blade, and this time, Kiran didn’t dodge. Instead, he stepped straight into her thrust.
Her knife bit deep into his side. Pain stole his breath, but he ignored it, throwing every scrap of will and concentration into holding his barriers. She yanked the blade out – and the magic trapped within him leapt to answer his body’s scream of need. Flesh and muscle knit back together in a silent, secret conflagration of power. His barriers wavered, thinning, but through sheer force of will, he held them solid. A raw, grating ache grew in his head, warning of mental overstrain, even as the sharper physical pain vanished from his side. Only a guttering glow remained of the former blaze in his blood, and his barriers remained safely in place.
Blackness bloomed at the edges of his vision. He lunged, desperate, snatching for the godspeaker. He had to take her life before she stabbed him again. He had no reserves left to heal a second wound; his barriers would fall.
She was too fast. She darted out of his reach, the obsidian knife held high, the blade scarlet with his blood. Beyond, Dev had disappeared in a heaving knot of clansmen. Faint, brief flashes of power struck Kiran’s barriers – Dev’s defensive charms, warding off impacts. How much longer before the charms failed, all their stored magic expended? Kiran had to end this, now.
He straightened, so the rent in his shirt showed clean, unmarked skin, and beckoned the godspeaker with all the infuriating arrogance he could muster. "Care to try again?"
She only backed farther, a savage grin on her pointed face. A wash of indigo shimmered over her knife. His blood soaked into the blade and disappeared, leaving the surface once more an unmarked, glossy black. She whirled and yelled a string of incomprehensible words.
Every one of the clanfolk turned and ran. They retreated in a swift, silent rush back into the boulders, and the godspeaker with them. Within moments, the rock bowl was empty but for Kiran, a scattering of corpses, and a disheveled, wild-eyed Dev.
"What the fuck did you do to them?" Dev shouted at him. "Gods, tell me you didn’t cast."
"No!" Kiran shook off his own stunned incredulity. "She stabbed me, and I healed it, but I used only the power I already held within my barriers. I cast nothing outside them."
Dev let out a ragged breath, his eyes closing briefly.
Kiran took an unsteady step toward him. "You’re all right? They didn’t...?"
"Oh, I’m terrific." Dev made a noise too harsh to be a laugh. "Whatever inspired that Shaikar-loving bitch and her crew to take off instead of pounding us to slag, I say we seize the chance to get the hell out of here. But first..." He knelt beside a corpse and ran his hands over it in a hasty, rough search. "I need to see if they carried anything useful."
Kiran looked away from the dead man’s staring eyes. He fumbled at the sash around his waist. "The godspeaker’s blade had a containment charm. To hold and preserve an enemy’s blood." Blood was the best key for targeting spells, whether the spell was charm-bound or mage-cast.
"You think she means to spark some charm against you from a nice safe distance? Your amulet should stop any spells from reaching us – right?" At Kiran’s nod, he gave a relieved grunt and hurried to search the next corpse. "Speaking of spells...you’re absolutely certain Ruslan didn’t feel you heal that knife wound. Or kill these men." He glanced at the other bodies, his mouth a hard, flat line.
He didn’t say, so much for your promise, but Kiran heard the accusation hanging in the desert silence.
"No, I...I held my barriers, but..." He couldn’t get the sash untied. The sunlight seared his vision. His knees gave way, a dangerous trembling growing in his muscles. "Dev. The drug – I need – "
"Kiran!" Strong hands caught his shoulders, and concerned eyes peered into his own. "All that magic, of course. Here..."
Deft fingers pulled his sash free and rescued the warded vial from the pouch sewn inside his shirt. Liquid dripped onto his tongue, the familiar, subtly sour taste, and he swallowed, reaching to grip the vial – but Dev pulled it away.
"No more. Gods, Kiran, we have so little left. Come on, get up. Not safe to stay here."
With Dev’s aid, Kiran staggered upright. His head still throbbed, the glow of his ikilhia frighteningly erratic, but at least he no longer felt at risk of a seizure. Still, to come so close to collapse after so small a use of power was deeply dismaying. He’d hoped that after long weeks of avoiding the least hint of magic and dutifully taking regular drug doses, his body and ikilhia would have returned to some semblance of proper balance. In Ninavel, he’d spellcast repeatedly for days without the drug, and suffered no worse than increasing nausea and dizziness. It hadn’t been until he helped Ruslan cast channeled magic in the Cirque of the Knives that his ikilhia became so disrupted as to send him into convulsions. But then, in Ninavel he’d started out wholly healthy, not struggling to recover from an imbalance so great he’d nearly died.
Not for the first time, he cursed the cleverness of the Alathians. They’d known about the irrevocable link Ruslan had forged between Kiran’s body and magic. A link meant to ensure instinctive healing; yet the Alathians had found a way to twist that very protection into the instrument of Kiran’s death. Without the drug, his bodily humors slid out of balance such that the touch of magic drove his ikilhia toward dissolution; and Kiran couldn’t stop his body from drawing on his magic in an attempt to restore balance, hastening the very death it sought to prevent.
Dev left his side to snatch up their abandoned packs. Kiran glanced back at the ring of corpses. An echo of the heady joy he’d felt while their lives coursed in his veins rolled through him. Kiran swallowed, nauseated. Dev had seen his exhilaration, he knew it. That flinty look in his eyes, afterward...
Kiran stumbled closer to Dev. "I had to kill those men. I had to frighten the rest badly enough they’d retreat and leave us be. Even if they only intended to take us captive, we couldn’t afford the delay."
Yet as he spoke, doubt crept in. If he’d taken only enough ikilhia from the first men to send them unconscious, he would’ve had the capacity to take from the godspeaker straight away without needing her to stab him first. More, the clanfolk might have believed their kin’s collapse merely the effect of a powerful defensive charm. Instead, he’d revealed himself beyond a doubt as a mage, and further diminished his scant supply of the drug. Killing might well have been a costly error, not a necessity.
"You did what you had to." Yet the line of Dev’s jaw tightened, as if he shared Kiran’s doubt. His stride quickened. "We need to talk more about what exactly they meant to do, and why. Later, when we’re not in the open."
Of course, yes. Foolish to waste time worrying over Dev’s reaction and second-guessing a decision impossible to change. Better to puzzle over the godspeaker’s words and actions...but it was so difficult to think properly, between the ache in his head and the lingering sense of dizzy disconnection. Kiran needed all his concentration to walk in something approximating a straight line. His legs still wanted to fold beneath him.
He couldn’t get the sight of the bodies out of his head. Curse it, the dead men had attacked him. He need not feel ashamed of fighting back.
He tried to banish empty-eyed corpses by picturing Lena, standing slim and straight-backed in her Alathian uniform in the cabin that’d been his temporary prison after they’d defeated Ninavel’s enemy. The Council believes you have proved yourself too dangerous to live. I believe you are our best hope of stopping Ruslan. Yet I would not break my oaths and help you escape if I did not also believe you have the strength of soul to choose a different path than the one he taught you.
But what chance did he have of stopping Ruslan without magic? Kiran had no experience with more innocent methods of casting. He couldn’t think of Lena without hearing her scream of pain as he’d burned away the telltale memories that would have branded her a traitor. He’d destroyed them at her request, but that didn’t make the memory of her agony at his hands any less disturbing.
More disturbing yet was the fear that if she saw his soul now, she’d regret ever freeing him. It wasn’t remorse for the clansmen’s deaths that left Kiran hollow and cold despite the heat baking off the sandstone underfoot. No; what haunted him was how easy it had been to take their lives.
That, and how badly he longed to taste that fire again.
I hustled Kiran toward the dark slash of the crevice. This close, the slabs were towering bulwarks of rust-red rock that appeared as formidable as anything we’d climbed in the Whitefires. Thank Khalmet, Kiran’s stride had steadied into a reasonable pace, as opposed to his initial turtle-slow stagger. The drug was doing its job, then. I’d worried that I hadn’t given him a big enough dose, and we’d have to use up still more of our fast-vanishing supply. I already wasn’t sure we had enough remaining to last until we reached Prosul Akheba.
I glanced back at the boulders lining the opposite side of the bowl. Nothing. The desert was so silent and still, you’d think the clanfolk had vanished straight into Shaikar’s hells.
If only. Whatever the clan’s reason for running off – something that still made little sense to me – the godspeaker must’ve left scouts watching from the boulders. Thankfully, spying on us was about to get a lot more difficult. I slung my pack off my back; the crevice ahead was so narrow I’d get stuck fast if I left the pack on. I’d have to carry it by the straps, like I already held Kiran’s.
Kiran reached for his pack, but I shook my head. "Save your strength. You’ll need it. I can haul both." He might be moving faster, but he still looked like he could topple over if I breathed on him too hard. His cheeks were sunken beneath the sharp lines of his cheekbones, his hands trembled, and he was squinting like he had a skull-buster of a headache.
A far cry from the savage joy he’d displayed as he uncoiled from a pile of dead clansmen, wearing a grin as vicious as any I’d seen on Ruslan. I had to admit the godspeaker had guts, taking Kiran on. I’d wanted to run, and he was on my side.
But then, unlike the clanfolk, I knew what magic Kiran was really capable of if he ever abandoned conscience. I was supposed to keep him from that; or so Lena had asked of me, in return for helping us escape Alathia. Terrific job I was doing so far. We hadn’t even reached civilization yet, and he’d stolen the lives of five men. Not that I minded the clansmen dying. Hell, I’d have killed them myself if I was able. It was Kiran’s delight in the taking that set my skin crawling.
Kiran asked, "Did you find anything on the bodies? I didn’t see, earlier." His head stayed bent, his shoulders hunched. Out of simple exhaustion, or was it guilt? I had to admit I hoped for the latter.
"Not much. Just some knives, and one had a sleepfast charm." More’s the pity. I’d known the chances were slim I’d discover any clue as to the godspeaker’s intentions, but it sure would’ve been nice to recoup the worth of the charms and gems I’d given that original snake-tongued oldster.
At least we had the water. I took a quick swig from a skin. I might not be as bad off as Kiran, but I felt far from fine. The magic in the warding charms had started to fail while the clansmen were doing their best to stomp me into jelly, and I had the bruises to prove it.
I offered the skin to Kiran, but he waved it aside. "Lena told me the drug works best if I don’t eat or drink for some time after taking a dose. I had enough water from emptying my skins before the trade that I can wait."
"Don’t wait too long," I warned. "Push too hard in the desert without water and salt, and sun sickness sneaks up on you quick." In which case, I was guessing his body would draw on his magic to recover, and the last thing I wanted was to have to pour yet more drug down his throat. "First part of the route’s in shadow, but it gets interesting quick."
"I’m ready," Kiran said, wan but resolute. I hefted our packs and slid into the slot. Right away, we had to pass a succession of rocks lodged between the slot walls. Some could be squeezed under, others we had to clamber over. I tossed packs where I couldn’t haul them, setting my teeth against the protests of bruised muscles, and showed Kiran how to brace his back against one wall, his feet against the other, and shuffle his way up and over obstacles. He tackled it all with the same stubborn, silent determination I remembered from our first trip through the Whitefires.
When the slot pinched into a crack so narrow only an ant could continue, I led a precarious ascent up the slanted sidewall and edged sideways on a ledge to reach the slab’s vertical back side. Beyond was an undulating expanse formed of broad ribs and fluted fins of rock, split by deep, yawning crevices, as if the rock had been scored by the talons of some immense storybook dragon.
"Do you see...any sign of...clanfolk?" Kiran was panting so hard from the effort of climbing that I feared he might tumble off the ledge. I gripped the rope still knotted around his waist and steadied him.
"Not so far." I saw no sign of movement anywhere, only stone and sky. I thrust a waterskin at Kiran. "Drink, for Khalmet’s sake. Before you keel over."
Obediently, Kiran drank. By the time he stoppered the skin again, his breathing had calmed down enough I felt safe in letting go of him.
I said, "Don’t suppose you’ve thought up any ideas on why the clanfolk ran. Or why they attacked in the first place."
Kiran’s expression darkened. "I’ve no idea why they ran, but as for the attack...Ruslan could have cast to send a vision of me to that godspeaker. But if he’s learned of my escape from Alathia, why wouldn’t he simply seek to break the amulet’s warding and reclaim me that way? It’s not like him to trust a task to nathahlen."
Yeah, I’d seen Ruslan’s utter contempt for the untalented, not to mention his monumental confidence in his own abilities. I had my own theory on the godspeaker’s motive, but it was one I wanted to consider further before bringing up to Kiran, especially with him in such rough shape. The slab’s back side was formed of stacked, jutting layers of sandstone that provided excellent hand and footholds for a downclimb, but the descent to the nearest rock rib would still tax Kiran’s concentration. I wanted him focused, not distracted and upset.
"Only thing I’m certain of is that bloodthirsty bitch isn’t done with us yet," I said. "The further we can get before sundown, the better. You ready to press on?"
He squared his shoulders and nodded.
I looped a bight of rope around a protruding knob of rock in preparation for belaying his downclimb. "Once we’re on those fingers of rock, walking along the crests shouldn’t be too hard, but we’ll have some excitement when we have to cross between them."
Kiran let out a low, heartfelt groan. "Excitement. Oh, no. What you call 'exciting' makes sane men want to run away screaming."
I grinned at him, and for a brief, blessed moment, the shadow that lay between us melted away; he was once again the friend I remembered, not the mage I feared. "Oh, quit whining. This’ll be nothing compared to what we survived a mere week ago. Remember that ten-pitch overhang on the ascent up to Jade Col?"
Kiran shuddered. "Don’t remind me. I see it enough in my nightmares."
I chuckled; that overhang had been the first time I’d ever heard him curse. Awkwardly, but fervently, with epithets so colorful I knew he’d learned them from me.
"This won’t be half so nasty," I promised, and cuffed him on the shoulder. He gave me a disbelieving look, but faced the rock in preparation to climb.
Sadly, once we made it off the slab, I found my promise had been far too optimistic. The crevices between rock ribs were so deep their bottoms were lost in ominous darkness, and only a few gaps were narrow enough to step over. Crossing between the humped ridges of rock meant traversing in search of a spot possible to jump. Not easy jumps, either. The kind where I had to run to gain momentum and fling myself across a chasm, tied into one end of the rope while Kiran braced himself as best he could with the other in case I missed the landing. Following me, Kiran all too often did botch the landing, sliding and scraping down the crevice wall until the rope caught him short and I could haul him back up.
All of it was strenuous, sweaty work that left my abused muscles screaming. I constantly scanned the barren stonescape for movement, and strained my ears for the tell-tale scrape of foosteps. I saw only skittering lizards, heard only the occasional croaking call of a raven. Or at least, I hoped it was a raven, and not some clever, hard-climbing clansman signaling his kin.
Shadows lengthened and merged, the hue of the rock around us changing from copper to a lambent, burning orange in the rich light of approaching sunset. I stopped at the edge of a great gash in the stone, where a thirty-foot overhang dropped into an actual gorge instead of a narrowing chasm. Along the bottom of the gorge, smooth swells of stone alternated with small dunes of drifted sand. The bristling, stiff-leaved rosettes of swordplants sprouted from crevices, along with the occasional skeletal spinebrush.
Kiran trudged up beside me, his head hanging low and his shirt soaked through with sweat. I told him, "I’ll lower you off the overhang, climb down after, and then we can travel easier ground for a while." The gorge ran southeastward, the general direction of Prosul Akheba. If Khalmet favored us, it’d also be the right direction to take us out of the clan’s territory.
"Easier ground sounds good," Kiran said, with a weary twitch of a smile.
No kidding. A burning ache had taken up residence not only in my bruised ribs, but my gut – some asshole of a clansman had gotten in a good kick there. My mouth was as dry as an alkali flat, and I had the start of my own skull-busting headache. I didn’t have any pitons to set a proper belay station; I’d have to lower Kiran down the cliff using a braced body belay, and his full weight would be on the rope the whole time. My ribs groaned at the very thought.
Best to get it over with. The lowering went smoothly, if unpleasantly. But it was the climb down that truly kicked my aching ass. It should’ve been easy. I’d found a nice, fist-width vertical crack to use for feet and hands. Child’s play compared to clinging to fingernail-thin nubbins of granite on an overhanging alpine face. But my limbs felt like lead weights, and chunks of sandstone kept crumbling out of the crack when I tried to wedge my feet. Twice I had to stop and hang off locked arms while waves of dizziness assaulted me.
By some miracle of Khalmet, I made it to the bottom of the cliff without falling. I threw myself down on a gritty slab of ochre stone. Kiran silently offered me a waterskin and a strip of jerky. The gorge had long been in shadow, the sun blocked by the cliffs, and both air and ground felt blessedly cool.
"A quick rest, then we’ll keep going until the light fails," I told Kiran. I probably just needed the salt in the jerky. I should’ve had some before the climb, but I’d been in too much of a damn hurry. Should’ve listened to my own warning to Kiran.
He nodded. "I was thinking...that sleepfast charm you found, may I see it?"
I waved a hand at my pack without bothering to speak. He dug inside and pulled out the copper circlet of the charm. He sat silent for a moment, turning it over in his hands.
"The first man to reach me tried to use this on me. They meant to capture, at least at first, but..." He looked at me, his expression strained and his eyes shadowed. "It’s like I said before. I can’t make sense of why Ruslan would choose this tactic."
Well. Time to bring up my own theory, now we were on easier terrain.
"Maybe Ruslan’s got nothing to do with it. That bit the godspeaker said about the 'keepers of the sacred fire?' Reminds me an awful lot of things the demon mentioned." Child of fire, the demon had called himself; and spoken of the halls of flame. I eyed Kiran, who’d gone as stiff as the dagger-sharp leaves of the swordplant behind him.
"Have you remembered anything more about this temple Ruslan supposedly stole you from when you were a kid?"
"I told you, the wall in my mind is too strong. I can’t reach those memories without drawing on some stronger source of ikilhia than what I naturally possess. Even if I...took ikilhia, as I did today – you saw how the healing affected me. I’d need far more power to break such a deeply entrenched mental warding, and afterward I’d be left in far worse condition. The risk is too great while we have so little of the drug."
He’d been spouting excuses like this all the way through the mountains. It wasn’t like I knew enough of magic to argue with his logic, which sounded rational enough. Yet his averted eyes and his clenched fists told a different story. He was scared shitless of what those memories might contain. I couldn’t entirely blame him, given that he was still reeling from the shock of discovering what Ruslan had done to him. I’d played it soft with him these last weeks, even when his reluctance made me want to shake him until his teeth rattled. I’d figured we had enough to worry about in reaching Prosul Akheba. But after today’s disaster, I was done dancing around his fears.
"Fine, you can’t yet bust straight through to those memories. But don’t sit there and tell me you remember nothing of your life before Ruslan got hold of you. You remembered something in the Cirque of the Knives." One sentence from a glassy-eyed, feverish Kiran in a foreign tongue I’d never heard, and the demon had backed off in the midst of savaging Kiran’s mage-brother Mikail and agreed to leave us be. You have blood-right, he’d told Kiran. They are yours to kill.
Kiran flinched, his breathing gone harsh. I quashed sympathy and pressed harder.
"You know how much we need this. It could be our best chance against him." In the Cirque, the demon hadn’t exactly seemed pleased with Ruslan. He’d said Ruslan deserved death for taking Kiran from that temple, and spoken of "red-horned hunters" that would chase Ruslan down. Whatever those hunters were, if we could somehow lead them to Ruslan before Ruslan managed to talk the demons into forgiving his theft and allying with him instead – hell, I’d snatch at any hope I could get.
Kiran was gripping the sleepfast charm as if he meant to snap it in two. "Everything that happened in the Cirque after we destroyed Vidai’s wards is all muddled, like some horrible fever-dream. I get only flashes of clarity, nothing of use to us – "
"You’d fucking better try harder," I snapped. "Think on this: if that godspeaker’s dream was demon-sent, what might a demon do with your blood in its hands?"
Kiran went so white under the grime I thought he might faint. "I don’t know! I –" He pressed his hands to his eyes and drew in a long breath. I expected another round of mulish stonewalling. Instead he said, low and ragged, "Most of what I recall after we released the demon is fear. Terror deeper than any I’d ever felt with Ruslan, so strong I could barely stand, couldn’t breathe...and then the demon attacked Mikail. I was so certain Mikail would die, so desperate to save him – those words I said, they just burst out of me. But when I try to remember what the words meant, or why I knew them, or anything of demons or temples – it hurts, like – like holding my hand in magefire while my flesh chars away. Yet at the same time I hear an echo of Ruslan’s voice, urging me to keep trying, whispering over and over that I must remember...and that’s what frightens me most. What if remembering helps him somehow, plays into his plans?"
I got a sudden chilling flash of Ruslan, the last time I’d seen him: striding forward as the Alathians’ translocation spell took effect, his eyes locked on Kiran, mouthing the word remember. Gods only knew what subtle, nasty spellwork he’d cast on Kiran through their mark-bond in that final instant. Did he want Kiran to remember, or had he anticipated Kiran’s fears, knowing that urging him on would make Kiran balk all the harder?
I wished my mind didn’t feel so sluggish. "Doesn’t matter what Ruslan might want," I said at last, heavily. "Kiran, we have to know. Otherwise, we’re running blind, and today just proves how dangerous that is. If that godspeaker’s motives have anything to do with demonkind, we’ve got to be prepared. Ruslan’s got about a thousand ways of finding out more about the demons. Right now, we’ve only got you."
Kiran pulled his knees up to his chest and dropped his forehead onto them. "I know it," he said, in a choked, muffled voice. "When we stop for the night, I’ll try again. I didn’t lie to you, I can’t break the wall, not properly. But when my ikilhia is badly disrupted, as it was in the Cirque, as it is to a lesser extent now...every part of my mind is weakened, including the block. If I push hard enough, I might get a – a glimpse, as I must have then."
"Trying is all I ask." I levered myself back up to my feet, unable to suppress a groan as sore muscles protested. "But before nightfall, I want to cover more ground." The opposite cliffs were fully in shadow now, the blue of the sky gradually deepening toward indigo, but I judged we had another hour before it got too dark to see.
Another wave of dizziness swept me when I lifted my pack. I’d hoped our rest break would help, but the burning in my chest and gut hadn’t diminished a whit. Shaikar take those clansmen – and the Alathians, for making such worthless defensive charms. At least we’d be walking on relatively flat ground now, not scrambling over endless rocks. I set my jaw and started walking.
I made it all of ten steps before a vicious cramp seized my stomach. When it passed, I found myself on hands and knees in the sand, coughing up thin, sour strings of bile.
"Dev?" Running footfalls, and Kiran knelt beside me. "What’s wrong?"
My breath hissed out through my teeth as another cramp racked me. The waterskins tied to Kiran’s pack loomed large in my vision. An awful certainty grew.
"Those sneaking vipers," I croaked. "I know why they left our packs alone. The water – it’s poisoned."
Read the third chapter