Chapter Thirty One, Part Two
The moments stretched out. Rafe took a painful breath, counted to ten, let it out again. And again. And again.
Isabella watched him. He felt her watching him, even though his eyes were closed against the pitiless glare of the Tower. She’d gotten up, gone into the tunnel, brought their packs and the dark dagger she’d thrown at Bryony. Now, she sat, waiting. For him.
Finally, he said, in a cracked voice. “She did me a favor. Without that magebane, I wouldn’t have made it this far into here.”
“Yes.” There was uncertainty there, and wariness. Did she think he was going to shatter?
He shifted. He was not made of porcelain. Yes, he’d been fooled and he’d been lied to, and no doubt he was just as stupid as Bry—others believed him to be.
But he’d rise from this again. He’d salvage this. The thought of Karzov getting both ka and krin made his skin crawl.
“The Keys.” Sel, it hurt to talk and his thoughts far outstripped his crawling speech. “The pedestals. Perimeter. Get them in. Maybe they’ll activate something.”
“Or bring the ceiling down on her heads and bury us alive,” said Isabella wryly, but she took the blood-soaked bag from him anyway. “It’s preferable to death by Karzov, anyway. Tell me what to do.”
Quartz ran in veins in the floor, covered over by a thin layer of dirt and vegetation. They formed a pattern, with the Keys themselves as the final pieces, the whole thing designed to plug into the ka in the Tower of Light. Ka crawled through the pattern, sluggish and dirty, and they weren’t color-coded to the quartz like he’d thought at first. Bluish ka, for instance, oozed through smoky-gray quartz, and the quartz for orange and yellow were so close in shades, it was hard to tell which pedestal belonged with which kind of ka. Rafe struggled to match Key to pedestal, using his myopic ka-sight. Isabella muttered and blew dust and pulled out choking weeds and leaned hard to wedge in the Keys, but finally they were all in place.
Rafe let his head fall back. “I don’t know. There’s ka in the pattern but it doesn’t look like its nearly enough. Some kind of switch? You wouldn’t want it to work without all six in place, I think.” He dragged himself back to the ka patterns he could barely see, peering at them like a rheumy-eyed old man. “I see it. Over to the center, between the rose and gray quartz pedestals.”
Isabella clawed away some weeds. “Found it!”
“Go, then.” Rafe whispered.
She threw the switch—and ka, wild and wonderful ka, untamed like waves, unfettered like a child on Girdlesday, burst into the pattern, scoring and scorching its way through the quartz. It fountained up the pedestals and surged into the Keys.
Rafe had barely time to withdraw his senses into a tight fetal curl when the overloaded Keys burst into shards and grit. Isabella threw herself beside Rafe and they huddled until the last of the Keys shattered into tinkles that slid softly onto the floor.
Finally, Rafe said, softly. “It didn’t work. And… Isabella? I-I’m bleeding again.”
Isabella hissed as she peeled away the soaked bandage and examined his side.
“That bad, huh?” asked Rafe, watching her face.
“I may be a horrible kayan assistant, but this I can do something about,” said Isabella briskly. “I need you to stay alive. You’re kayan. You can think of another way to get that perimeter up.”
Rafe leaned his head back. Finally, he said. “That ka. It’s tainted and it’s too much. We need to control how much gets into the defensive pattern and purify it if we can.”
“And we’ll do this how?” she prompted.
“Back at Uncle Leo’s house and in Ironheart, your light dagger pulled in ka and purified it somehow. It took away the taint and made it usable.” He looked questioningly at her.
Isabella shrugged. “I can’t see that, so I’ll take your word for it. Yes, the light dagger uses ka. That’s how I can do some small magics and attract krin. So, then?”
“I’ll feed the ka into the dagger slowly. I don’t want to risk overloading it. Then, once the ka is clean, I’ll put it into the pattern.” Rafe grit his teeth against the pain in his side. “We’ll have to do it now. Quickly, before this gets worse.”
“Wrong.” Isabella crouched next to him, slanted him a somber look that he could not quite read. “You’ll die before you can do that. I can help. Kayan aren’t the only ones with mysterious powers.” Her mouth quirked.
Rafe gave a slight downward jerk of his head. He was too drained to be curious; it kept all that he had to stay conscious, to keep up the wall against howling desolation and despairing surrender.
Bryony had betrayed him. Blackstone was at the gates.
Isabella pulled his pack over and rummaged in it, coming up with extra clothes, a lighter and a knife. She eased his bandages off, ripped the fabric of his shirt, laid bare the wounds. He couldn’t look down, so he looked at her, frowning, serious, her fingers fluttering in an uncertain dance around him.
She looked like she’d never done this before, and he had not the heart to ask her if it was true.
“Here.” Isabella squared her shoulders and handed him a roll made from his own torn-up clothes. “Bite down on this. I need to get the bullet out.” Tendrils of hair slipped down to touch her face, and she pushed them back absently, gaze lowered to his wound. Her eyelids were pale moons, slightly bruised, her lashes lay in dark fans. This was, Rafe realized, the best light he’d ever seen her in.
Isabella clicked the lighter and held the knife blade in the flame. “I wish I could get you roaring drunk.”
“Me, too.” Rafe slid the roll into his mouth. It tasted dry and musty.
“Ready.” It wasn’t a question. Before he could think, mentally adjust or somehow prepare himself, she had pushed the knife-blade into his side. Rafe clamped down hard with his teeth as the pain rolled over him, washing him away.
Let go, be loose, be water… That was hard to do with the poking and probing that went on for an eternity and a half, before finally Isabella said, “Got it!”
He sagged with the relief, but there was more pain waiting on the horizon, an ominous smudge like a towering wave coming from far away. There was nothing to do but face it…
…then Isabella was there, somehow both beside him and inside him. Her fingers moved upon his skin in light taps, while at the same time she walked up to his mental self and gently, inexorably pushed him away. Go home, go back.
And there was no sea and no wave. Rafe blinked in the bright light of the cavern. Warmth flowed into and from his side, a healing warmth that knitted together skin and tissue and arteries. It was a silver warmth, tinged with shadow, edged ever so finely with obsidian black. Snatches of emotion and flashes of images came with it. Sharp sorrow… cold loneliness… knees aching on a hard stone floor… prickles on flesh in bitter cold… a man covered in golden glow… a voice as glad as a trumpet’s… another that was thin and steely, a voice that knew its duty… terror and tunnels…
… a scritch scritch in the dark… something oily and terrible coiled in his stomach like a sleeping snake…
He jerked back from this flood of information, breaking contact with Isabella, cracking his head against the quartz hard enough to shock himself back into wakefulness. “Ouch!”