The black prism, p.14
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       The Black Prism, p.14

           Brent Weeks
 

  But Dazen’s every attempt with fire had been a failure. Red luxin was flammable, so he’d thought that if he cut himself, he could draft red luxin. He could, a little. But that was good for nothing unless he could make it burn. A fire would give him full-spectrum light to work with—and he would be able to get out. But he had nothing to make a spark. Trying to leach heat from his own body had nearly worked—or at least he’d thought he was close, and he’d nearly killed himself the last time by cooling his body too much.

  It just wasn’t possible. He was going to die down here. There was nothing he could do.

  He drafted a sledgehammer and, screaming, smashed it against the wall. It shattered, of course. It didn’t leave so much as a scratch.

  Dazen rubbed his face. No, the enemy was despair. He had to conserve his strength. Tomorrow he’d rub the bowl more. Maybe tomorrow would be the day.

  He knew it wouldn’t, but he held on to the lie anyway.

  In the wall, the dead man was cackling.

  Chapter 23

  “We need to talk about your future,” Gavin said. “You have some choices.”

  Kip looked at the Prism across their fire. Night was coming on fast in their little island. Kip had slept for hours, apparently, completely missing Garriston and only waking as their boat lurched, hitting the sand as night fell.

  “How long will I live?” Kip asked. He was grumpy, hungry, and just starting to comprehend some of the implications of what had happened in the last two days.

  “A question for Orholam himself. I’m just his humble Prism,” Gavin said, a wry smile twisting his lips. He was looking out into the darkness.

  “You know what I mean.” It came out sharper than Kip meant. Everyone he knew was dead, and he was going to be a green drafter. He’d seen his future in the color wight: death or madness and then death.

  Gavin’s eyes snapped back to Kip. He moved to speak, stopped, then said, “When you draft, it changes your body, and your body interprets that change as damage—it heals what it can, but it’s always a losing battle, like aging. Most male drafters make it to forty. Women average fifty.”

  “Then the Chromeria kills us or we go mad?”

  Gavin’s face went hard. “You’re getting emotional. I don’t think you’re ready for this.”

  “Not ready?” Kip said. Gavin was right, Kip knew it. He was on edge. He should just shut up, but he couldn’t help himself. “I wasn’t ready for everyone I know to be murdered. I wasn’t ready to impale some horsemen and jump over a waterfall. Words are nothing. What is it? Once we aren’t useful anymore, we have to kill ourselves?” Why was he yelling? Why was he trembling? Orholam, he’d sworn on his soul to kill a king, was he mad already?

  “Something like that.”

  “That or turn into a color wight?” Kip asked.

  “That’s right.”

  “Well, I guess we’ve talked about my future,” Kip said bitterly. He knew he was being snotty, but he couldn’t stop himself.

  “That wasn’t what I meant, and you know it,” Gavin said.

  “How would you know what I know, father?”

  It was like watching a spring release. One second, the Prism was sitting across the fire from Kip. The next, he stood right in front of Kip, his arm drawn back. The next, Kip was hitting the sand, head ringing from Gavin’s openhanded blow, ass scraped from sliding off his log, his wind taken by the fall.

  “You’ve been through hell, so I’ve given you more slack than I give any man. You wanted to find the line? You’ve found it.”

  Kip rolled face up as he caught his breath. He had sand sticking to the wetness at the corner of his mouth. He rubbed it. Just slobber, not blood. “Orholam’s balls!” he said. “Guess what I’ve found? A line! I’m the greatest discoverer since Ariss the Navigator!”

  Gavin trembled, his face a mask. He rolled his shoulders, popped his neck right and left. Though his back was to their fire, Kip could see red luxin smoke-swirls curling into his eyes.

  “What are you going to do? Beat me?” Kip demanded. It’s just pain.

  Sometimes Kip hated himself for how he saw weakness. The Prism threatened him and the first thing Kip saw was the threat’s emptiness. Gavin couldn’t beat him precisely because Gavin was a good man and Kip was defenseless.

  Gavin’s look darkened to murder for one moment, then cleared to simple intensity. The briefest flicker of amusement. “Take a deep breath,” he said quietly.

  “What?”

  The Prism made a little backhanded gesture, as if whisking away a fly. A gob of red luxin flicked out of his hand and splattered over Kip’s mouth. Kip took a deep breath through his nose before the luxin spread and covered that, too. Then it wrapped around the back of his head, spread over the top of his head, and solidified. Only Kip’s eyes were uncovered, mouth and nose were covered, utterly blocked. He couldn’t breathe.

  Gavin said, “You remind me of my brother. I could never win against him growing up. And when I did, he’d give me some patronizing praise that made me wonder if he’d let me win. You see the cracks in things? Fine. It’s proof enough that you’re a Guile. Our whole family has it. Including me. Think about this, Kip: there are a lot of problems that would go away for me if I leave that mask on your face until you’re dead. You might want to think twice before you try to use a man’s conscience against him. It may turn out he doesn’t have one.”

  Kip listened, conserving his strength against his rising panic, certain that after Gavin was done talking, he would take the luxin off his face. But Gavin stopped talking, and he didn’t remove the mask. Kip’s stomach churned as his diaphragm worked to suck in more air, pumped down to expel the dead air he held in. Nothing.

  He reached up to his neck, trying to find the seam where luxin abutted skin. But the line was smooth, the luxin sticking close to the skin. He couldn’t get his fingernails under it. He reached up around his head, his eyes. If he stabbed his fingernails into the soft skin next to his eyes, he could lift the edge of the mask and get one finger underneath it. His vision was darkening. He looked at Gavin, pleading, sure that the man would step in now.

  Gavin watched him, pitiless. “If the only thing you’re going to respect is strength, Kip, first, you’re a fool, and second, you’ve come to the right man.”

  The panic came. He should have known better. Kip thrashed, tried to scream, reached up to that thin ridge of luxin by his eyes—but he barely touched it before his hands drooped. He should have known he couldn’t trust…

  Chapter 24

  After traveling all day and into the night, Karris first became aware of Rekton in the distance as a great, unvariegated glow as she stalked through the forest. It was long after nightfall now, the air cool in the undergrowth. She was enough of a sub-red to use dark vision, but it wasn’t perfect, and on a moonlit night like tonight she kept switching back and forth from normal to dark vision. Light below the visible spectrum was rougher; it didn’t lend itself to fine differentiation of features. Even faces simply looked like warm blobs, brighter here and there, but it was much more difficult to make out expressions or fine movements—or even to identify a face from much of a distance.

  The glow meant Rekton was still burning. Karris circled it slowly, climbing the last hill. She stayed off the road, admiring the waterfall just below the town in the silver moonlight. She hadn’t seen anyone on the road all day, which she found odd. If no one was fleeing downriver from Rekton, it probably meant no one had made it out. But it was also strange to follow the river through arable land and not come across any other settlements. She’d seen orange orchards that clearly hadn’t been tended since the war, but they were still growing fruit. The fruit was sparse and the trees leafy and chaotic and growing haphazardly in comparison to the paintings Karris had seen of orange harvests, but they were still here. With the price Tyrean oranges fetched, she found that hard to believe. Tyrean oranges were smaller but sweeter and juicier than Atashian oranges, and the Parian oranges didn’t even compa
re. No one had moved back after the war?

  Had the Battle of Sundered Rock really killed so many that even now, sixteen years later, the land lay fallow, bearing fruit for deer and bears alone?

  Karris didn’t see any bodies until she crept into the still-burning town, wrapped in her hooded black cloak. She was following the main road, its cobbles even and well maintained: a symbol in Karris’s mind of a place well governed. A burned body lay in the middle of the street, facedown, one arm extended, a finger pointing deeper into the town. Only the hand and pointing finger were unburned. The head was missing.

  She hadn’t seen this kind of burn since the war. During the war, the armies had clashed a number of times in areas where the bodies couldn’t be buried and where there wasn’t enough natural fuel for funeral pyres. Corpses had to be disposed of to avoid losing even more soldiers to disease, so red drafters would spray a corpse with a quick stream of red jelly. A quick coating, even if drafted carelessly, could be lit quickly. Problem solved. It wasn’t cremation, though. If bodies were burned singly, rather than in piles, the bones remained. If the drafter weren’t thorough, certain body parts wouldn’t be reduced entirely to bone. Rib cages and skulls ended up full of smoking meat—good enough for exigencies of war when you had to dispose of your opponents’ corpses to avoid spreading disease, but never good enough for one’s own countrymen.

  King Garadul hadn’t fought in that war, but he was aping the worst practices of it—on his own people.

  As she suspected, that pointing hand led Karris to more bodies. At first they were spread widely, then one every thirty paces, one every twenty paces, one every ten. All were headless. Then bodies lined the sides of the main road now in a solid row, past smoking, crumbled homes and shops. The nicely maintained cobblestones here had cracked from the heat. There were tracks across the cobbles. At first she couldn’t tell what they were, but as she got closer it became obvious: they were drag marks, streaks of dried blood perhaps a day old from the decapitated bodies being dragged from the square.

  She paused amid the smoke and gore before she rounded the corner that would take her to the town square. She drew the short sword, but didn’t put on her spectacles. If there was a trap, it would be here, but there was enough red and heat for her to fight magically if necessary. Even if she wasn’t planning on a straight infiltration, there was no need to announce that she was a drafter if she didn’t have to. When the moment came, she’d announce it with fire.

  Karris rounded the corner.

  Dear Orholam.

  They hadn’t melted the heads. They’d preserved them with a blue-and-yellow luxin glaze and stacked them in the middle of the town square. Eyes staring, faces mangled, blood cascading from the top to the bottom like a champagne pyramid at the Luxlords’ Ball. Karris had half expected something like this from all the decapitated bodies, but expecting it wasn’t the same as seeing it. Her stomach heaved. She turned and clamped her jaw shut, blinking rapidly, as if her eyelids could scrape the horrors off her eyes. She studied the rest of the square to give her stomach time to settle.

  If Gavin had seen this, he would have killed King Garadul. Pitiless as the sea, righteous as Orholam, he would have hunted down every one of these monsters. Whatever he had done during the war and before—whatever he had done to her—since the False Prism’s War, Gavin had traveled the Seven Satrapies meting out justice. He’d sunk Ilytian pirate fleets twice, killed the bandit king of the Blue-Eyed Demons, made peace when war had broken out again between Ruthgar and the Blood Forest, and brought the Butcher of Ru to justice. Other than the Tyreans, the people loved him. And he would have wreaked a mighty vengeance here, even for Tyreans. He wouldn’t have stood for this.

  Most of the buildings were piles of rubble, smoking in the predawn gray. Here and there a single wall stood, scorched and blackened and separated from its fallen fellows. The alcaldesa’s residence, if such it was—it was the grandest building she’d seen here, with steps leading directly onto the square—was a total loss. The soldiers had flattened it; there wasn’t one rock left sitting on another.

  But the square itself was immaculate. Any burnt wreckage had either been pushed into the streets leading here or shoveled directly into the river, whose channel bounded the square to the west. King Garadul had wanted nothing to distract a visitor from his grisly trophy. Steeling herself, Karris looked back to the pyramid of human heads. All the drag marks, all the bloody streaks led here. The bodies—Karris hoped they’d all already been bodies by the time they came here—had all been decapitated here so that the pyramid would be as bloody as possible. This was a spectacle. King Garadul wanted everything to lead to this horror.

  The pyramid was taller than Karris. The heads at the top, crowning the pyramid, were children: round-cheeked little boys and little girls with their hair in ribbons and bows.

  Karris didn’t throw up. There was something about this that simply left her cold. By their ages and her own, those children could have been hers. She found herself counting the heads. There were forty-five at the base, and the pyramid was as wide as it was tall, built with mathematical precision. The children’s heads were smaller, and there was no way to tell if the pyramid was solid or if these heads had been stacked around the outside of a smaller pyramid made of something else. Karris’s fingers moved as she mentally moved the beads of an abacus, shuttling them left and right.

  If the pyramid was solid heads, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand heads here.

  Cold tingles shot over her skin, the precursor to vomiting. She looked away. You’re a spy, Karris. You have to find out everything important. Taking long, deep breaths, she examined the bottom corner of the pyramid, then looked edge-on at one face of the shape. It was made of multiple layers of different colors of luxin. King Garadul wanted this to last for years. Someone could attack the pyramid with a sledgehammer, and they might be able to crack it, but not break it open. There would be no burying these heads or removing this hideous monument.

  The skill evident here meant King Garadul had access to a number—perhaps a large number—of fairly talented and skilled drafters. Bad news. Karris had heard Gavin express his belief that King Garadul was starting a pseudo-Chromeria to train his own drafters away from the Chromeria’s oversight. This was pretty strong evidence that Gavin was right.

  “Bastard,” Karris said. She wasn’t sure whether she meant Garadul or Gavin. How stupid was that? She was staring at a pile of heads and she was as angry at Gavin as she was at the monster who’d done this? Because he’d slept with some strumpet during the war?

  Insanely, even after the great fire that had ruined everything in her life and killed her brothers, Karris had been more than half tempted to go over to Dazen’s side during that time. If only to hear his side of what had happened. Maybe Gavin had known.

  Or maybe it was the guilt of his illicit liaison that had caused Gavin to break their betrothal right after the war.

  So he was unfaithful. Welcome to the common fate of women who love great men. For all you know, it was only one night of weakness on the eve of the last battle, some beauty throwing herself at him, and he didn’t say no, just once.

  Right. But for all I know, every night was a night of weakness.

  It was years ago, Karris. Years! How has Gavin acted in all the years since the war?

  Aside from breaking our betrothal and leaving me with nothing?

  How has he acted toward you in the last fifteen years?

  Decently. Damn him. Aside from lying and secrets. What had he said? “I don’t expect you to understand or even believe me, but what’s in that note, I swear it isn’t true.” Something about that niggled at her. Why would he compound the lie?

  The wind shifted and blew smoke across the open square. Karris coughed, her eyes burning. But just as she finished coughing, she thought she heard a crack.

  Another crack, and then, just a block away, a chimney came crashing down into the torched remains of a house. The dawn
was red—a trick of the smoke and spectrums, not a heavenly mirror to all the blood spilled here.

  Karris began searching the town, looking for survivors and surveying the damage. Do what’s right, do what’s in front of you. The town hadn’t burned easily. The buildings were stone, albeit with wooden supports, and the trees were green, either from manual watering—the river ran right through town—or from their roots reaching deep enough. But every single building in the town center had burned down completely. That meant red drafters.

  They must have walked through all the buildings, spraying red luxin on every wooden beam.

  Karris searched for two hours, climbing over rubble in the streets, sometimes having to go around whole blocks. She wrapped a wet cloth around her face, but still got lightheaded, coughing frequently. She found nothing other than more corpses and a few mournful dogs. All the livestock had been taken. The town church had been the site of a small battle. A luxiat’s body lay decapitated like the rest, outside the doors of the church. Karris could imagine him denouncing the soldiers outside, trying to protect those of his flock who’d sought sanctuary within the walls. Inside, she found pruning shears, an ax, and knives, and a pair of cleavers, and one broken sword, and decapitated bodies. And dried, burned blood everywhere. The beams here were seared but hadn’t caught fire. Either clumsy drafting, or religious fear, or the fact that the ironwood beams, imported from the deserts of southern Atash, were so old and dense.

  The pews, however, and the bodies had burned. Karris was in a daze, whether from inhaling smoke or just becoming inured to the tableau of death and suffering. In the back corner of the church behind the stairs, she found a young family, the father with his arms wrapped around the mother, who was sheltering a child. The soldiers hadn’t found these. They’d died in each other’s arms from the smoke. Karris checked each of them carefully, feeling for the faint tremor of life at each neck. Father, dead. The mother, a girl not yet out of her teens, dead. Karris took the swaddled babe in her arms last, a boy. She prayed under her breath. But Orholam turned a deaf ear; there was no life in his tiny breast.

 
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