The black prism, p.9
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       The Black Prism, p.9
 

           Brent Weeks

  One hand still hitching up his wet, heavy pants, Kip began jogging as fast as he could, fearless despite the slick rocks, narrow trail, and death beckoning from every side.

  There were bodies in the river, caught up in the rapids. Dear Orholam, there were bodies at the Sendinas’ farm, little lumps nearly as cold as the surrounding ground. Smoldering, ruined buildings burned hot in Kip’s vision. More important for him and Sanson, he saw a flat-bottomed punt tied at the Sendinas’ dock. He and Sanson hit the bottom of the trail at a full run. They rounded a corner and in the morning sun saw thirty mounted Mirrormen, drawn up in battle formation.

  “We wanted to take you alive,” the red drafter said. His skin was crimson, and fury tinged his voice. “A drafter with your potential doesn’t come along every day. But you’ve killed two of King Garadul’s men, and for that, you die.”

  Chapter 15

  “You’re not really going to crash us,” Karris said as Gavin brought them over the scrub desert.

  “Oh, I see. When I’m flying, we’re flying, but when we’re crashing, I’m crashing.”

  Gavin banked the condor to the right so they wouldn’t be seen from Garriston. There was still a good chance some farmer or fisherman would spot them, but who would believe a lone fisherman who said he’d seen a giant flying man-bird? If a whole city saw them, it would be a different story. Garriston, despite being the most important port in Tyrea, wasn’t much. The bay was overfished, the land was hot and dry with bad soil, the Ruthgari governor corrupt, his men worse.

  It hadn’t always been this way. Before the False Prism’s War, there had been a vast system of irrigation canals that had brought this scrub desert into bloom, with two or even three harvests a year. There had been locks that fed trade to dozens of small cities up and down the Umber River. But canals and locks required drafters and maintenance. Without either, this land had withered, punished for the sins of dead men.

  “Gavin, I’m serious. Are we really going to crash?”

  “Trust me,” he said.

  She opened her mouth, then shut it. He guessed what she hadn’t said: Because that’s worked out so well for me before?

  “Got anything fragile in your bag?” he asked.

  “How bad is this going to be?” she asked, real concern in her voice.

  “Sorry. I should have waited until we were closer to the ground.”

  “Wait, what’s that?” Karris asked.

  Gavin looked west, following her eyes, but didn’t see what had made her curious. The land around Garriston was plains and dry farmland, but to the west it quickly yielded to steep, tall, impassable mountains that abutted almost directly on the sea. The Umber River was just on the other side of those mountains. If it could go straight to the sea—through the mountains—it would have been only ten leagues long. Instead, it had to go east to Garriston, separated from the ocean by fencelike mountains, almost a hundred and fifty leagues from origin to outlet.

  “There,” Karris said, pointing. “Smoke.”

  Gavin wasn’t sure that the black wisp was anything more than Karris’s—and now his—imagination. Regardless, it was on the other side of the mountains, so it didn’t matter. He was just opening his mouth to tell Karris that when the condor passed over one of the foothills. A powerful updraft shot them higher into the air.

  It took Gavin’s breath away. He’d only experimented with the condor over water. He hadn’t even thought about how the ground beneath where he was gliding would affect the air above it. Now that he had experienced it, it made sense. Why else did birds of prey spiral so often in the same places? Gavin had assumed they were good hunting grounds. Now he knew. Updrafts.

  “Can we make it over the mountains?” Karris asked.

  From this new height—Gavin looked down, gulped, and immediately looked back to the horizon—he was certain that what they had seen was smoke. And for it to be visible from this far away, it could only be one of two things.

  Let it be a forest fire. Please, Orholam.

  “We can. But if we do, you’re not going to meet the man who was supposed to get you into Garadul’s army. And I can’t get the condor back into the air without the sea. I’ll have to float all the way down the river.”

  “Gavin, when I see that much smoke, I think red wight. A Torch could be burning down an entire city. You’re heading out to stop a color wight near Ru? These people aren’t worth any less than the people of Ru. If it comes to it, there are a lot of drafters in Ru who could work together against the blue wight. These people have no one.”

  In his mind’s eye, Gavin was comparing the land below him to the maps he knew of Tyrea. It was surprisingly easy, given that he was closer to the perspective most maps were drawn from than most people ever got. He looked at the mountains, the not-quite-pass through them, and the position of the rising smoke. A thought struck him with a greater force than mere intuition. He wasn’t here on accident. It wasn’t coincidence that he was gliding in the one place where he could see this fire, or that he had Karris with him. That was no forest fire. It wasn’t a red wight either.

  That fire was rising from Rekton. It had been a beautiful town before the war. It was the town where Gavin’s “son” was. Gavin knew it, even though they were so far away there was no way to know it. If Orholam had actually existed, this was the kind of punishment he would devise for Gavin. Or test.

  Whatever it was, it was a choice.

  Five years left, and five great purposes still to accomplish. And one of those actually was mostly selfless: to free Garriston, which had been crushed because of him. Which was suffering still, because of him.

  If Gavin went to Rekton, he’d have to face that crazy woman, Lina. He’d have to face her son Kip, and tell him that he wasn’t his father: Sorry, you’re still fatherless. I have no idea what your lying slut mother is talking about.

  That would doubtless go over well. They would also be close to Rask Garadul’s army, so Karris would open her orders, and everything would get messy fast.

  All Gavin had to say was, “I’ve got my orders.” Karris would understand. She’d always been dutiful. To a fault.

  But you aren’t Karris. This isn’t her test.

  He opened his mouth to say it, and it tasted like cowardice. He couldn’t force the words past his gritted teeth.

  “Let’s go see,” Gavin said. He banked the condor, and saw that he hadn’t made his decision a moment too soon. It would be a near thing to clear the gap between the mountains.

  Karris squeezed his hand and her eyes sparkled, those jade green eyes with red diamonds in them. For some reason, her joy struck him more deeply than any disappointment could have. That joy was a reminder of sixteen years of joy he should have given her, joy stolen. He turned away, his throat tight.

  The mountains loomed, and Gavin realized for the first time just how fast they were going. There was no hope of a splashing wet landing here. If the updrafts he’d expected didn’t catch them soon, he and Karris were going to paint a large crimson blotch across the face of these rocks.

  Orholam, if there isn’t any wind at all, then there isn’t any wind to get thrown upward, is there?

  He was beginning to draft a red cushion—hopelessly, knowing no matter how big he made it, it would be too little at this speed—when the updraft caught them. They were hurled skyward, the wings of the condor straining.

  Karris shouted with exultation.

  The force was incredible. It was hard to estimate how fast they were rising, but Gavin shortened the condor’s wings both to take stress off them and because Rekton wasn’t so far away that they would need that much height. The higher they were, the more visible they were. But it did make him think. With all the height he could get off of mountains, the condor’s range was vastly greater than he had assumed.

  It was a thought for another time. Right now the problem was to stay low so they weren’t visible to all of Tyrea, and to lose some of the tremendous speed they’d built up. He drafted a bonnet th
e same blue luxin he’d used for himself when he jumped from the Chromeria. It popped open instantly, throwing both him and Karris forward, then ripped away almost as fast.

  When they regained their balance, Gavin tried again. Green this time, and much smaller. He sealed the bonnet to the luxin of the condor so it didn’t tear him apart. It worked, sort of. They slowed a little. Now they were headed downward at merely ridiculous speeds. Gavin struggled to expand the wingspan again.

  “What can I do?” Karris shouted.

  Gavin cursed. He’d barely begun to experiment with changing the condor’s wings. In all his trials, he’d merely leaned to one side or the other and caught himself before hitting the ground or the water. Grunting with the strain, he lifted the front edge of the wings skyward. Point up to go up, right?

  It was exactly the wrong thing to do. They pitched sharply downward. By the time he leveled off the wings, they were heading straight down. Worse, the suddenness of their drop meant his feet weren’t even touching the floor. He had no leverage to push against to continue to manipulate the wings. He threw luxin up to the ceiling to force his body down, and began locking his feet to the floor, but the eucalyptus trees were looming huge. He was too slow.

  Then he was slammed to the floor. The condor dipped below the height of the trees, in a meadow, and then began to rise. It wasn’t going to make it.

  Gavin reached into the luxin as the condor crashed through the branches. The blue luxin cracked and would have shattered if he hadn’t grabbed it. For another instant, he couldn’t see anything as they knifed through the trees, then again they were airborne. Heading up and up, steeper and steeper.

  He finally looked at Karris. Her skin was a war of green and red. Her hands were braced against the ceiling and the luxin lines traced from both hands to the back of the condor. She’d taken control of the tail. It was flared, green, bent up. She’d saved their lives, but her eyes were closed with the effort, muscles straining to hold the tail up against the force of the wind.

  “Karris, level it off!” Gavin shouted.

  “I’m trying!”

  “You’ve already gone too—”

  Then they were upside down, heading back the opposite direction. Gavin’s shirt fell in front of his face, and when he pulled it out of the way they were leveled off—upside down.

  “Don’t level off now!”

  “Make up your mind!” she shouted. She was standing on her hands on the ceiling. Gavin locked her in again and together they turned the wings and tail once more. They were crushed to the floor as the great luxin bird swooped out level once more, only twenty paces above the trees.

  Gavin breathed freely for the first time in what seemed like hours. He checked the condor. It seemed well enough.

  “Did they see us?” Karris asked.

  “What? Who?” How was she able to see so many things at once?

  “Them,” she said, nodding.

  Gavin looked toward Rekton. They were only a few leagues east of the town now, and it had indeed been burned. All of it. That meant either an incredibly strong red wight, or something else entirely.

  And they were looking at the something else. There was a small army encamped around the town. It could only be Garadul’s men.

  Orholam have mercy.

  “No,” Gavin said. “They’d have to stare almost straight into the sun to see us.”

  “Huh. Lucky, I guess,” Karris said.

  “You call this lucky?” Gavin asked.

  “What’s that?” she interrupted.

  Below the town, after the falls fed into rapids and the Umber River’s rage finally cooled, there was a group of homes. Almost a village, but all the building were smoldering. There was a green drafter, skin filling with power, facing several of King Garadul’s Mirrormen.

  “That’s a child!” Karris said. “Two! Gavin, we’ve got to save them.”

  “I’ll bring us down as close as I can. Roll when we hit.” They leveled off ten paces above a plain of rock and brush and tumbleweeds. Gavin threw out a small bonnet to slow the condor again. It snapped open, but this time they were both ready for the whiplash and braced themselves. Gavin threw out another and another. They slowed down faster than he’d expected. The condor pitched toward the ground.

  Gavin flung his hands out, blasting the condor to pieces. As they fell, he wrapped Karris and then himself in an enormous cushion of orange luxin, rimmed with a shell of segmented flexible green, with a core of super-hard yellow.

  They slammed into the ground, the orange and green luxin slowing them before exploding from the force of their landing. The yellow luxin was formed into a more rigid ball around each of them. Gavin crashed through some bushes, bouncing and rolling half a dozen times before the yellow luxin cracked and spilled him unceremoniously onto the ground. He wiggled his fingers and toes. Everything worked. He jumped up.

  “Karris?”

  He heard a yell. Not a good one. He ran.

  Karris sprang to her feet, twenty paces away. Her hair was askew, but he didn’t see any obvious injuries. He came to stand by her. “What is it?” he asked.

  She glanced down. There was a rattlesnake at her feet, as long as Gavin’s spread arms. A dagger through its head pinned it to the ground. Karris’s dagger.

  As Gavin stood there, mouth open, Karris put a foot behind the snake’s head and pulled the dagger out—with her hand, for Orholam’s sake, not with drafting. Sometimes Gavin forgot how tough Karris was. She wiped the blood off on a black kerchief the Blackguards carried for such purposes—black didn’t show hard-to-explain bloodstains. She shook slightly as she tucked the kerchief away, but Gavin knew it wasn’t fear or nerves. It took a body time to relax from the amount of adrenaline imminent death triggered.

  Karris didn’t blame him for nearly getting her killed. She grabbed her bag and bowcase, strapped her ataghan belt around her narrow waist, checked to make sure neither blade nor scabbard had been damaged in the fall, and threw her bag on her back. It was like the sudden violence had reminded her of what she was—and of what they weren’t. Back on the ground, back to reality.

  “Sorry ’bout that,” Gavin said. “I should have gone for the sea.”

  “If we had, there could have been sharks.” She shrugged. “And now I’d be wet.” She smirked, but it didn’t touch her eyes. He wasn’t going to reach her now. Work loomed—and her work was dangerous, a job that might well lead to war, a job that might require her to kill or to die. She had to ruthlessly cut away any entanglements that would distract her.

  “Karris,” he said. “What’s in that note… it isn’t true. I don’t expect you to understand or maybe even believe me, but I swear it isn’t true.”

  She looked at him, hard, inscrutable. Her irises were jade green, but now the flecks of red were like starbursts, flaring, diamond-shaped. One way or another, through means magical or mundane, luxin or tears, Gavin knew that soon those eyes would be red. “Let’s save those children,” she said.

  Karris ran, and he followed her. They cut back and forth down a hillside dominated by eucalyptus trees, peeling bark scattered on the ground, brush slapping them. Karris cut toward the skinny child, leaving Gavin to save the one facing the red drafter.

  But it didn’t matter. Neither of them was going to make it in time.

  Chapter 16

  It was too far to run for the punt, even for Sanson. A cool realization settled on Kip: he was going to die. He was surprised at his own reaction. No panic. No fear. Just quiet fury. Thirty elite Mirrormen in full harness against a child. A trained red drafter against a child who’d first drafted yesterday.

  “When I tell you, run,” Kip told Sanson.

  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something flash over the trees hundreds of paces to his left, but when he looked, there was nothing there. He saw that the Mirrormen were looking back and forth at each other, as if they’d caught the same glimpse he had.

  “Now, Sanson. Run.” Kip didn’t take his eyes off the dra
fter.

  Sanson ran.

  The Mirrormen hesitated until the red drafter gestured, a quick sign, with military efficiency. One Mirrorman from each side of the line peeled off and circled around Kip, digging their heels hard into their horses. The red drafter himself rode forward alone.

  Everything Kip had done with magic so far had been instinctive. Now he needed to do something on purpose. Light was pouring over him. There was green everywhere. The two Mirrormen circling him were each keeping an eye on him, but they were going after Sanson. The wildness surged through Kip once again and he felt the skin under his fingernails tear open again as luxin poured into his palm. A javelin formed in his hand. He hurled it at the Mirrorman nearer to Sanson, but the throw was pathetic. It flew maybe fifteen paces, not even half the distance it needed.

  The red drafter laughed. Kip ignored him.

  Kip had seen the other red drafter and his apprentice Zymun throw fireballs from a standstill. They’d been thrown back from hurling something with so much force, but they hadn’t fully thrown it physically. Kip imagined the magic streaking from him as the reds’ had done. The air in front of him coalesced, sparkling, coruscating greens, from sea-foam to mint to evergreen, taking on the outline of a spearhead.

  With an explosion of energy, it leapt away. Kip felt as if he had fired an overcharged musket. He tumbled to the ground. Worse, he missed. The green spear cut the air behind the galloping Mirrorman. It crashed into one of the few standing walls of one of the burned-out homes. The wall went down in billows of ash.

  Kip scrambled to his feet to try again, but even as the air began sparkling green in front of him, he caught something red out of the corner of his eye. He turned toward the red drafter—too slowly. Something hot blasted through his hands, scattering the green luxin he’d been gathering, burning him.

 
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