Quartz: a serial novel

In order to save their world, the mages of long ago plunged it into eternal night.

Now rare veins of quartz provide light, heat, and food to a dying world. And Rafael Grenfeld has just learned that the biggest quartz pillar of them all, the legendary Tower of Light, exists. Unfortunately, his informer died before revealing its location and he’s stuck in the hostile totalitarian state of Blackstone.

Desperate to find the Tower of Light for his people, Rafe forms an uneasy alliance with the mysterious and maddening Isabella. They’re not the only ones interested in the quartz. The Shadow, chief of the Blackstone secret police, is also hunting for it. As darkness-loving demons devour souls and dangerous magical artifacts resurface, Rafe must tap into the lost powers of the mages in order to find and secure the quartz—before his world is destroyed by famine and war.

Quartz is a serialized novel that updates on Tuesdays, with Saturdays available for a donation of $5 per episode. Donors will also receive the complete novel as an ebook in a format of their choice once the serial is finished. Thank you for your support!

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Episode Eighty Two

Chapter Thirty, Part Two

The Barrens

The next day, Rafe caught up with Isabella as they scrambled into the valley Rafe hoped to find the Tower in. Bryony had kept pace with them all day, face set with determination, but she’d started to lag. She crept down the slope of broken rock, setting her feet down with a wince she could not quite hide.

“What is between you and Bryony?” he asked, letting his stride lengthen to match her effortless lope. “You’ve been rude to her this whole time, you barely let us get breakfast this morning, and you’re rushing us along as if the Dragon himself were after us.”

“If she can’t keep up, she shouldn’t have come,” snapped Isabella. “This isn’t a pleasure jaunt, it’s about making the most important discovery in centuries. This is about ensuring that humanity even has a future this side of the Point. If she couldn’t keep up, she should’ve stayed behind.”

“She didn’t have a choice in the matter. Not since Karzov kidnapped her. On my account.” He pulled Isabella to a stop and turned them both around. “I need to catch my breath,” he told her, daring her to contradict him.

She didn’t. “She could’ve stayed with Sable,” argued Isabella. “Or she could have gone home.”

“Thanks to me, she doesn’t have one,” said Rafe. “Oakhaven would interrogate her if she went back; Karzov would gladly get his hands on her again just to flex his own muscles; and Sable—like the two of us—is a wanted woman. Nowhere is safe for Bryony anymore. She didn’t ask for all this, but I haven’t heard her say a word against me for destroying the life she’d begun to build for herself.”

“And so she deserves to come on this adventure. Is that it, Rafe? Because life was not fair? Sel, Rafe! She’s a burden, a liability! She can’t walk, she can’t carry, she can’t fight worth anything. Look at this place!” Isabella swung her pocket magelight. Sel was a sliver just past her zenith and gave little illumination. “It’s dark, Rafe. Dark. You know what that means? And I’m supposed to protect both of you?”

“Funny. You never complained about guarding all of Oakhaven.” Rafe crossed his arms. This Isabella, unbalanced, cracking, was different from the one he’d known, but she’d been edgy ever since Shimmer.

Isabella stared at him. She opened her mouth to say something, then shook her head. “Never mind. You’re right, of course.” She made a gathering motion, as if she took up all the emotion that had leaked out, folded it small and tucked it inside her. “One thing you can be sure of is that I’ll handle my end of things.” Her smile was brittle.

“Are we there yet?” Bryony’s cheeks were pink from cold and exertion.

Isabella looked at Rafe, who said, “We’re in the right area, but the opening could be anywhere. Furin—that’s the Blackstone surveyor who found the Tower, Bryony— would not have had a machine, and a big opening would’ve been spotted before.”

“But if he had been here,” commented Bryony, “he might have wanted to leave a mark of some sort, to help him find his way back to the Tower again. Say, like an arrow with his initial under it?”

“Yes, he could’ve.” Rafe cocked his head at her.

Bryony jerked her chin toward the rock Isabella and Rafe had stood arguing beside. “Like that arrow right there?”

The other two stared at the faint etching of an arrow.

“Well done, Bryony!”

“Yes, good eyesight,” said Isabella. “We could’ve searched for hours otherwise.”

The unexpected praise made Bryony’s cheeks turn pinker. As Rafe started down the way the arrow pointed towards, he heard Isabella say, off-handedly, “I missed breakfast today. I hear you made particularly delicious oatmeal cakes. May I have one?”

And Bryony’s immediate, “Yes, of course!”

He smiled, his spirits lifting even higher.

 

Once they knew what they were looking for, they came upon the opening quickly. Rafe was glad he was not relying on his ka-senses because he felt nothing but the lack of it, and his own aching emptiness, as if he’d lost a limb.

When he mentioned it to Isabella, she nodded. “A Tower like this would’ve been a beacon to all the kayan for miles around. It’s probably been shielded.” Isabella gave a wry smile. “Yet another part of the kayan’s knowledge we’ve lost.”

They inserted themselves into the narrow crack. Rafe took off his pack and wedged it through first, then followed. He popped out into the other side, and was immediately grateful that it was wider on the inside. The smell was warm and moist and carried a scent he’d not expected in the Barrens. The scent of growing things.

They crept through the tunnel, Isabella first with the light, followed by Bryony, then Rafe. They went slowly, following its serpentine twists. Fungi began to appear on the damp walls, spotty at first, then in patches and swathes. And finally Isabella didn’t need the light anymore because a great glow came from just ahead, bright and shining. Rafe quickened his step and so did Bryony, pressing past Isabella, who’d slowed down.

“Wait,” Isabella raised her hand as Bryony slipped past. “There might be traps—”

A loud click resounded in the tunnel. Bryony froze. Rafe sprang, but Isabella was faster. She shoved Bryony down on to the floor, and half-turned, swinging her pack between her body and the projectile. Even so, the force slammed her against the cavern wall. A chunk of rock tumbled to the ground.

“Are you all right?” Rafe caught Isabella as she doubled over, wheezing. The pack dropped from her hands.

She pushed him away as soon as she had her breath back. “I’m fine. Nothing’s broken or crushed beyond hope, though no hugs for a while, please!” She straightened.

Bryony scrambled to her feet. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes were wide and contrite.

“A stupid little tripwire mechanism.” Isabella snorted in disgust. “Well? What are you two staring at me for? We’ve found it. Go, look. Carefully.”

“I’ll go first.” His gaze probing every corner, stopping to check every suspicious surface, Rafe led the way into the light.

Then they all gasped, tilting their heads skywards, and forgot all about traps.

The Tower of Light rose in great stubby splendor from the broken cavern floor, its tip almost touching the ceiling. It was not a pretty thing, being wide at the base and with a roughly textured surface, but it glowed a bright white and gave off waves of strong heat. Plants surrounded it in messy profusion, but only one dared to grow upon its surface like a badly-crocheted doily.

Dragonlace.

“It’s true,” whispered Bryony. “It’s really true.”

Episode Eighty One

Chapter Thirty, Part One

The Barrens

Rafe swept his hand across the pattern he’d scribed in the dirt. The Keys tumbled out of order, their weak lights dying.

Which was fine because they weren’t telling him what he wanted to know in the first place.

He shoved his hands through his hair. Ever since they’d entered the Barrens, the Keys seemed unresponsive, their ka faint and sluggish. Rafe had poked at the intricate knot of ka inside them, but it had yielded no clues, and he was afraid that his inexperienced handling would ruin the Keys altogether. He’d settled for trying to decipher their patterns of lights, but they stubbornly refused to show him anything other than the locations of quartz veins he had no interest in.

“No luck?” Bryony came to crouch beside him.

“Not unless you want to take a tour of the major agri-caves of this region. I can figure out what location each individual Key is coded for, but not how to put them together to find out where the Tower is. Unless”—horror suffused him—“we’re meant to wander from cave to cave, picking up clues.”

“You’ll figure it out.” She extended a mug towards him. Steam curled from the top, along with a pungent herbal scent. “I hear this stuff is good for you.” Her smile quirked. “Pretend it’s spinach, hold your nose, and drink up.”

Rafe grimaced. “Isabella. Where is she now?”

Bryony shrugged an elegant shoulder. Like Rafe, she wore Rocquespur’s borrowed finery, though in her case she’d used the several days’ train journey from Shimmer to alter it to her size. “Scouting. Setting defenses. Hunting dragons with her bare hands. I don’t really know, and I don’t really care.” She shifted against the warm rock and lay back. “It’s comfortable here, with just you. Seems like we haven’t had a moment alone since Shimmer.”

Rafe nodded. The train, which had seemed so commodious and luxurious on the way to Shimmer, had seemed barely able to hold the three women. They’d all been cordial, but the tension in the air had been as palpable to Rafe as it was baffling. Isabella had been curt to the point of rudeness, Sable had taken on the gracious yet distant manners of a queen, and Bryony had countered it all by being pleasant—with an edge.

Rafe gathered the Keys back into their drawstring bag. They were warm from the contact with the ground. “Isabella doesn’t like you. Why?”

Bryony examined the sky and replied in a lazy drawl. “Isabella doesn’t like anyone. I hardly think it’s personal.”

Rafe just looked at her.

“Well, all right.” Bryony sat up and crossed her legs. “She’s had you wrapped around her little finger, doing what she wants, and she doesn’t want anyone else with half a mind or one independent thought jumping in and spoiling things.”

“That’s hardly a flattering image of me,” Rafe replied drily.

Bryony smiled at him fondly. “You’re a dear, Rafe, but you’ve hardly known women. You have no idea how manipulative we can be. We’re juggling several intrigues at any one time, and planning for many more. And as for not doing what dear Isabella wants, you’re here, aren’t you? Traveling on her train, outfitted by her people, guarded by her daggers. She’s got the coin, and she’s got the weapons. She scouts, she watches. I’m lucky I get to be the camp cook, and then she’s hovering over me to make sure I’m not poisoning the stew.”

“I wanted to be here,” Rafe pointed out.

“Like this? Without Oakhaven’s support? Without a military unit for backup? Indebted to someone else?” Bryony leaned toward him, eyes dark and intense. “Who framed you, Rafe? Who wanted you powerless or dead or just out of the way?”

“I don’t know. I will find out, but this comes first. This is important.”

Bryony let out her breath on a sigh. It misted in the chilly air. “Duty and country first with you, as always. I’m glad I’m here to watch your back, Rafe. And to side with you against whatever schemes Isabella has in mind.”

“Side with me? What happened to independence of thought?” teased Rafe.

“Provided, of course, that you think in a rational, Bryony-approved manner,” she amended. Then, “Oh, look, is that the Flying Horse?”

They pointed out constellations to each other for several moments. Bryony knew only a couple on sight; Rafe, who could name most of the brighter stars, did most of the talking.

“I can’t believe I’ve never asked you to take me out here before. It’s so calm and peaceful, after all the noise and demands of the city. I can almost say that Karzov fellow did me a favor when he had me kidnapped.” Bryony’s tone was light but Rafe felt a tremor go through her body. He squeezed her hand. Then he reached to his belt and removed the holster with the handgun he’d appropriated from the Rocquespur train.

“Here.”

“What’s this?” Bryony raised her eyebrows.

Rafe pressed the handgun into her hand. “I don’t want you to be defenseless. You’re can’t win in unarmed combat with a man and you can’t fight against numbers, but this might equalize things a little. Next time.”

“You think there will be a next time?”

He wouldn’t lie to her. “Probably.”

Bryony pulled out the gun. Steel glinted in her eyes. “Then show me how this works.”

When he had finished her tutorial, they lay back to watch the stars. Neither wanted to return to the shelter just yet.

The Barrens would never be beautiful the way the agri-caves were, but there was something striking about the agelessness of rock and stars. The way the silences stretched out like vast coverlets, measured in miles. The quiet fall of snowflakes, the way they dissolved into the warm ground. The silhouettes of the hills, the rise and fall of the land, like a frozen sea, with its star-spangled shroud thrown overhead. The constellations rotated in slow grand turns, cycle after endless cycle, the mountains seemed changeless. It was like a picture—or a map…

“That’s it.” Rafe sat up. He grabbed the drawstring bag.

“What is?” asked Bryony.

The Keys tumbled out into his hand, spilled onto rock. “These are part of a puzzle, only not the kind I thought it was. I’ve been trying to put them together in a sequence, hoping to line them up right, so they’ll show us the way to the Tower. Only they’re not a sequence, but part of a map.” The Keys buzzed against his fingers, a slight sound. The friendly touch reassured him.

He arranged the Keys once more, this time as symbols for the agri-caves they represented. If Shimmer was over here, then the Oakhaven agri-caves were over there. The Keys thrummed as he moved them around and the knot of ka inside them changed, subtly. One color burned brighter than the rest—orange.

Holding his breath, Rafe teased out the orange in each Key, and fed it into the patterns on their surfaces. The patterns shifted and changed, projecting speckled light into the air above the Keys. Slivers of sky. Constellations. Star maps.

They weren’t in the right order, though. Rafe muttered to himself as he moved the Keys around, “No, the Knife is never next to the Horn. Oh, Sarana goes here, between Dirgo and the Horse.” As he placed the pieces in a circle, the Keys hummed happily. Metal prongs slid from their sides, attaching Key to Key.

Rafe examined the shapes on the Keys themselves. They resolved into silhouettes of mountains, at least one of which was distinctive shape. “Bubble Mountain,” he breathed. “I’ve been there.”

“So, all we have to do is traipse along in its vicinity and hope to stumble across the Tower?” said Bryony, leaning in, peering over his shoulder.

“No.” Rafe turned the ring around so that it mirrored the night sky above, miniature Sarana blinking right under the gaze of the real one. He grinned. “Look.” Numbers appeared at the bottom of each Key. “Coordinates.”

“You can read them.” Isabella spoke from behind them. Bryony started, put a hand on Rafe’s shoulder.

Rafe craned his neck and spoke over his shoulder. “Yes.”

“How far from here?” asked Isabella.

“Not long. A day or two at most. Look, you can see Bubble from here. We just need to move counterwards from here, to put all these landforms in their right spots.”

“And when all the mountains are in the right position…” said Bryony, eyes widening.

Rafe grinned. “…then we’re standing right on top of the Tower of Light.”

“We’ll get moving by Seed tomorrow,” said Isabella. She shifted her gaze to Bryony. “You can stay at the shelter if you’d like.”

“No, I wouldn’t like, actually. I’m coming with you.” Bryony smiled sweetly, but her eyes held no mirth.

Isabella shrugged. “As you wish. Your feet are going to hurt like a nestful of angry bees tomorrow, but it’s your business. Remember, if you can’t keep up, you stay where you are.”

“No one’s being left behind,” interjected Rafe. “We’re in this together, right? Traipsing about in the Barrens alone is a bad idea. We stick together.”

“Speak for yourself.” And Isabella melted back into darkness.

Bryony rolled her eyes. She didn’t have to say that Isabella would do exactly as she said.

Episode Eighty

Chapter Twenty Nine, Part Three

Shimmer

“Fine, I’ll play nicely. Here, catch.” Isabella threw her rifle towards the soldier, who flinched back.

Rafe, cowering behind Isabella like a suitably wretched prisoner, dove into the tent.

And hit a wall.

Ka exploded into his vision, a whirlwind of white with separate strands of color writhing within it. They twisted away from him when he reached out to them, and the currents of white buffeted him from all sides, holding him immobile between them. The pressure was gone from inside his head and chest; now it pressed in on all sides of his body, threatening his skin and bones with sure and total collapse.

Rafe gritted his teeth, made mental hooks, and threw them out like fishing lines to snag the colors. Green, yellow and orange wriggled on the hooks, and tried to squirm free. There was no time to figure out what did what, so Rafe grabbed the whole mess and tore it apart.

The ring of light cracked apart, ka escaping from it in hot waves that singed past Rafe’s eyebrows. Squinting in the sudden dark, Rafe started forward to the device at the center of the ring, his first clenched. A concoction of wire and quartz chips, delicate ka tendrils laced all over it, stood on a tripod of thick sturdy legs.

He didn’t know how it did what it did, but he could destroy it with both his fist and his mind. Rafe swung back his arm.

“Rafe—don’t!”

Rafe whirled and stared right into Bryony’s huge dark eyes and pale face. A blush of a bruise touched her cheekbone, her hair was sliding out of its hairnet and she stood very still in dressing gown and bare feet.

Karzov held a gun to her temple. “Sorry, dear chap. Pretty as your sister is, the device is far more important to the Protector. Step away from there.”

Rafe let his hand drop. “Bryony. I thought…” He’d assumed Wil and Leo and Roland had her taken away. He’d never dreamed Blackstone would’ve had her.

“They came for me in the night,” said Bryony through stiff lips. She darted a sidelong glance at Karzov. “They’ve treated me well, considering. They’re more interested in you, though. I’m the hostage to ensure your cooperation.”

He’d done it again. He’d been the cause of Bryony’s delegitimization, and now her kidnapping. Bryony, I’m sorry.

Karzov wagged a finger at Rafe. “Boy. You’re unpredictable. You show up at the darndest times. I needed leverage. And here you are, and wasn’t I right?” Karzov beamed like a boy at a successful prank. “Now where is your minder? I heard her outside, along with some thumps. It would be too much to hope that for once she’d have lost.”

A twitch of shadow pinched at Rafe’s attention. He stepped straight into Isabella’s blow. “Isabella, don’t! She’s my sis—” He caught the iron bar on his thigh. His leg buckled.

Isabella wordlessly pushed him to the side, and went for the device again.

“Ah-ah!” Karzov raised his index finger.

Cold seeped into the tent, musty-smelling, old, malevolent. Krin prowled the perimeter. Pain flared up Rafe’s leg, multiplied tenfold. Cold arms lowered him into the dirt, cold voices whispered to him of dark, of sleep, of rest…

“May your soul be devoured, Karzov!” Isabella threw herself beside Rafe, pale and fierce.

“You can’t imagine how many times I’ve heard that, my dear. It does get old,” Karzov murmured from what seemed like a long way away. Rafe’s eyelids fluttered. Sleep, yes it would be so good, if only Isabella would stop shaking him.

“Do go away, Izzy,” he muttered. Peace snaked down his veins in a sinuous inky rain, pooled into his muscles and organs.

Isabella hissed out her frustration. Methodically, clinically, she tugged up at Rafe’s head and pinched his nose so that his mouth dropped open. Then she bent forward and put her mouth over his in a hard passionless kiss.

Prickles ran all over his skin. The peace within him shriveled and shrank back, and so did he, knocking his head against a rock. Isabella put her hand to the back of his head and shoved him close. She was silver and shining and sharp, and smelled of wine, minty chocolate and the mustiness of caves. The blackness curled up smaller and evaporated, ripped out of his body.

Isabella let his head go abruptly, and Rafe’s skull struck rock again. “Ow!” The fog in his brain vanished. His mind, with newfound clarity, informed him that he’d almost succumbed to an insidious krin assault.

Isabella rocked back on her heels, mouth twisted, as if she’d tasted bile.

His breath wasn’t that bad, was it?

“Interesting.” Karzov stood closer to Bryony, twisting her arm behind her back, her shoulder dipped awkwardly. “I’ve never seen that trick before. Why bother, though, Isabella? He’s just a lap dog. You can find other lovers.”

“Rafe?” Bryony’s voice and body exquisitely balanced competing strains—fear against cool, the pressure of Karzov’s hand pulling her close against her own desire to be free from him. She was almost on tiptoes. “Are you all right? Did that monster hurt you?”

Rafe clambered up to his knees. Ka swirled around him in great streams, spiraling into the device from Shimmer’s untainted quartz. Ka like ropes of color, easily grasped.

He could use this.

Yellow swirled around him, and Rafe remembered the pastry sentry on Midaros’ confectionary castle. Yellow for movement, perhaps? He grabbed the yellow, knotted it into a loop, and sent it over the device. He hauled on the rope, and the device flew, plucked out of its stand, and into his hands.

Rafe looked up and smiled at Karzov. “Here,” he said. “Catch.” And he threw.

Karzov moved to intercept the device, pushing Bryony away.

“Back away, everyone!” Rafe crawled toward the back of the tent, and Bryony stumbled over to him. Isabella rolled out of the way and ended up half-knelt, half-crouched, teeth slightly bared.

Vibrant green ka bound the rest of the energy to the device. Rafe tore at that green rope, shredded it to pieces. The other colors, red, orange, and yellow being the most dominant, surged out.

The device shattered in a blaze of light.

It took out the tent-pole, at least, and possibly a chunk of the ground, and hopefully Karzov’s face. Canvas fell around them, muffling the cries of alarm from outside.

“Go! Out!” Isabella lifted up canvas and all three squeezed outside. Ka billowed around Rafe in scarves, and he knotted one around his hand and lobbed it in the direction of a digger. The machine exploded in a spray of metal parts. He snatched at another billow, this time hurling it into the middle of the camp. Screams and booms intermingled behind them as they ran under the smoke for the pass. One last updrift of ka took out the gate and sentry tower there.

Good. That was for Ironheart, and Oakhaven, and those soldiers who’d died in the last war, and Pyotr dead of krin in the dark, and…

Bryony looked at Rafe in pale horror. “Are you doing that?”

And he was instantly ashamed of his delight in the destruction.

“Come on!” called Isabella from the top of the debris. “You can moralize later. Let’s get out of here.”

Episode Seventy Nine

Chapter Twenty Nine, Part Two

Shimmer

In the end, they had the Shimmerites to thank for distracting the invaders. Despite being denied access to the greatest amount of their ka, the rohkayan mounted a defense at the lacy trees whose graceful tresses had flirted with Rafe on their way to the party.

When a team of Blackstone raiders entered that same grove, the trees went into a frenzy, branches grabbing, tearing, shoving, wrapping. Several soldiers got off a few shots—shots that chipped off bits of bark, or ricocheted, but didn’t have any other effect on the trees. Vines wound around the neck of one man and jerked; the snap was audible and ugly and the man went all floppy. The others, panicked, tried to run, but the vegetation caught and tripped them up and the plants gathered in closer around them, blocking them from view.

One of the soldiers, eyes dark with terror, looked straight at Rafe as a branch snaked around his waist. Then the grove swallowed him up.

His gun had fallen and his uniform pants, Rafe noted, had been far too short for him.

Then the screaming came, which died to gurgles, and then to nothing.

Incongruously, a bird started to sing.

“They were just gun fodder,” Rafe said finally, when they’d left the grove behind. “They weren’t trained soldiers. Didn’t know how to run, how to use a gun, how to form  a coordinated defense. Just fodder.”

“Fodder sent in first for Shimmer to spend her strength on,” said Isabella, and though her voice was even, Rafe knew she was not without sympathy for the drones who’d been stuck into uniform and handed guns and sent out to get killed.

Shimmer struck back in other ways. Fountains sprayed acid, swarms of deadly insects targeted soldiers, statuary came alive and attacked with limbs and weapons of stone, forming a kind of defensive circle around Mirados’ neighborhood.

Only once did they run into a soldier, a drone hunkered down in the bushes, trembling and wide-eyed. He started up at their feet like a bird, arms flying up as if he’d take to the sky. Isabella was upon him before he had a chance to flee. She didn’t need any help taking him down, which was just as well because Rafe, shivering and feeling his skull about to explode, couldn’t offer any. The pressure of blocked ka was almost as bad as the searing intensity of the wild ka that caused his quartz sickness. A swift chop at the back of the neck felled the soldier like a stoned ox.

“Hmm.” Isabella looked from the unconscious man to Rafe and back again. “Somehow, I don’t think you’re up to a strong assault on the Blackstone camp.”

“D-decidedly not,” Rafe stammered out.

‘Then we’ll do this the easy way, right through the front door.” Isabella doffed the soldier’s fallen cap. “I think these will fit me just fine. Turn around—no, don’t move. I will.”

She divested the man of his uniform with such ease one might’ve suspected corpse-looting was a regular hobby of hers. She grumbled about the fit of the tunic, but when she stepped out in front of Rafe, she looked crisper and more military than the original wearer ever had.

Rafe managed a sickly smile. “Can’t believe… it. You can starch… things… just by touching them.”

“Very funny.” Isabella hauled him up. “On your feet, you worthless Shimmer rohkayan. I had to punch you in the stomach a few times—yes, curl up like that—but you still wouldn’t tell me how to take out those scorched statues. I’m taking you back to Karzov to see if some correctly-applied pressure”—she grinned evilly—“will loosen your tongue.”

“Wonderful,” muttered Rafe, “except Blackstone doesn’t have women in their army.”

“I’m not army, I’m Special Forces,” said Isabella, loftily. “A member of the Secret Fist. Bet you never heard we had women among our ranks, did you?” She wagged a finger at him. “See? That’s how good we are. Come on.” She pushed him forward by the shoulder. “In front of me, so I can see you at all times. Oh yes.” She paused and bound his hands behind his back with her belt. Loose, so he could wriggle out easily, but it would cost him precious moments.

That was the best plan they had, but with the force of Isabella’s personality behind them, they might actually get into that camp and pull it off.

The pressure in Rafe’s chest built up, and so did the corresponding one in his skull. They finally spotted the Blackstone camp, pitched right in front of the pass they had entered through as Ashby Oldmill and Lady Maerilla on their way to Mirados’ party. The lush grassy surface had been churned to mud by wide tires and marching feet. Tents and boxes and trolleys jostled for elbow room. Soldiers lounged, cursed, wandered, went to and fro on mysterious errands. Several were at work digging a trench, others wrestled bamboo palisades into place, still more uncoiled barbed wire.

Isabella swaggered up to the gap where the gates should’ve been as if she owned the place, and crooked her finger at the sentry. “You! Come on out and be quick about it. My business won’t wait.”

The sentry gawked at her. By the lack of markings on his uniform, he was a private. Rafe raised his head for a quick look around for Undercommanders and Overcaptains. Isabella promptly put a hand on the back of his head and drove him down to his hands and knees. The muzzle of her rifle was cold under his ear. She planted a boot (stuffed with pieces of her party dress to fit) on his back.

“Who are you?” began the sentry.

“ ‘Firelight washes her face with gold’,” snapped out Isabella.

The sentry stared, befuddled.

“ ‘Firelight washes her—By the Father! Aren’t you cleared for the simplest passcode? What fool put you on duty?” Isabella removed her foot from Rafe’s back, and he resisted the urge to bite her ankle.

She was doing such an astoundingly good job in this role that even he was hard-pressed to believe it was only a pretence.

“Stand aside. I have a prisoner to deliver to Karzov.” Isabella kicked Rafe in the side, hard enough to hurt. Rafe took full advantage of the situation to mewl his unhappiness. It didn’t take away the pressure, but he felt just a bit better whining his misery to the world. “Up, you.” She grabbed his bound wrists and dragged him up. “Go on.” Isabella pushed him onto the iron sheeting that formed a plank across the hurriedly-dug trench.

“B-but,” began the sentry. “Captain-Captain Veruch…”

Isabella flashed him a steely smile. “Take it up with the Shadow, soldier. Want to come along with me? We’ll deliver this man together.”

The sentry turned a brief look of horror at one of the makeshift buildings of canvas and bamboo poles towards the back of the camp.

“No?” Isabella gave a derisive snort. “Hey, don’t even think about it!” she directed at Rafe, who hadn’t been. She jerked his head up by the hair, and whispered, “Lead me to where you think that device is, but for Sel’s sake, don’t make it look obvious!”

As they went past the sentry, Isabella turned her head to stare at the man, who paled and looked at his feet. Isabella flung a laugh over her shoulder and urged Rafe on with her rifle.

The pressure mounted, and Rafe wondered how it would feel if his head exploded like an overripe fruit and if that happenstance would be preferable to his current miserable state. Goaded by Isabella, he shuffled with all speed towards the tent the sentry had nodded towards.

Another soldier, older and tougher, stepped in front of them. Isabella brushed past him and he didn’t quite dare catch her arm. “The Shadow is not here, and the tent is off-limits to everyone.”

“I’m not everyone.” Isabella turned, put herself between Rafe and the soldier. Over the guard’s shoulder, Rafe saw movement on the far side of the camp. Mud-brown-suited figures melted to the side as a man in crisp dark-red strode towards them. A Commander, by the uniform, someone used to wielding authority and not easily swayed by Isabella’s imperious manner.

Episode Seventy Eight

Chapter Twenty Nine, Part One

Shimmer

Rafe lay pressed against the warm ground, short grass-hairs prickling his skin, and watched the battered tanks—ludicrous amidst the elegant statuary, manicured topiary and dimpled fountains—lumber through where the throbbing opalescent shield-dome of Shimmer had once been.

“Blackstone tanks,” he said flatly. “Completely manned, and look to have been cobbled together from parts.”

“Those tanks are war machines and those soldiers know how to make war,” said Isabella grimly, from beside him. “Look at them now.” One of the tanks stopped, disgorged soldiers with firearms into the greenery. Others kept going, bulldozing right over trellises with trailing vines. A panicked deer bolted from beneath the trees, leapt high. A soldier pointed his gun, a sharp retort sounded, and the animal twisted and fell awkwardly. It staggered up on weak legs, tried to move on, but fell, thrashing until another bullet put it out of its misery.

“They’ve found some way to disrupt the ka,” said Rafe. “The ka failed back at the door to Mirados’ private collection. I felt it. We shouldn’t have been able to enter as easily as we did. The ka’s blocked. I still feel it, deep underground, somewhere. But it’s far away and can’t get to us.”

“How could they do that?”

“Pyotr,” said Rafe slowly, “said that they were appropriating mage-made artifacts. Remember that convoy we took shelter in under the Protectorate? It was full of old stuff. They must’ve found something they could use for this.”

Isabella shook her head. “Ka is the lifeblood of Shimmer. Without ka, Shimmer falls. Everything in Shimmer falls.”

Rafe understood. “Their lamps.” He stared up at the sky, but the many-hued light of Shimmer was soft and diffuse, like a high fog, and he couldn’t make out the source.

“Those will come crashing down soon enough.”

“Then the Blackstonians need a quick victory, before all of the infrastructure of Shimmer collapses. They can’t want another battered useless state on their hands.”

“Who knows what Blackstone wants with Karzov at the helm,” Isabella said, with an edge. “Once, I’d have said that the thrill of hunting krin was the only thing that mattered to Karzov.”

“You think Karzov’s here?”

“I think it’s likely. He’s the Shadow. But if he is, that means Shimmer’s doing us a favor by keeping him busy so we can find the Tower of Light.”

“He’ll have sent his minions to the Barrens.”

“Minions I can deal with.”

“Wait.” Rafe grabbed Isabella’s arm as she started to wriggle down the slope. “If Karzov has something that blocks ka, how long before he gets to Oakhaven with it? All our defenses are coordinated by the Machine. It runs on ka. Our agri-caves were set up by the kayan, too. If ka’s the lifeblood of Shimmer, that’s true for Oakhaven as well.”

Isabella stared at him. “You want to go charging in and confront Karzov?”

“Sel, no! I’m not stupid. I want to sneak in, find out how he’s doing it, and disable it, if I can.”

Isabella nodded. “All right. Do you have any idea where in or out of Shimmer this device may be?”

Rafe hesitated. “I… think so. I can feel the blockage, like pressure against my chest. The thing causing all this should be at the center of it.”

“So your plan is to belly-crawl and/or fight through the battlefield below, while the pressure gets even worse, and hope we can stop the thing before you have a heart attack.”

“Erm… something like that.”

She gave him a sidelong glance. “Just making sure I understood where things stand. After you, sir.”

She didn’t do a half-bad job of a lying-down-on-your-belly-in-enemy-territory Oakhaven military salute.

Episode Seventy Seven

Chapter Twenty Eight, Part Three

Shimmer

They only gave you the medal because of what you were born. The voice was sneering, slightly like his uncle’s. Others deserved it more than you, but their last names were not Grenfeld. The old guilt rose again.

This is just a trick of the krin, he told himself. Just a trick. But his mind was not master of his body; his heart sped, shame dragged at his ankles like a leaden chain.

Remember Shorty and Ember? Remember how they ran in to face the enemy fire…

Shots cracked in his ears. Once again Rafe saw the trundling trucks of the convoy, the tiny figures of his men as they slid down the rocks in a mad ambush. The flash of grenade, the heated exchange of fire. Then, the light cleared and in its ebbing tide, the two bodies…

He was the officer, the leader. He could not expend his life thus.

I volunteer. Shorty squinted up, looking earnest and young and nearsighted. I will go.

Me, too, sir. Ember stepped forward. Neither of the two was anything to look at, but even the famed Ambersius statue did not look nobler than these two did at that moment. I volunteer.

While I hide, Rafe thought, then stumbled, confused. Or hid. Didn’t it already happen? Ember and Shorty stared at him, and then the convoy swept in again, rock-crushing grind, engine-whine. Shots, light flash, crackle.

The dead bodies.

The bodies.

There, just ahead, Shorty and Ember. Must get them out, must get them back. Something fell from his hand as he started forward.

Something grabbed him from behind. He backhanded without thinking, heard the smack of flesh on flesh.

Wait. Someone from behind. He had other men. An officer didn’t hit his men without cause. He turned.

Isabella held the back of his coat with one hand, the torch in the other. She stared at him, then let go. “I see you have returned.”

Rafe looked around, confused. “I thought I was…” He shook his head.

“Yes.”

“I… how can they do that?” He looked into the dark, as if expecting something to materialize. ‘How can they get into my memories like that and twist them? I knew what was happening, but I couldn’t… my body, my ears, my eyes…” His breath came out in short gasps, his shirt stuck to his chest, his every muscle was tensed and ready to spring. He put a hand to his belt, almost able to feel the phantom saber at his side, the pistol in its holster on his other hip.

“The torch.” Rafe fell to his knees, feeling in the dirt. “I threw it away, didn’t I? Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“They can make people think that they died, and then they do. Death by thought.” Isabella stood close to him, torch held up high. It did nothing to aid his search. “Let it be. We have to keep moving.”

“No, no. Here it is. I found it.” Rafe brushed the torch against his thighs, relit it with his lighter. His hand shook so much that it took him far longer than it should’ve.

Isabella waited, silent, patient, until he was done. She offered her hand, he took it. One strong heave and Rafe was up on his suddenly-wobbly legs. It was the crash, of course, the after-battle weakness, left behind by the retreating tide of adrenalin.

Before they went on, Rafe touched Isabella’s cheek. “Sorry,” he said, hand dropping back to his side.

“If that’s the worst thing that comes out of this, then we’re doing all right,” she said. “Come.”

They took two steps forward.

A shrieking wind came down to meet them, punching Rafe in the stomach, filling his ears with cacophony. He doubled over, stomach screaming agony, ears crying in pain.

“Keep going!” shouted Isabella. “It’s all in your head!” She pulled at him.

Rafe stumbled on, feeling as if the sledgehammer wind had cracked his skull open, and his thoughts and memories gushed out in a hot black torrent. He grabbed at his head, trying to hold everything in, but memory welled through his fingers, dripped down his wrists.

“They’re taking…” he whispered, trying to make Isabella understand. This was more than just pain, it was himself that was leaking out of him, Rafe running down Rafe’s arms, Rafe dripping into the thirsty hidden dirt underfoot…

Whispers in the dark. Croons. Rest, lay down your head. Sleep, go softly.

Something burrowed in his thoughts, scooped out his memories, made a space for itself. He could no longer distinguish its voice from his own.

You’ve failed.

Failed to find the Tower. Failed to protect your sister, the prince, your country.

Failed.

The litany of his failures fell on him like stones, crushing.

Yes, he would lay down. Let his flesh melt from his bones. He’d failed and there was nothing he could do except not be a waste of space.

“Fight it.” Isabella whirled around to face him. Her white-blond hair was slipping out of her chignon, it swirled around her face like banners, framing a face as pale as marble with eyes like black holes.

She looked so much like a vengeful goddess—Selene come down to chastise him for his irreligious ways—that Rafe shrank back.

“Do you trust me?” asked Isabella, not moving, not touching him. The fire from her torch twined and twisted, crackling, unholy, imbued with mischief. A small fire, a seedling fire, but with lust and passion in its orange heart. It lunged, it danced, it writhed in desire, wanting to eat, consume, burn, take over, destroy.

Fire, calling out to its draconic brethren.

“Put it out,” murmured Rafe. His own torch was out, its weak flame suffocated by his own hand. “It’s going to kill us all.”

“This?” Isabella held it aloft, looked at it thoughtfully. “Yes, it can kill, of course. But it can also give life. You know that. Where would we be without light and heat?” She held it out to him.

Rafe and something-that-was-not-quite-Rafe stepped back from it.

“Take it,” said Isabella. “Take it. Put it out if you want. It’s your choice.” She held her arm steady, and he remembered her holding the platter of appetizers under his nose.

Would you like some stuffed mushrooms, sir?

His choice. Rafe took the torch, held it stiffly away from him. Shadows retreated from his mind, and he saw Isabella again, not as clearly as before, but diminished, just a woman with a collapsing hairdo and dark eyes.

Rafe looked at the fire, and felt them all around them, breathing cold thoughts into him.

He didn’t think this meager fire would keep them away for much longer.

“Sing,” he said, voice cracking a little.

She gave him a dark, unfathomable look. “What do you wish me to sing?”

“Something that sounds like drums.” His smile felt like a bow pinned onto a corpse. He shrugged off his coat, passing the torch from hand to hand. It pooled at his feet; he kicked it out of the way. Then he took out his lighter and liberally sprinkled most of its fluid on the flame. It rose with a hungry crackle.

Head down, torch held low, Rafe stood and waited.

After a moment, Isabella started to hum, a soft dark sound that spun like thread between them. Rafe closed his eyes and listened to the spaces in the music, spaces like the big deep booms of a drum.

He began to dance.

His feet moved first, slow, in small steps, remembering the dignified dances of the ballroom. The torch he held steady, looking into its depths.

Isabella, still humming, moved forward, and Rafe followed, as if the pair of them were tied together, held by the song.

And then she was humming no longer, but singing. Her voice was not a soaring voice, reaching to the heavens, but one that swept down to the depths, into ravines and canyons, searching out the many-hued shades of darkness.

Darkness that could only be searched out by light.

Rafe swept the torch in an arc around him. Sparks showered and scattered like tiny seeds of hope. He brought his heel down hard, took another step, bent, whirled, twisted, moved on again. One moment he held the torch close like a lover, the next he thrust it upraised as if in victory.

And he thought of the fire, he looked into the flames, let the glare sear his eyes, burn itself into the inside of his skull. Fire, dangerous, seductive, vital, necessary.

Taking life, giving life.

Saving his life.

Clapping, loud, rhythmic. He obeyed, following the beat, feet stamping and pounding in time. The clapping came faster and faster. Rafe stepped, stomped, ground small stones underfoot, thinking about nothing but that fire, that light and heat. Sweat soaked his shirt; he ripped off the collar, tore apart the fastenings with one hand. Juggle that torch, arcing high in the air, slide off that shirt.

See. Easy.

The thing that had moved into him hissed and scuttled back. He felt the darkness ripple as if several creatures flinched.

Love the fire. Stare into its jeweled heart. Let it warm arms, hands, face, like a lover’s caress.

A tongue of flame licked his skin. Heat and pain shot red-hot sparks up his arm.

Careful. This is fire—a terrible beauty.

On and on, forever, drawn forward by something that was outside both him and that fire. Something dark and cool, like a rope of silver and shadow, something not seen, but present at the edge of consciousness, an anchor, keeping him and the fire grounded, safe, protected in their own ecstasy.

And then suddenly, it was gone.

He stumbled. No rhythm. No song. No counterweight.

Light slanted down from a gap in a rock fall just ahead. The fire in his hand was no longer bright and roaring, but small, diminished, bleached. He was without coat and shirt, naked-chested, sweaty.

His feet hurt.

“Rafe?”

Was that his name? Memories crept back from where the fire had banished them. He knew that voice.

He put his hands around the flame, depriving it of air. It sputtered, gasped, died.

“I’m sorry,” Rafe said, feeling strangely wretched. Then he scrambled up the rocks, to meet Isabella, who peered down at him from the hole.

“Don’t celebrate just yet,” she said, grimly. “Shimmer’s under attack.”