C
ourtney
S
chafer

The Tainted City



Chapter One


(Dev)

I wedged my fingers higher in the crack snaking up the boulder's overhanging face. A push of a foot, a twist of my body, and the overhang's lip was nearly within reach. Good thing, since I had to finish this little warm-up climb fast, or risk a whipping if the shift bell rang before I got to the mine. Dawn's light already streaked the gorge rim far above me with gold, though it'd be mid-morning before the sun rose high enough to touch the reedy mudflats here in the gorge's depths. Beyond my boulder, clumps of men in grime-streaked coveralls trudged toward the yawning black mouth at the base of the cliffs. Lights bobbed in jerky rhythms within the tunnel as the night haulers hurried to finish sacking their quota of coal.

"Spend one instant longer crawling up that rock instead of joining your crew, boy, and I'll choke you blind."

The torc around my neck heated in warning as overseer Gedavar spoke. I jerked my fingers free of the crack and dropped to land in the mud at the boulder's base. Sudden sweat laced my palms. What in Shaikar's hells had brought Gedavar sniffing around? With the day shift soon to start, he should be relaying the minemaster's orders to the crew chiefs, not skulking about behind the prisoners' barracks. The thin copper disc of the stolen glowlight charm hidden beneath my sock cuff felt large as a wagon wheel.

"I'm on my way," I muttered, and made to dodge past him.

"Hold." Gedavar barred my path. easy for him to do, since he dwarfed me not only in height but in bulk. All of it solid muscle, despite the gray salting his close-cropped dark hair and the lines seaming his scowling, olive-skinned face. "I heard tell from Lanedan he saw you sneaking around the quartermaster's yard yesterday. Looking to steal, were you?"

"I wasn't stealing - or sneaking, either. Jathon sent me to tell the quartermaster we only had two pallets of sacks left. I didn't touch a gods- damned thing." That was nothing but truth. The charm in my sock hadn't come from the quartermaster's stores. I'd palmed it off the corpse of a miner who'd suffocated after hitting a pocket of poisoned air. Alathian charms carried little more than glimmers of magic, but I didn't need magic for my plan to ditch this muck-infested pit of a mining camp. I just needed copper.

Gedavar smiled, not pleasantly. "I've a mind to make sure. Spread your arms."

Shit. he didn't truly believe I'd stolen anything from the quartermaster. he knew perfectly well the man kept his supply chests warded as tight as gem vaults. But Gedavar never missed a chance to scrag me. If he searched me thoroughly enough to find the charm, weeks of planning would come to ruin. I had to distract him.

I lifted my arms and sneered, "What, the camp jennies won't have you, so you've turned desperate enough to grope scut-men?"

Gedavar's broad face purpled. he twisted a ward-etched gold ring on one thick finger. The torc tightened around my throat until I choked and doubled over. A shove sent me sprawling face-first into mud black with coal grit. "Don't you mouth off to me, you piece of goat shit!"

The torc cinched tighter. Red hazed my vision. I thrashed, fear rising with the pressure in my lungs. I'd meant to provoke him into punishing me without a search, but not to strangle me outright -

A sucking squelch of footsteps announced a newcomer. "Leave him be, Gedavar. I can't get a proper day's work from him if you throttle him senseless before he so much as touches a coal sack." Jathon's raspy voice lowered to a mutter. "you want that Council mage lurking in the minemaster's office to burn your hide?"

The torc loosened. I sucked in a lungful of air and promptly set about coughing my guts out. Between coughs, I cast a wary glance at Jathon, whose weathered brown face was clean of expression, his thick-muscled arms crossed. Thank Khalmet he'd called Gedavar off - but why had he bothered? he'd never shown anything but cold disdain for me, the lone prisoner assigned to his crew of coal haulers.

Gedavar leaned over me and spat. "That's for Council mages and their gods-cursed orders. Daylight labor's meant for honest Alathians who've earned the right, not foreign lawbreakers. By rights this little weasel should be on scut duty with the other criminals, so deep in the tunnels he withers from lack of light."

"No argument here," Jathon said. "I'd be chewing bile if it was my nephew got shoved off to work the blacklights so a prisoner could take his place."

I froze in the act of swiping away spittle. I'd long since guessed from the muttered asides and resentful glares of Jathon's haulers that some poor bastard had gotten booted from their crew for my sake - but Gedavar's nephew? No wonder Gedavar hated me. Coal hauling might be backbreaking work, but it was as safe as picking wildflowers in a meadow compared to tending finicky, powder-fueled lights in the deeps of the mine.

Jathon shook his head and went on. "Bad enough to lose a good crewman on the orders of some sleek citified bastard of a mage. But after Halden's fuck-up with the oxen last week, we're a hundred sacks down on the quota. If you choke Dev 'til he can't haul, you leave me shorthanded with no hope of catching up before the tally tomorrow. We don't meet tally, me and every decent man on the dayside crew won't see our full pay this month. I don't doubt Dev deserves a little discipline, but for the twin gods' sake, man, do it after his shift."

Ah. Money, I understood as a motive. I kept my eyes down and prayed Gedavar would listen. Like most of the miners here, Jathon was no prisoner. he'd come to Cheltman Gorge some fifteen years ago, lured by the generous pay the Alathian Council offered skilled men willing to leave civilization behind, and he'd been crew chief over the dayside coal haulers for near half that time. Even authority-drunk pricks like Gedavar didn't care to antagonize a miner with such seniority.

"You want him breathing, teach him to rule his tongue." Gedavar aimed a vindictive glare at me that made it plain I'd only delayed further abuse, not escaped it, and stomped off toward the cook shed.

I let out a relieved breath, taking comfort from the press of the glowlight charm against my ankle. If my plan worked, I'd be free of Gedavar right along with the rest of this shithole. If it didn't...well. Gedavar would be the least of my worries.

Jathon clamped my shoulder in a meaty hand. He steered me over to join the ragged line of men plodding away from the squat wooden cabins of the camp toward the mine.

"Thanks," I told him. "I'm in your debt." Regardless of his reasons, it wouldn't hurt to show my very real gratitude.

He gave a contemptuous snort. "I didn't do it for you. I won't have my crew's pay docked because a scut-man's too dumb to keep his mouth shut. You slack even one instant today and I'll strangle you myself, no matter what that mage thinks about it. Gods only know why the Council cares for the life of a foreign charm smuggler."

Despite his harsh tone, his dark eyes held a glint of curiosity. I shrugged and took care to keep my face blank. The minemaster refused to speak on the matter, but the miners weren't fools. They'd seen me arrive in Cheltman Gorge accompanied by a mage of the Council's Watch - who instead of dumping me off to work the darkest deeps with the rest of the scut-men, had not only insisted I be assigned to the far safer role of daylight laborer, but had stayed.

For two gods-damned months, now. Not the same mage - every two weeks, they switched off. Besides lanky, curly-haired Talmaddis, who'd brought me here and had shown up again last week, I'd seen a middle-aged woman with a scarred cheek, and a short, stocky man with skin near as dark as mine. Not that the identity of the mage mattered. The snapthroat charm I wore was prison enough, but the lurking mage was the sandcat pacing beyond the bars.

The hell of it was, the Council didn't really care about me. I was merely their leverage against Kiran, the Arkennlander blood mage I'd helped sneak into Alathia. Kiran had only wanted a life free from his sadistic viper of a master. He'd meant to renounce his magic entirely rather than cast spells fueled with torture and murder.

The Council hadn't bought a word of that when they caught us. Oh, they let Kiran live, in hopes of picking his brain for knowledge of forbidden magic, but they wanted him leashed tight. And Kiran had shown the Council he'd do anything to help me, out of gratitude for my saving his skinny ass from his master Ruslan.

Which meant the Council would never let me go. I'd be stuck here as combined bait and hostage for the full ten years of my sentence - doubtless longer, if the Council had their way. But back in Arkennland, a child's life depended on me, her time fast running out. I didn't mean to fail in my promise to save her, no matter how many mages the Council sent to sit on me.

Jathon prodded me toward a veritable mountain of bulging burlap sacks beside the mine entrance. Drovers were hitching oxen into traces attached to a set of giant interlocking wheels. From the topmost wheel, a rope thick as a man's leg and studded with metal hooks carried coal sacks up the cliff to a second pullwheel at the gorge rim. There another set of haulers unloaded the sacks to pack into convoy wagons headed for Alathia's cities. Coal sacks removed, the rope snaked back down through a series of smaller guide wheels bolted to ledges on the cliff face.

The harsh clang of the shift bell sent echoes ricocheting between the gorge's sheer sandstone walls. Jathon shoved me over to a barrel-chested Alathian whose skin bore the deep pockmarks left by blacklight powder embers.

"You haul with Nessor today," Jathon told me.

Nessor's mouth curled in a brief, slight grimace. He stared over my head as if I didn't exist. As always, I stepped up as casually as if I hadn't noticed his disdain.

Jathon raised his voice. "Step lively, lads! We've still a chance for our full pay if you put your backs into hauling."

The drovers shouted to their oxen, and the wheels groaned into motion. Nessor and I heaved the first fat burlap sack up within reach of a pair of hookmen perched on a platform beside the rope. My back and arms burned with the sack's weight, though nowhere near as badly as they had when I first came. I'd been a frail shadow of myself then, my body still healing from my use of the deadly blood magic charm that had all too briefly reawakened my childhood Taint.

A bolt of bitter longing skewered me at the memory. If I were still Tainted, I could toss these coal sacks sky-high by will alone. Or better yet, smash my neck torc to gleaming shards and fly straight over the Whitefire Mountains to my home city of Ninavel in Arkennland.

Yeah, right. That charm was locked away in some Council vault now. Assuming the Alathians hadn't destroyed it. And if the Taint lasted past puberty, I wouldn't be in this fix in the first place.

Long weeks of hauling coal had restored much of my strength, though I still looked a scrawny scrap compared to the rest of Jathon's crew. As we lifted an unending stream of sacks, my gaze drifted up the cliff. Beside the second guide wheel station, purply-brown lines of kalumite streaked the craggy sandstone.

Kalumite was innocuous enough on its own, hardly worth a decet per hundredweight in Ninavel. Yet I'd learned in my Tainted days that kalumite flecks added to copper filings in a certain precise ratio, mixed in oil and smeared over a charm's surface, made the charm's magic flare up in a conflagration that burned it out within seconds of the charm triggering.

The copper from the glowlight charm in my sock would provide more than enough filings, and a flask of oil, a file, and a pot of burn salve lay hidden in a crevice on a boulder by the barracks. Better yet, I had a plan to fox the mage to stop him hunting me down once I ran. All I needed now was a fingersweight of kalumite.

The oilmen had lubricated all the guide wheels yesterday, as they did once each month. And two nights ago, I'd sneaked into the storeroom and dumped a bucket of coal grit into the cask of oil marked for the second guide wheel station. Surely it wouldn't be long now before the contaminated oil on the wheels abraded the rope enough to-

A sharp twang and an ear-rending squeal sounded above. The great wheel beside me juddered to a halt, oxen straining against taut traces.

Jathon cursed and squinted up the cliff. "Stand down, lads! A strand's snapped and snarled a guide wheel." His black brows lowered in a scowl, and I knew he was thinking of the minemaster's quota. He whistled to a drover. "Run for the laddermen, and be quick."

Beside me, Nessor thumped down a sack, his brow beetling in a frown. "Laddermen are working the Dragon's Maw today."

"Don't I know it." Jathon's scowl grew more thunderous than ever. The Dragon's Maw was another mine entrance a good mile off. The minemaster had decided a week back to string a secondary supply rope up the gorge wall there. It'd be high noon before the laddermen managed to stow their gear and hurry back, let alone set up to clear the snarled wheel.

The drover dashed off. I wiped sweaty hands on my trousers and straightened.

"You want that wheel cleared without waiting on the laddermen?" I asked Jathon. "I know a way that'll have you hauling again in no time."

Jathon cast a black look my way. "Don't think to try some scam on me, boy. A puny charm smuggler who knows nothing of minework can get us hauling again? I think not."

"I wasn't just a charm smuggler in Arkennland. Outriding was my trade, and I've guided many a convoy across the Whitefires. I've climbed cliffs that'd make your laddermen piss themselves, and I can rig ropes with my eyes closed. Give me a knife and a length of hitch line, and I'll climb up to that wheel, set a bypass, and cut the tangle free."

Jathon swung round. his dark eyes narrowed. "never seen a scut-man so eager to get back to work."

"I didn't say I'd do it for free. Though seeing as how you pulled Gedavar off me this morning, I wouldn't ask much in return."

Jathon's suspicion shifted into hard appraisal. Plenty of scut-men tried to strike bargains for extra rations or shorter work shifts, though it was a whipping offense for miners to give us coin. Jathon tapped his ward-etched ring, twin to Gedavar's, and looked pointedly at my torc. "I could order you up that cliff."

"You could," I agreed. "But a man does his fastest work for reward, not under threat of punishment."

Jathon grunted and crossed his arms. "What kind of reward are we talking, here?"

Now came the tricky part. Ask for too little, and Jathon would get suspicious again. Ask for too much, and he'd laugh in my face and refuse. He might order me up the cliff anyway, but I didn't care to count on it. Thankfully, the morning's confrontation with Gedavar had sparked an idea.

"Make sure Gedavar stays off me. I don't fancy getting strangled every time I blink, all thanks to an order I had no hand in. But he won't cross a crew chief. He'll back off if you make it plain you'd take any further 'discipline' poorly."

Jathon stood silent, frowning. I kept my stance casual despite the churning of my stomach.

"Send him up, Jathon," Nessor said, to my surprise. "If you don't, we'll never see that coin. We've all seen him crawl up those boulders by the barracks every morning like he's got feet sticky as a blackfly's." He spoke with all the pleading I hadn't dared use. Mutters of agreement came from the hookmen on their platform above.

Jathon fixed Nessor with a disgusted look. "Lost all your pay to Temmin last night, did you?" his gaze settled on me again. "A boulder's one thing. But this cliff...wouldn't you need iron spikes like the laddermen use?"

I snorted. "Pitons wouldn't do much good without a partner to belay." As his brows lowered, I hurried to assure him, "No need for partners or pitons on something this easy. See all those cracks and ledges? Khalmet's hand, the climb's no harder than scaling a tower stair." That part was true enough. Water seeps and moss slimed the cliff in spots, but the cracks angling up toward the guide wheel station were dry.

Jathon glanced across the gorge to the minemaster's office, tucked amidst a gaggle of storehouses against the opposite cliffs.

I tapped the torc around my neck. "I can't go anywhere." Talmaddis had warned me when he brought me to Cheltman that the torc would choke me unconscious if I got more than a quarter mile from the mining camp.

"And if you fall?"

I laughed, unable to help myself. "Fall? On this?"

"Cocky little bastard, aren't you?" Jathon chopped a hand at a drover. "Get a spare hitch rope." As the drover scrambled to comply, Jathon pulled his belt knife. "Fine," he said to me. "You get that wheel unsnarled in time for us to make the quota, I'll talk to Gedavar - but only if we meet the tally, understand?"

I interlaced my fingers in the sign for a bargain sealed, then remembered he'd never been streetside in Ninavel. "Bargain's made."

He handed over the knife and the drover's coil of hempen rope. "Get to it, then."

I tucked the knife into my belt, slung the rope across my chest, and leaped for the cliff. I didn't have the spike-nailed boots I'd used for climbing in the Whitefires, but my work boots would serve well enough for rock as fissured as this. My blood sang as I wedged my fists in a slanting crack. Gods, it felt good to climb something more than a lump of a boulder, even if the cliff was a crumbling mess of sandstone instead of the clean, sharp granite of the Whitefire peaks.

A rush of memory overwhelmed me: the sun blazing down from an indigo sky, turning quartz-studded cliffs brilliant as icefields. Sharp peaks stretching to the horizon, and below my airy ledge, Cara's lithe form scaling the cliff with flowing ease, her blonde hair shining near as bright as the rock.

The stab of pain this time wasn't so easy to ignore. Cara. I missed her, desperately - and feared for her, too. Right before the Alathians dragged me off to the mines, I'd begged her to forget any ideas of rescuing me, and instead return to Ninavel to seek out the cunning bastard of a spy who represented my one last hope of saving young Melly from a life of mindburned slavery. Melly's father Sethan had been Cara's friend same as mine, though Cara didn't owe Sethan the way I did. But now I lay awake nights praying Cara wouldn't do anything too rash. Her skill in the mountains was unparalleled, but she had little experience with the darker games played by ganglords and shadow men.

Exactly why I needed to get the hell out of Alathia and sneak back to Ninavel. I stabbed fists and feet one after the other into the crack, twisting my wrists and ankles to lock each successive limb into place as I moved up the cliff. Past the first guide wheel station, the crack grew too thin for my boots. I slowed, placing my feet with care upon crumbling ledges. A shower of dirt and pebbles pattered down the cliff each time I moved.

My heart beat faster as I neared the offending wheel. The guide station was a simple scaffold of iron bars bolted over a sloping ledge. I unslung the rope from my chest, shook it out, and tied one end round my waist. Four feet into the rope, I tied a quick clover knot around the lowest scaffold bar. Dangerous to leave so much slack, since the force of even a short fall on a slack hemp rope could easily snap it, but I needed the freedom of movement if I wanted that kalumite.

I glanced down the cliff, and froze. Beyond the upturned, black-streaked faces of haulers and drovers, a lanky man in a blue and gray uniform was picking his way over the mudflats.

Talmaddis, the Council mage. Fuck! The miners didn't know the kalumite-and- copper trick, but a mage might. If he guessed my intent on the cliff, my chances of escape would vanish quick as frost on a firestone charm.

I mastered panic. he might only have glanced out the minemaster's window, seen me climbing, and decided to investigate. If I could scrape and stow the kalumite before he got close enough to spy me properly, I might still have a chance.

Hurriedly, I adjusted my stance to block my right hand from view and set the edge of Jathon's knife against a fat purple vein of kalumite. With my left hand, I picked at a dangling strand of snarled rope.

A low, grumbling roar froze my knife hand mid-scrape. Startled shouts rang from below, Jathon's gravelly voice rising over the rest.

"Earthquake! Get clear-"

The roar swelled to drown him out. The cliff shook my feet from the ledge like a horse shivering a fly from its hide. In pure, useless reflex, I tried to halt my fall with the Taint, as if I were still a snot-nosed kid rather than a good decade past my Change.

The dead spot in my mind didn't so much as twitch. I dropped like a stone. The rope attaching me to the guide wheel station snapped taut, near cutting me in two, and I slammed into the rock below the ledge. I twisted and made a desperate grab for a handhold, even as the vicious pull on my waist vanished.

I got one hand on the ledge rim, had an instant to register the rope end slithering past, the fibers sliced clean through - and lost my grip on the still-shuddering rock.

Air whistling past, the spiked teeth of the pullwheel rising to meet me, and all I could think was Oh, fuck-

Something yanked me sideways. The pullwheel flashed past. My plunge abruptly slowed to leave me hovering with my nose and chest not a hands- width from the ground.

For a moment I could only gasp, unbelieving. Then I looked up and saw Talmaddis on his knees in the muck, eyes shut and one hand extended toward me, the rings on his fingers glowing softly silver. Behind him huddled a group of open-mouthed haulers. The white rush of shock faded, and I laughed, shakily.

"Wouldn't want to lose your prize hostage," I said.

Talmaddis didn't answer, only lowered his hand. I splatted down into mud. The ground no longer shuddered, though the clatter of falling rocks echoed through the gorge and waterfalls of sand hissed between ledges.

A tortured shriek of metal from above made us all jerk and duck. I rolled, getting a glimpse of thrashing haul rope and a dense spiderweb of black bars, rapidly growing larger.

The pullwheel station from the clifftop - Khalmet's hand, it'd crush us all -

Talmaddis shouted a string of words, in a high, keening wail. Fiery lines streaked the onrushing iron. The fire spread, the bars crumbling to ash in its wake. I scrabbled to my feet and staggered back, still half expecting to be crushed flat.

All that reached me was a rain of embers. My heart felt like it might leap straight out of my chest. The miners cowering beside me were whey-faced, some babbling prayers.

Talmaddis's curly head was bowed, his hands braced in the mud and his shoulders trembling. His breath came in rattling gasps. Jathon was shouting, urging men away from the cliff. The smarter ones had run, dark forms scurrying to the relative safety of the reedy flats near the stream winding through the camp. Yelling men boiled out of the mine tunnel. On the opposite side of the gorge, another swarm erupted from the night shift's barracks. Several cabins had collapsed into a jackstraw of logs.

I took a step backward, then another. I should run. now, while Talmaddis was too drained to cast another spell, and the overseers too busy to bother about a stray prisoner. I could find another band of kalumite somewhere further down the gorge, get my snapthroat charm off before anyone thought to hunt me...

"Mage!" Gedavar pushed past me. His eyes stared white from a face black with coal dust. "The quake - the main tunnel's collapsed at the Broketurn junction! Three hundred men trapped beyond, and the blacklights have gone red, means the air's turning bad - can that cursed magic of yours break through the rubble?"

Talmaddis raised his head. his olive skin had gone sickly grey, the laugh lines bracketing his mouth turned deep as chasms. "I've nothing left," he said in a raw whisper. "But my casting was more than enough to trigger the Watch's detection spells. They'll come..."

"When?" Gedavar demanded. A good question. I held my breath, waiting.

Talmaddis eased back on his heels. "For a spot so far from a city or the border, they'll need time to target a translocation spell..." He dragged a shaking, mudsmeared hand across his brow. His rings had changed from silver to dead black. "A few hours, no more."

Gedavar raised a fist, as if he'd strike Talmaddis if he dared. "Twin gods curse you, man! The blacklights are red. Those men have minutes to live, not hours."

I shuddered. Men suffocating in darkness, begging for help that wouldn't come...damn it, I couldn't let this stand. I leaned around Gedavar.

"What's this shit about waiting, Talmaddis? You need more power to cast? Then take more! There's plenty of life here." I swept an arm at the oxen, at the ferns trailing beside the cliff seeps.

Talmaddis matched my glare. "I'm no blood mage! In Alathia, our magic is fueled by our own energies. We do not steal life from others."

"You're going to let those miners die, all for your gods-damned principles? For fuck's sake, nobody's asking you to torture men to death! Who cares if you kill a tree, or an ox? Kiran could-"

"Kiran ai Ruslanov spent years training to work blood magic," Talmaddis snapped. "Do you think it's so easy? I haven't the faintest idea how to raise power as a blood mage does without either destroying myself or everyone in this gorge."

The haulers in earshot were staring at me as if I'd confessed to trafficking with demons. Rural Alathians took an even more jaundiced view of magic than the Council. They nattered on about how the use of magic poisoned a man's soul and invited the gods' anger. Even an officially sanctioned mage like Talmaddis was viewed with deep distrust. Foreigners like me who smuggled illegally powerful charms through the Alathian border were considered little better than plague-carrying vermin. As for blood mages, who even in Arkennland had reputations worse than Shaikar's devils...the miners thought the Council's policy of execution far too lenient a fate.

Jathon spoke from behind me. "No choice but to dig our men out, then." He gripped Gedavar's shoulder. "Go tell the minemaster. I'll organize a crew."

The anger leached from Gedavar's face, leaving it drawn and old. "Aye. But you haven't seen the cave-in. It'll take days to get through, even if we use blasting powder. My Rephet and the others...well." His throat bobbed in a hard swallow.

"Wait," Jathon said. "The Broketurn junction, you said? An air shaft slants in at the tunnel split. If we lower a powder charge down and blast through to the trapped side, they'll have a chance at good air until the mages come."

Gedavar pointed to a jutting prow of rock high and to the side of the mine entrance. The prow's underside was a stair-stepped series of overhangs. Water dripped from cracks green with moss. Beneath one overhang lay a round black mouth. "With the haul rope downed, not even the laddermen can reach that shaft."

Jathon turned. His dark eyes met mine. My fists clenched behind my back. Gods all damn it, I should've run.

You still can, an inner voice whispered, in the sly tone of my old partner Jylla. Say you can't help, the climb's too hard. Accidents happen in the mines. Those men knew the risk, and you owe the Alathians nothing. You won't get another chance like this again.

Of the two of us, Jylla had always been the clever one. Doubtless that's why she was living in luxury in Ninavel instead of slaving away in this muck pit. Yet I couldn't shake the image of Gedavar's nephew, dying by inches in darkness, all because I'd taken his place. If I hadn't climbed, if Talmaddis hadn't expended precious magic saving me...maybe Talmaddis wouldn't have been too drained to help.

"I can reach the shaft," I told Jathon. "But I'll need pitons this time." I wasn't such a fool as to think I could climb a serious overhang unaided on such rotten rock. Not to mention the risk of aftershocks after a quake so large.

Jathon clapped me on the back, hope bright in his eyes. "Gedavar, get a charge. We'll save those men yet."

Gedavar wore a dark, skeptical scowl, but he strode off, shouting to the men milling about the mine entrance. Doubtless he figured he'd nothing to lose.

"Have you any men who know ropework?" I asked Jathon. "I need a belay from the ground."

"The cartmen work with ropes and pulleys. I'll find someone and get you a set of those spikes from the supply chests." Jathon hurried away.

Talmaddis was watching me. "You surprise me, Dev," he said softly.

I barked out a laugh. "What, you thought I'd run?"

His mouth pulled in a wry, weary smile. "You considered it, I'm sure. for not doing so-I thank you. If you save the trapped men...the Council will also be grateful."

"So grateful they'll let me go?"

Talmaddis looked down. I sighed. "That's what I thought." I glanced up at the twisted spars jutting outward from the gorge rim, all that remained of the pullwheel scaffold. "If you're so grateful, tell me one thing. Are quakes this strong common in Alathia?"

I'd heard tell that the Arkennland side of the Whitefire Mountains had been plagued by earthquakes, way back before Lord Sechaveh built the city of Ninavel in the bone dry desert of the Painted Valley. When he'd offered mages the chance to work magic without law or restriction in exchange for supplying the city's water, likely he'd asked them to stabilize the ground as well. Ninavel hadn't endured a major quake since the mage war some twenty years back, when so much magic was thrown around it unbalanced all of nature. I'd only been a toddler at the time, but I'd grown up hearing the stories.

Maybe earthquakes were natural in Alathia. But if they weren't, I had a terrible suspicion I knew what - or rather, who - might've shoved the world out of balance.

"No," Talmaddis said. "Quakes so strong are not common."

His hazel eyes locked with mine. Within them I saw the echo of my own dread, and the name neither of us wanted to say.

Ruslan Khaveirin. Kiran's master, the strongest mage in Ninavel, and a vicious, clever bastard at that. Who'd want revenge not only on the Alathian Council for keeping his apprentice, but on me, personally, for crossing him. If he was casting spells in an attempt to rip apart the defensive wards that barricaded all of Alathia from foreign magic, I could well believe the earth might split and shudder in response.

And Kiran, kept under the Council's thumb in Tamanath...the chill in my blood was nothing compared to the fear he'd endure when he realized Ruslan was coming for him.

I winced and shoved aside memories of a white-faced, desperate Kiran. I couldn't afford to worry over him now. first I'd reach that air shaft, do my best to keep those miners alive. Then I'd think on Ruslan, and what I might salvage from the embers of my escape plan.


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