C
ourtney
S
chafer

The Labyrinth of Flame



Chapter Three


(Kiran)

"Poisoned?" Kiran stared at Dev's haggard face. Dread crept up his spine. "But – I drank from the same skins as you, and I don't feel sick."

Yet he had delayed in drinking. And his ikilhia remained so disordered... He'd assumed he simply hadn't taken a large enough dose of the drug to ensure a full recovery, but what if he were wrong? The continued disruption could be a sign his body was drawing on his magic to counter poison building up in his blood. Between the haze of physical exhaustion blurring his thoughts and the chaotic roil of his disturbed ikilhia, it was difficult to tell.

Dev said hoarsely, "When I gave you my waterskin after we climbed out of the slot, was that the first time you drank?"

"Yes." Kiran had originally intended to wait longer, but he'd been so dizzy and thirsty after the exertion of the climb that he'd gladly obeyed Dev's order.

Dev muttered a curse. "The slot didn't take us that long. Hour and a half, two at the most, and you might be bad off as me."

"I won't be affected the same as you." The disturbingly irregular flare of his inner energies captured Kiran's attention. He could imagine the disruption steadily accelerating, worsening until he collapsed into convulsions. This time, there were no Alathian mages on hand to halt the dissolution of his ikilhia and yank him back from death.

"I can stave off collapse with the drug," Kiran said, and saw his own bleak knowledge mirrored in Dev's eyes: that would only gain him scant time before he faced another, more certain disaster. At least Kiran had the option of delay. What of Dev, who had no magic to help him? Kiran's dread grew deeper yet.

"If it's poison, have you any idea what it might be? Is there some desert herb or mineral, anything we might use as an antidote?"

Dev shoved back on his heels, looking wearier than Kiran had ever seen him. "Might not truly be poison, not the way you're thinking. I've never heard of a deathdealer's potion so tasteless and odorless you wouldn't notice it in water. But I've heard stories of men sickening after drinking from seeps in the desert. Retching up their guts for days, no matter how they tried to settle their stomachs. Some died of it. The ones that didn't said they wished they had." As if to emphasize the point, he convulsed in another series of harsh, racking heaves.

Out of reflex, Kiran reached for a waterskin to offer – and yanked his hand back, his fingers clenching in helpless frustration. If only he dared spellcast! He knew nothing of healing magic – a lack he'd already had ample opportunity to curse these last weeks, as he struggled to decipher how the drug affected his body and ikilhia – but he did know spells that could find a source of clean water, conceal them from hunting clanfolk, even speed their travel. Yet not a one could be cast without releasing his barriers and alerting Ruslan.

Dev finally stopped retching. He mumbled something vicious-sounding and sat up, pulling his neckcloth free to swipe at his mouth.

Kiran snatched up a rock and cast it with a furious twist of his wrist into drifted sand. "None of this makes any sense! Why give us fouled water, and then attack straight away? Why not wait until we fell sick?"

Dev said, "My guess is that crazy godspeaker was too hotheaded to see us as anything but easy prey, and too eager to get her hands on you to wait. But that oldster who first traded with us looked the canny, cautious sort..." He broke off, coughing.

"You think this was his backup plan. In case we were carrying defensive charms strong enough to let us escape." Kiran hesitated, putting a hand to the cool, comforting weight of the kizhenvya amulet tucked beneath his shirt. "Maybe the godspeaker only wanted my blood so she could track us until we grew ill and became easy prey in truth." The shielding pattern bound within the amulet blazed undimmed across his inner vision, ready to divert any seeking spellwork.

"Because things always go so well for us," Dev said, with wry emphasis.

The echo of his earlier words startled Kiran into a snort of bleak amusement. "I know. It's too much to hope that she intends anything so easily countered. I was just...trying to be optimistic." Even though he didn't feel optimistic, not in the least.

"We should –" Dev doubled over, clutching his stomach.

Kiran grabbed for him. "There must be something I can do to help you!"

Dev shoved Kiran's hands aside and staggered upright with his neckcloth still clutched in one white-knuckled fist. "Nothing for it but to keep walking. Find a spot that's sheltered from view of any scouts, and boil what's in our waterskins. If the water's only from a bad seep and not truly poisoned, boiling might work to cleanse it. Either way..." He let out a long, shuddering sigh. "We've got to reach another clan's territory and try another trade. Or better yet, something stealthier. Get our hands on some healing charms as well as clean water."

"How far to the next territory?" Kiran glanced at the cliffs lining the gorge, then up at the darkening sky. They could perhaps walk the easier ground of the gorge at night, especially after moonrise. He couldn't imagine how they'd succeed in tackling any more treacherous terrain.

Dev grimaced. "It's not like we have a map. Not even sure there are maps. You know those symbols the clanfolk scratch into rocks? Keep looking for them. When the style of the symbols changes, then we'll know we're on a different clan's ground."

"So it could be one mile, or thirty. And we don't know if the godspeaker might've sent word of us to surrounding clans, or if they've had their own dreams." Kiran's chest tightened. He felt as if he were being backed toward a cliff, all avenues of escape being blocked off one by one, until he'd have no choice but to step over the edge. The akhelsya sigil incised into the skin over his heart seemed to burn; in his mind's eye, he could see Ruslan spreading his arms in welcome, wearing a smile terrible in its triumph.

Dev caught Kiran's wrist and forced his hand away from his chest. Belatedly, Kiran realized he'd been rubbing at the spot where Ruslan's sigil lay hidden beneath his shirt.

"We keep going," Dev said fiercely. "Hear me? Yeah, we've gotta assume the next clan's hostile from the start. Just means we've got to be clever. Hell, I'd turn back and cook up a scheme to steal charms, water, and even that cursed blood-knife right off the godspeaker's crew, if we didn't need to make ground toward Prosul Akheba. As it is, I don't care how sick I get, I'll drag myself with my teeth to the next territory if I have to."

Through the grip on his wrist, Kiran sensed the faint glimmer of Dev's ikilhia struggling and guttering like a candleflame in a sandstorm. What if it really was poison in the water? Dev might die before they ever reached another clan.

You know you can save him, his mage-brother Mikail's voice whispered within. And not just Dev, but every one of these nathahlen lives you care so much for. Will you let them die out of stubborn selfishness?

Better that than surrender, part of him howled in reply, blindly adamant; but the cold horror he felt at the idea of Dev's death was stronger yet. Through numb, reluctant lips, Kiran forced out words. "There is another way."

"What way?" For all the wariness of Dev's tone, the sudden flicker of hope in his eyes revealed how badly he wanted another solution.

"I could contact Ruslan. Bargain for your life. For everyone's lives. He –"

"Don't you even think about it," Dev snarled. "You summon him, all that'll happen is you'll be mindburned and I'll be dead. He'll walk off whistling to find the demons, and Cara and Melly will die screaming –" Dev's voice cracked. He turned his face away.

"You don't know Ruslan. Not like I do." Speech came easier to Kiran now, his reluctance drowned by the need to make Dev understand. "He wants me willing. A partner to cast at his side, not a mind-crippled slave barely capable of channeling." Even with the depth of control provided him by the mark-bond, Ruslan couldn't truly alter a resisting Kiran's innermost self. He could only destroy Kiran's mind and will, either in whole or in part, as he had done with Kiran's memories in Ninavel. But if Kiran willingly let Ruslan remake him...

Revulsion shivered through Kiran; he stamped it down. "If I offer surrender without resistance, vow to abandon all defiance – trust me, Ruslan would give almost anything for that. Like healing charms capable of saving your life, and a blood vow to never cause harm to you or Alathia by any means, demonic or otherwise."

"Didn't you learn a damn thing in Ninavel?" Dev's grip on Kiran's wrist tightened to the point of pain. "I don't care what Ruslan vows, it won't stop him. He'll only find another, even worse way to take his revenge."

"Of course he won't stop!" Kiran tore free of Dev's hold to pace in agitated frustration. "I don't say it's a permanent solution. But if I ensure he can't set the demons on you or Alathia, that buys you time. Time, and safety, while he searches for another way. You and Cara can find the demons instead, and send their hunters after him."

"How, without you and your memories? You're the one with a connection to them. The demon dismissed the rest of us as no better than rats, even Ruslan. It was you he treated as an equal." Dev retched again. He dashed a hand across his mouth and looked up at Kiran with angry, accusatory eyes.

Equal was not the impression Kiran had from his fragmented memories of the conversation, but the last thing he wanted was to revisit that moment further. "My past isn't the only possible source of knowledge. Remember when we talked in the mountains about gaining entrance to the collegium library in Prosul Akheba, so we could search historical and religious treatises –"

"We planned I'd help you sneak into the library, so you could search! Cara and I are outriders, not scholars. It'd take me years to finish even one dusty old book, and I wouldn't understand the half of what I read."

"Talk a scholar into helping you, then," Kiran snapped, exasperated. "Or forget finding the demons, and instead use your clever tongue to goad Ruslan into breaking his vows. That should be well within your abilities."

"Fuck, Kiran. You can't goad a man who's already got everything he wants." Dev lurched toward Kiran with his green eyes blazing. "You're dying to throw yourself on the fire, is that it? Want your magic back so bad you don't care if Ruslan makes you into a monster?"

Kiran recoiled, the breath leaving his lungs. "This isn't about my magic. This is about saving lives. Yours, Cara's, Melly's, all of Alathia!"

"Makes a nice story to tell yourself, doesn't it?" Dev said. "But answer me this – how many people will you murder as Ruslan's devoted lapdog?"

"Fewer than will die if Ruslan bargains with demons! Do you think I want to be forever changed? To give over my mind, my very soul to the man who ripped away my memories, who murdered my lover just to teach me obedience?" Kiran was shaking. The black, bitter maelstrom of anguish and betrayal and loss rose to batter his heart anew. "Part of me would rather see the entire world burn than let Ruslan touch me again. But don't you see? That's how he would react in my place. If I let thousands die – if I let you die, to spare myself...how am I any different than him?"

"Gods. Kiran." Dev passed a hand over his eyes. "You want to prove you're different, so you'll let him mindburn that difference right out of you? Tell me you hear how fucked up that logic is."

"That's not the point. If I cast, it will bring Ruslan anyway, and I don't know how to help you without magic. I can't just sit on my hands and watch you die."

"Khalmet's hand, would you quit assuming the worst?" Dev's glare intensified. "I'm sick, yeah. But nowhere near dead, and we are not out of options. Hell, even if I did die – whether by poison, or spell, or even a fucking rock falling on my head – don't you dare roll over for Ruslan. You keep going, understand?"

How? Kiran wanted to demand. You claim you can't succeed without me; how am I to do the same without you? But faced with Dev's unshakeable determination, the desperation lacing his words, Kiran couldn't gainsay him. In Ninavel, Dev had never once given up on freeing Kiran, despite confronting equally terrible odds.

Yet Kiran couldn't bring himself to make any promises. Instead, he met Dev's gaze and said, "If you can drag yourself, I'll carry the packs."

The taut lines of Dev's body eased. He gave a slow nod. "'Bout time you had a turn as pack mule." He clamped an arm over his stomach and squinted down the twilit gorge. "When I was belaying you down the cliff, I spotted rubble from a rockfall about a mile down the gorge. I figure that's our best bet for shelter. Try to stick to rock and not leave any footprints in sand." He started off, in a crabbed stagger. Kiran hefted the packs, wincing at the weight, and followed.

There had never been a longer mile. The packs Kiran carried grew heavier with every step. The gorge was eerily silent; the only sound was the scrape of their footsteps. Far from being reassuring, the quiet only heightened Kiran's nerves. He kept imagining he saw stealthy figures creeping along the gorge rim or lurking in the deepening shadows. If the clanfolk intended to spring another ambush now their poison had had time to work, the oncoming darkness would bring ample opportunity. Kiran strained his senses through his barriers, seeking the least hint of human life, but all he felt was the distressingly faint glimmer of Dev at his side.

The gathering gloom made it impossible to see if any clan symbols marked the gorge walls. The viciously thorny plants seemed to multiply, springing up all over the rock to bar their path, even as the occasional drifted dunes remained tantalizingly clear of obstacles. Soon, Kiran's trousers were ripped in a dozen places, his skin burning from needle-stabs.

Worse was the awareness of his ikilhia slowly, inexorably losing cohesion. No question any longer that the water he'd drunk was as fouled as Dev's. The pull of his body's need for healing was obvious now, a nagging, relentless demand. But his fear for himself paled under the weight of his concern for Dev.

At first, Dev had cursed whenever he impaled a limb on a swordplant or had to stop for another session of vomiting. Now he plodded along in a grim, strained silence. His pace grew ever slower, his body listing. He didn't protest when Kiran offered a supportive arm, only leaned heavily on Kiran's already-burdened shoulder. Kiran locked his arm around Dev's waist and tugged him onward, fighting to ignore the burn in his own exhausted muscles.

Just when he thought his legs might fail under the combined weight of Dev and the packs, the ragged black outline of the rockfall at last appeared against the star-sprinkled sky.

"Wait here," he said, releasing Dev. "I'll find a sheltered spot."

Dev didn't reply. He slid down to his knees, his head bowed and his breathing harsh. Kiran clambered over rocks, straining to see through near-darkness. Oh, for a magelight! At last he located a sandy hollow beneath two massive, leaning boulders. From within, he could see only a thin ribbon of stars overhead. No hint of the canyon rims showed, and all the sightlines down the gorge were blocked by rock. Surely a firestone charm would be safe to use here.

Kiran dumped the packs and set out to collect Dev. When he returned to the rockfall's edge, he found Dev slumped forward over his knees. The dark lump of his body was so still that for a terrifying instant Kiran wasn't certain he still breathed. But when Kiran called his name, Dev groaned and raised his head. With assistance from Kiran, he managed to negotiate the rockfall to reach the hollow.

Kiran settled Dev against one of the boulders forming the hollow's walls. His own legs trembled enough he could barely stand. The disorder of his ikilhia would soon reach the point where he must take more of the drug. Already his head ached nearly as badly as his muscles.

Dev croaked out something about water.

"Soon," Kiran said. "Let me boil it first." He hastily fumbled through the contents of Dev's pack, seeking the firestones and their single battered pot by touch, all the while aware of the raw, painful sound of Dev's breathing. Dev had vomited for so long and so often his body must lack even the least trace of moisture. Kiran's own throat felt as arid and cracked as if he'd gone days without water.

Kiran set the smooth ovals of the firestones in the sand and sparked the charm, using a drop of his blood and a whispered trigger word like the most magic-blind of nathahlen. His ikilhia was so unsettled he feared to use even a trickle of touch-sent power.

Violet and crimson flames leapt up. In the magefire's light, Dev looked worse than ever, slumped in the sand. His cheeks were sunken hollows and his eyes were slitted and dull. Kiran balanced the pot on the firestones and poured in water from a skin. The water looked clear and clean as any he'd drunk in Ninavel. So difficult, not to simply snatch up the pot and drink!

"How long should I boil it?" he asked, fearing he wouldn't get a response. But Dev coughed and straightened, a spark of life returning to his eyes.

In a grating whisper, he said, "Only a few moments. If that doesn't work, longer won't help."

Kiran hovered over the pot in anxious anticipation. He scrutinized the water as it boiled, looking for any odd residue, any sign at all of contamination, but saw nothing. Hardest of all was to wait as the water cooled after he removed the pot from the fire. The moment he judged he wouldn't blister his tongue, he snatched up the pot and tasted its contents – only to spit in dismay.

"What?" Dev rasped.

"The water tastes strange. Boiling didn't work, it must've concentrated the poison –"

"Water always tastes odd after you boil it. Give it here." Dev reached out an unsteady hand. Kiran passed the pot over. Dev took a cautious sip. Then a long series of full-throated gulps, ignoring Kiran's uneasy protest.

At last Dev lowered the pot. When he spoke, his voice sounded stronger. "Tastes like any boiled water to me. No way to know if boiling cleansed it, but either we drink, or we'll never reach another clan."

Kiran couldn't argue with that. He took the pot back and downed a few swallows of his own, grimacing at the flat, mineral taste. His parched body clamored for more, but if boiling hadn't worked, Kiran hated to add more foulness to what his body already fought.

"I'll boil what's in the other skins," he told Dev. "You rest."

Dev nodded wearily. "Until moonrise," he said. "Then we keep walking."

Kiran wasn't at all certain a few scant hours of rest would help. Even as he watched, Dev made a choked noise and clamped his hands over his mouth. If Dev couldn't keep the water down, what then? But Dev took slow, shallow breaths, and at last lowered his hands and leaned back against the boulder, all without vomiting.

"Maybe at moonrise you should stay resting, and I'll go scout," Kiran said. "I'm still well enough to move quickly. Even with the moon's light, it'll be difficult to spot clan symbols on the rocks, but I have another idea. Currents of earth-power sometimes follow terrain features and pool where water does, in valleys and caverns. If I can discover a current and trace its flow, it could lead me to a seep or a spring, hopefully on another clan's ground. You've said such places are guarded. We could strike another bargain there, or try another plan." Searching out one of the sparse currents of natural magic that threaded the desert wouldn't be easy with his barriers obstructing his senses. But none of their choices were easy, now.

Dev was silent for a long moment. "Maybe," he said at last. "See how I feel at moonrise."

Kiran's worry edged higher; Dev's reluctant agreement was an admission of just how sick he really was. He started another skin's worth of water boiling in the pot. Dev's eyes drifted shut, his breathing slowing, though his body didn't relax.

A spike of pain shot through Kiran's head. The magefire's flames were abruptly too bright, colors spangling across his vision. Hurriedly, he retrieved the drug vial. So little liquid remained! His hand shook as he tipped in a careful few drops.

We are not out of options, Dev had said. But if the drug ran out before they reached Prosul Akheba, only two choices would remain for Kiran: death, or Ruslan.

Dev might well change his tune about bargaining with Ruslan then. Kiran's death would leave little hope for Cara and Melly.

"Put the damn vial away and stop fretting over it. We'll make it." Dev's eyes had slitted open again, watching him with unnerving intensity.

"You needn't stare at me like I'll slink off to summon Ruslan the moment you stop looking," Kiran said, more harshly than he'd meant. Dev was surely afraid, too. For himself as well as Kiran, despite his show of confidence. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Good." But Dev's eyes stayed fixed on him.

Kiran tucked the vial away. The pain in his head faded as the drug took effect and his ikilhia settled back into a sullen knot. Methodically, he boiled water, rinsed out waterskins, and replaced their contents, careful not to waste a drop more than he must. It was a relief to lose himself in a repetitive yet absorbing task. It reminded him of hours spent stacking and sorting silver rods meant for creating practice channel patterns, with Mikail working at his side...

Kiran sheered off from that association; too late. A swelling wave of homesickness drowned him.

He set his teeth, cursing his own traitorous heart. He hated these moments most of all, when despite everything he'd seen in Dev's memories, he missed Mikail, Lizaveta, even Ruslan, with a force that tore his soul raw. What was wrong with him? He knew the depth of Ruslan's cruelty. Yet he still caught himself yearning to wake in his familiar bedroom in Ninavel and find that all this was only a terrible nightmare; that none of his memories were missing, none of the betrayals were real. Mikail would tease him with dry, gentle wit, and summon Ruslan and Lizaveta to reassure him that he'd only imagined the horrors, that he was still safe in their love...

He was such a fool. Even if he did wake that way, he couldn't possibly trust it. Ruslan had tricked him once already. Now, Kiran couldn't even trust himself. Could it be true that his determination to save lives was merely a rationalization covering a craven, selfish desire to regain his magic and his mage-family?

He didn't know. Yet another reason he so desperately needed Dev. He had far more faith in Dev's character and decisions than his own.

Dev's eyes had shut again, but Kiran could tell by the sound of his breathing that he wasn't asleep. Driven by snarled emotions, Kiran asked haltingly, "After your Change, I know you missed being Tainted. But your handler, Red Dal...you said he raised you, that you thought him a father to you, until you lost your power and he sold you. You must have hated him for that, but...did you ever miss him, too?"

Without opening his eyes, Dev said in a rough whisper, "At first. Later, when I realized everything I missed about him was a lie – then, all I felt was hate, and everything was easier. You'll get there, too. You already had when I first met you."

Kiran hoped he might get there soon. How much easier if he could hate Ruslan with the same pure, uncomplicated fervor as Dev – or even with the bitter venom he'd seen himself display in Dev's memories. Back then, Kiran had apparently felt that nothing else mattered but escape from Ruslan. He envied that clarity of purpose.

His former self had been whole, possessed of a full set of memories. All Kiran had of the three years prior to this summer were scant, tattered threads marred by gaping voids. He'd seen Dev's memories, but they'd felt as unreal as a scry-vision. Knowing the truth with his head wasn't the same as feeling it with his heart. He did have the one memory Lena had returned to him, of Alisa's agonizing death at Ruslan's hands – a brutally vivid horror impossible to deny. Yet set against that one memory were a thousand others, both from his childhood and his recent days in Ninavel, that insisted his mage-family's love was not a lie the way Red Dal's had been.

Mikail's mind meshing swift and sure with Kiran's, his joy in casting echoing Kiran's own, his cool, quiet strength an anchor that would never fail – Lizaveta singing to Kiran in a dark, honeyed voice, sharing with him a wondrous saga from a city lost in the mists of time – Ruslan's hand warm on Kiran's shoulder as they prepared to break Vidai's wards in the Cirque of the Knives, fierce pride and affection flooding through the mark-bond, unmistakable, undeniable...

Ruslan and Lizaveta, their bodies twining around Kiran's, hands and mouths and magic setting his nerves afire until he screamed with the rapture of it –

Nausea cramped Kiran's stomach and stifled his breath. He would not, would not think of that.

"What's wrong?" Dev shoved up on an elbow, peering at him.

"I..." He would rather bite his own tongue off than explain. "Nothing. Just an unpleasant memory." Kiran resealed a waterskin with sharp efficiency. "I've finished with the water. Do you think you can eat something?"

Dev shuddered, looking like he might vomit again at the very thought. "Later."

Kiran didn't feel like eating, either. They'd have to replenish their strength, but surely eating could wait until moonrise. "I'll put out the magefire and we both can rest."

Dev let out a weary sigh and slumped onto his side. After snuffing the firestones, Kiran lay down and stared into darkness with hot, aching eyes, listening to the slow rasp of Dev's breathing. Moonrise was yet several hours away. He should try for a glimpse of his earliest memories, as he'd promised Dev he would. Surely the pain of it would be less than what scoured his heart now.

He summoned his concentration and sank toward the heart of his damaged memories. The wall waited there, impenetrable and enduring, so familiar a part of him that for much of his childhood he'd barely thought of it.

Attempting to breach the wall would bring pain too strong to shut out, so he held back, scrutinizing the spell's weaving. A crack must have opened when he'd met the demon in the mountains. If he could find the fault line and push there before pain overwhelmed him...but he saw no sign of weakness, no matter how he hunted. Exhaustion crept up to blur his focus. Before he could recover it, his mind drifted, slipping into dream. The wall before him changed...

Alkali dust whipped past Kiran, carried on a rising wind. He hurried along the outside of Ninavel's sandstorm wall, trailing his fingers along the pale granite blocks, an oddly painful mutter of quiescent wards abrading his inner senses. Where was the gate? He had to enter the city. He needed to accomplish something vital within, a task Ruslan had set him. The particulars of the task were strangely indistinct, but he knew he must hurry. A bulging russet cloud swallowed the Painted Valley to the south, stretching from sand to sky, sweeping northward toward Ninavel. There was no shelter out here on the alkali flats, only scattered sagebrush and fireweed. If the storm arrived before Kiran passed the gate, wind-driven sand would flay the flesh from his bones.

"You always make such a hash of things, little brother."

Kiran turned, startled. Mere feet away, Mikail leaned with complete nonchalance against the wall's warded stone. His sandy hair lay lax on his sturdy shoulders, untouched by the wind, and no dust marred the sigil-marked black of his clothes. More, Kiran felt no blaze of his mage-brother's ikilhia in the aether, only a faint ripple of magic, barely noticeable against the blazing sea of Ninavel's confluence. A scry-sending, then. Cast by the real Mikail from some far safer location. Perhaps their home high in Ninavel's Reytani district, protected from storms by wards and walls – oh, how Kiran wished he were safe at Mikail's side.

"How far to the gate? I must find it!" Already, Kiran could barely see the mountains.

"No need," Mikail said. "Cast. Shatter the wall. Or disperse the storm. You are no nathahlen to live at the world's mercy. The world is at yours."

"I can't." He couldn't touch the confluence's inferno without the protection of channels, and he had no silver or copper to build a pattern. His own ikilhia wouldn't suffice to breach the wall wards, and he felt no other sparks of life within reach. None at all, as if the city itself were deserted. Were the wall's wards interfering with his senses? He wanted to seek further, but there was some reason he should not release his barriers, a danger he could not quite recall...

"You must," Mikail said. "Look: the city burns. Who will put out the fire, if not you?"

Craning his neck upward, Kiran saw it was true. The soaring spires visible above the wall's great bulwark were wrapped in magefire flame. This must be why Ruslan had sent him.

Kiran stumbled into a run. "I have to get inside!"

Mikail reappeared in front of him, frowning in exasperation. "Then stop and look properly, brother." He backed away from the wall, beckoning.

Kiran followed, uncertain, squinting against the grit stinging his face. Mikail halted and stabbed a finger back at the city. "Look."

At first Kiran saw only the wall, broad and blank and impenetrable. Slowly, he realized the wall wasn't truly blank. The stone was discolored in spots...no, lines...an entire pattern revealed itself to his wondering eyes. A jagged, inward-spiraling maze of lines with a strange symbol at the center. Familiar, somehow, though Kiran couldn't summon the meaning of it.

Mikail shouted over the swelling howl of the wind, "Look closer!" He urged Kiran back to the wall, to a spot where the outermost line of the spiral swept low to the ground. Peering at the line, Kiran saw it was not merely a discoloration. A crack marred the stone, zigzagging along the line's path. The crack was narrow but deep.

"Go on," Mikail said in his ear. "Look within, and make your own gate."

Deep inside the crack, a flicker of indigo crawled and twisted. Power slithered along Kiran's barriers, the taste of it cold, alien. Kiran's breath came short, a sudden surge of fear sweeping him. Make his own gate? If Mikail meant him to cast, he could not, dared not...but the wind was shrieking around him now, sand scouring his skin, Mikail's scry-sending a hazy shape at his side.

Kiran braced his hands on the stone and put an eye to the crack. Indigo fire exploded over him, the agony of it sharp enough to rip a howl from his throat. Years sloughed away, his body shrinking to that of a child's. The fire died away into darkness, and he saw –

Scorpions above him, crawling in the black recesses of the stone ceiling above his cot. Inching closer whenever Kiran looked away. In daylight, you couldn't see them. They hid, somehow. Back when she could still talk, Jalia said Kiran imagined the scorpions. She might be a year older than him, but Kiran knew better. He could hear the scorpions whispering, in harsh, hissing voices. They would crawl down and sting him, hundreds of them, and no one would come to save him.

His heart beat so fast he couldn't catch his breath. He clutched at his woolen blanket, rubbing it against his cheek in a vain search for comfort. Kiran missed the amayas in the child garden, who had always been kind, and free with hugs and soft, soothing chants. Here in the upper temple, the adults' faces were hard, their voices cold, and they ignored any cries for help at night. Even during the day, they never listened. They only ordered Kiran to stand still, hold these charms, learn these strange words, and watched him with narrowed, impatient eyes, like they wished he would hurry up and get as sick as Jalia so he couldn't bother them with questions anymore.

The room was dark but for a pale bar of moonlight spilling across the small, unmoving lump of Jalia, asleep on her cot across the room. In another, closer cot, Rai whimpered and twisted, muttering words that didn't make sense. He hadn't talked right in days, but that was better than Jalia, who never talked at all now, only stared at nothing and scratched her cheeks bloody.

A hot lump grew in Kiran's throat. How long before he got as bad as Rai and Jalia? His head ached all the time, and he saw colors sparking and flashing out of the corners of his eyes, just like Rai said he saw before he stopped talking right.

Rai keened, panting. A whisper louder than the rest drifted through the air, followed by a sizzling noise that sounded horribly like a chuckle.

Something was there. Shadowed shapes as big as men, three of them, crouched beyond Jalia's cot. Kiran clutched the blanket tighter, his chest hollow with fear. He wanted to burrow beneath the blanket and hide, but he didn't dare move, not even breathe. Go away go away go away...

One shadow moved. Pallid fingers slid into the moonlight. The fingers traced the air above Jalia's curly hair and drifted down to hover over her body. The whispers grew louder, became words. Weak, the scorpions said, disgusted, disappointed. The rat-child's fire dies to ashes. Better to take her blood now, before it turns bitter.

A whimper escaped Kiran. A tiny sound, quickly choked off, but the shadow turned. Eyes blinked open in the darkness, two pits of blue flame. Horror froze Kiran's marrow. In his head, a sly voice said, Do you hear us, child? Ah, now that is more promising.

The pale fingers clenched into a fist. Jalia jerked upright on her cot. She clawed at her chest, gagging, her dark eyes wide in the moonlight. Blood burst from her mouth to splash on the flagstones.

The shadow laughed, and Kiran screamed.