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 Seven

Chapter Thirty Two, Part Two

That Barrens

Rafe did. He thought for about three days, days in which Coop met with him briefly and Isabella not at all.

Finally, he set off to find her, using her kyra and the ka given off by her light dagger as guides.

Unfortunately, such a mental map didn’t take into account such things as walls, stairs, cook pots, boots, small machinery and the other miscellany of an outpost under construction. After banging his shins into several wheelbarrows and apologizing to a tent pole, Rafe found a metal rod which he poked ahead of him for obstacles. A helpful sentry guided him to the gate by voice. Rafe was grateful no one took him by the hand to lead him about. His booted feet thudded on the short span of bridge—he tried not to think of the barbed wire or the depth of the trench below.

Once clear of the camp, he creep-crawled up the last of the slope, rock crumbling underfoot. He felt Isabella’s regard, but she didn’t rush to help him, and he was grateful for that.

Besides, he felt her slight tension when he veered off course and was able to use the subtle emotions she radiated to get up to the top where she crouched.

She was also displeased that he could read her that easily.

“I want you,” said Rafe, as he dropped to his heels beside her and stared sightlessly out into the distance, “to teach me how to use kyra.”

She waited.

“You said everyone has it. That it helps enhance senses, keeps balance, be aware of where your body is in relation to every thing else.” Rafe gripped his metal rod tightly. “I need that, Isabella, or else I’m just useless.”

“Teaching you,” said Isabella, slowly, “will be hard. On both of us.”

“Then you need to master this as well as I do, don’t you?” he countered.

“Yes. This transfer of kyra has opened a—leak. A conduit that wasn’t there before.” He caught a hint of turmoil in her, a glimpse of storm-tossed worry, before she blocked it. “The krin can exploit that.” He heard the whisper of her hair as she shook her head, the slight displacement of air as she breathed. Compared to everyone else, she was so quiet and still, so restful. Her presence was as soothing as it was suffocating. Their affinity was caused by no real feelings, but by a manipulation of energies. It was all contrived.

“First lesson,” said Isabella. “Get your thoughts out of the surface. Think them deeper down in your mind.”

“You don’t like this bonding anymore than I do.”

“No, but we both have to deal with it. If you can learn to use your kyra, then perhaps I won’t have this strain on mine.”

“And perhaps, I can push yours out and back to you.”

“I’m not sure it works that way.” He couldn’t see it, but he knew the quizzical arch of her brows. “It could be worth a try, though.”

“Does this mean I won’t have to go to the Point and beg the Sisters to take me on as a novice?”

A laugh escaped Isabella. “Sel above, no! I don’t think anyone would survive the encounter. Besides, the Sisters have never taken on any men.”

“Not even other slayers?”

“No. My father thought that I would benefit from the additional training in kyra. The thinking goes”—said provokingly—“is that men do not have the flexibility of mind to use kyra.”

“Oh yes? I look forward to proving them wrong.”

“I don’t doubt it.” She was more relaxed now, warm and laughing. He had a hundred more questions, but they could wait. Now was not the time. For the first time in days, Rafe felt like almost his old self. The events from the past weeks slid from him like a coat, to be donned again later.

But for now… “Why are we up here again?”

“I’m here to watch the moon rise.”

Something he could not see. “Of course.”

They sat there, shoulder to shoulder, in companionable silence. And when the moon did come up, Isabella unbent enough to let him see it through her eyes. They watched it rise up like a full-bellied galleon, lighting up the sky, heralding a new day, bringing a new beginning.

And this concludes the Quartz serialization! I hope you enjoyed the story, and many thanks to those who supported this project. There is a sequel in the works!

Episode Eighty Six

Chapter Thirty Two, Part One

The Barrens

Rafe awoke in a dream. It was a dream of darkness, where he could see nothing and feel nothing. He was a disembodied consciousness, straining nonexistent senses.

Then the flashes came. Colors in the darkness, so bright that they hurt to look at, but he seemed to have no eyelids to close against them.

But there was something other than color in the darkness—a taste of meltwater, with something hard and mineral in it. A taste that if it were a color would be silver, edged in darkness.

“Isabella.” He didn’t know if he’d spoken until he heard her answer.

“I’m here.”

He felt dried out, like a bone, but he could not feel his tongue or lips. “What happened?”

She was long time in answering and he nearly sobbed tears he wouldn’t be able to feel. Aside from the colors, aside from her voice, nothing else in the world existed for him. Not even his own body.

“You got the pattern working. You saved it from collapsing by taking the tainted ka into yourself. It worked for a long time, six stages, before it ran out of purified ka. By that time, Ironheart forces had engaged and defeated the Blackstone army. Apparently, you’d funneled the tainted ka into the Blackstone machinery and weaponry, breaking them. But without Ironheart’s timely intervention, we’d not have survived.”

“Coop… came.”

“He did.”

After a while he said, “Where are we?”

He felt the grimace in her voice. “Away from the Tower of Light. We carried you out and took you away from it. When you stopped writhing in agony, we put you down and built a shelter over you.”

“I still see… the colors.”

“You always will, I think.” A twinge of sympathy. “I’m afraid you might never be able to go back there. Or any other big vein of quartz, Rafe. It made you hypersensitive.”

“And you?” He tried to lift his head, to turn towards her voice, but he had no idea if he did or not. “Will I always be able to feel you?”

She was thinking about how to put it. It was, he knew without question, a difficult topic for her. “When I healed you back in the cave, I used a discipline the Sisters of Selene have always practiced. It is the manipulation of an energy we call kyra. Every one has kyra, and we can use our own kyra to enhance ourselves in many ways.”

“Like incredible speed of movement and unnatural strength?” asked Rafe, with a touch of humor.

“Only for a little while. Enhanced senses. Ability to heal quickly, and go without sleep. Occasionally, we can extend kyra to heal others, but the person doing it always leaves a part of themselves behind. It’s not a comfortable feeling.”

“So the only reason I’m not howling myself into insanity in this darkness is because of this kyra you left in me?”

“Yes. I believe it saved you from being subsumed into the ka, as well. However, most of your other faculties should return, in time.” Her voice grew distant.

“Where are you going?” he called out, terrified. “You… can’t…”

“I gave you an injection. You’ll sleep for a little. Rafe, I need the space. Kyra was never meant to be shared between people. I can’t be apart from you for long but I can’t be near you always, either. Sleep, Rafe. It’ll give us both a little rest.”

And she was gone.

Alone in the darkness, he neither howled nor screamed.

He might’ve cried, but he’d never know that.

 

The next time he awoke, he could feel.

Light rough-textured blanket of military issue over him. Thin mattress under him. Heat rising from the ground. The ache in his body, a general ache that resolved into a myriad individual pains as various parts of him realized that he was awake and queued up to present their complaints.

And the presence of someone in a doorway, the shifting presence of someone uncertain how to get his attention, hoping to be noticed.

Rafe raised himself up on to his elbows, ridiculously glad to feel his elbows biting deep into the pallet, the stretch and strain of his muscles, the flimsy support of a bolster pillow behind his neck. “Hello, Coop.”

“Rafe!” Coop’s voice was just a bit too hearty. Rafe winced, wondering just how bad he looked. “You can see again?”

“No, but your presence does—as always—take up the whole room.”

“My mother always did say I was all elbows and knees.” The boards shuddered under Coop’s booted feet. A chair scraped across the floor and Coop fell heavily into it. Rafe wondered if his friend was really this noisy or if his hearing was just overcompensating.

“You got my letter, then,” he said, throwing the words in to fill up the silence.

“I did, but I was already on my way.” Rafe could almost see Coop leaning forward in that intense way of his. “Furin came to us.”

“Furin.” It seemed so long ago that Rafe had been sent to make contact with the Blackstone dissident. “How’d he escape Blackstone?”

“He and some others had been pressed into reopening abandoned mines, searching for very specific types and dimensions of quartz. The Protector himself came to commend their progress and receive the quartz. And then he had the mine collapsed—with the miners still in it.” Coop paused dramatically.

Rafe waited.

“Furin got out through a ventilation shaft he’d discovered, along with a  few others. The rest were shot by Blackstone soldiers above ground, but Furin made it across the Barrens and into Ironheart, looking for my grandfather.” Another awkward pause. “Furin’s a cousin of some sort, apparently. He told us where to find the Tower. He wants Blackstone down, starting with the Protector and Karzov. But they’re holding his kid hostage.” Coop’s voice took on an undercurrent of dark bitterness, a new addition to his personality. “He came to the right people. Once we’re through, there won’t be two stones standing atop each other in Blackstone.”

Rafe shifted. “And you had a good trial run at the Blackstone forces outside the Tower?”

“Most ran away once they realized their machines were not working and their weapons turned to ooze. We have you to thank for that, I believe.”

“Don’t mention it.” Rafe’s thin-lipped smile was a match for Coop’s own black humor.

“We killed some, captured three.” Another pause. “Bryony was not among them.”

“Tell me about Oakhaven.” Rafe deliberately changed the subject; that wound was too raw. “What news?”

“Some, all wild, all of it bad. Roland is dead, killed, they say by Blackstone agents, his own ministers, the antimachinists, or the Machine itself, depending on who you talk to. The Oakhaven Quartz collapsed. The prince is missing. The Dewfleur government is in tatters. You may have been hoping to deliver the Tower to Oakhaven, Rafe, but they’re in no condition to hold it.”

“And Ironheart is? Blackstone will be back, Coop.”

“We’re smaller, more independent, recover quicker and maneuver faster. You picked a good place to stop, Rafe. We’re building one of five outposts around you, all ringing the Tower. They’ve made me a General.” Self-mockery colored his tone. “And all because I lived in Oakhaven and hobnobbed with a palace guard and an ex-soldier. Furin’s told us what he knows about Blackstone’s experiments with creating magic devices. They’ve had a program to identify potential kayan children for years. Furin will help us set up one of our own. If ka can be used… it’d change the world, Rafe!”

Rafe flinched in memory of the world-changing ka, running like bleach through him.

Coop went on, without seeming to notice. “You can help, Rafe. Oakhaven doesn’t want you, but Ironheart does. At least, there’s not much quartz there to bother you.”

“Quartz, no. Ka, yes.” Rafe closed his eyes. “I can sense five… no, six, definite clumps of ka in this camp. Not to mention the ubiquitous threads that are always floating around. They’re coming in on the currents from the Tower.”

“You’re that sensitive?”

“Apparently.”

Coop was silent for a moment. Then, “I know you, Rafe. Whatever you’ve been pushed to do, you’re decent and honorable and still loyal to Oakhaven. Ironheart doesn’t wish her ill, either. Your talents can help not just Ironheart, but all people. We live on a knife’s edge, tending our agri-caves, hoping that the next tremor won’t take them out. The Tower gives us both light and ka. It could feed Oakhaven and Ironheart both. We must keep it from the Protector and his kind.”

He rose to leave. “Think about it, Rafe.”

Episode Eighty Five

Chapter Thirty One, Part Two

The Barrens

Isabella, head bowed low, hair tumbled down her back, swayed, caught herself before she toppled forward. Rafe reached out to her, then hissed in reflexive pain.

A dull throb answered him.

He looked at his side, incredulous. The wound was closed, with just a pink line to show that it had existed. He moved, experimentally, but felt nothing besides stiffness and some tenderness of muscle.

“How’d you do that?”

“I told you I have super powers.” Isabella looked ghastly, eyes haunted and full of loss. “Don’t make me regret doing this. No heavy lifting or vigorous exercise for at least a week, young man.” She straightened, color returning to her face. “The pattern.” She laid her clear crystalline dagger in his lap.

Rafe stared at her a moment longer. There was something different about her… no. It was something different about his perception of her. It was, as if having seen drawings and paintings of her, he was seeing the real person for the first time. He suddenly knew her, but that knowledge was so intuitive and hidden that he could not bring it to the surface.

He had the uncomfortable sense that it might have been two-way.

Now was not the time to deal with it. Rafe took Isabella’s dagger, closed his eyes, braced himself, and reached for the roiling burning ka within the Tower.

The colors slipped away from him, darting quicksilver as fish. They resisted separation and capture, dealing him quick stinging lashes as they flitted away. Rafe set his teeth, lay quiescent beside the poison waters, and waited.

Rust-brown roped past, almost lazily, and Rafe grabbed for it. It struggled, stinging his hands, but Rafe aimed it at the dagger, which drank it in one greedy gulp. A thin thread of the same color, somehow brighter, glowed around the dagger. Rafe pulled it into the matching pedestal, squinting to find the right connections, the right hole to thread it into.

Vibrations shuddered through the earth and into his bones. A low rumble reached his ears. He exchanged a look with Isabella.

Blackstone machines.

Isabella said nothing, but she rose and went to stand by the cavern entrance, the black dagger in her hand.

Eyes aching, Rafe went back to fishing.

This time he caught a dirty yellow almost immediately. Heartened, Rafe pushed the color into the dagger and pulled at the filament that came out. It broke as he hurried it over to its pedestal, leaving him with gold fibers that crumbled into motes and floated away. Rafe hissed and returned to the dagger.

With the next two colors, which emerged from the dagger as sapphire blue and emerald green, he was more careful, though his nerves screamed with urgency.

Two more to go. Rafe submerged himself into the ka and waited. Time and time again he flashed toward a color, but it either got away or turned out to be one he already had.

Surely purple and orange couldn’t be that hard to find?

All the while the ka pushed at him, like the battering waves of the sea. He had to keep his barriers up, he had to hide most of himself away it, lest it peel his skin and shred his flesh. Being in it was like going into a room full of poison gas.

His hand flashed out and grabbed a clump of blackish-purple. It covered him in ooze, clinging sucker-like. Rafe shook it into the dagger as much as he could, then had to use his other hand to scrape it all off. The dagger glowed a sullen color while it processed this. The thread, when it came out, was barely visible and hard to grasp, as though made of spider silk. By the time Rafe got it into place, he was shaking all over from the tension. His hands—even though this was all mental work—were cramped and his skin was reddened and itched terribly.

Isabella emerged from the tunnel, walking backward, the black dagger and her clothes bloodied. She met his eyes. “They sent scouts.”

It’ll be the main body soon enough and not even Isabella can hold against that.

Rafe nodded, and came out from behind his barrier. They were running out of time and it no longer sufficed to just stick his hand in for that last hue. He waded into the ka.

It slapped his calves and sent pin pricks all over his legs. The feeling intensified, and soon he could no longer feel his feet.

In a moment, his knees began to shake and buckle.

Orange nudged at his ankles, and Rafe threw himself at it. He fell into searing ka, arms outstretched. He scooped up the orange, clutched it to his chest, and scrambled out in inelegant churning haste.

The dagger seemed hesitant to accept it, but Rafe wound it in with sheer brute force. When the purified ka oozed out like thick honey, he guided it towards its pedestal. The pattern began to thrum with life and glowed, fueled by the purified ka, colors forming a vaguely dome-like haze within the cavern, enclosing quartz and Rafe.

Isabella was on the outside.

Rafe turned, started to call Isabella, saw her recognize what was happening, and begin to run for him.

And then the tainted ka that he had not sealed off behind him surged out in a tsunami.

The pattern must hold!

Without thinking, Rafe flung himself into its path.

And ka, electric and raging, outlining everything in a white so brilliant he could not stand it, crashed into him and through him.

It seared his muscles, screamed up his nerves, shocked his bones and scoured his skin. It was steelwool against his eyes and sandpaper against his fingertips. It filled him up in waves, and desperately, he flung it away, away from the pattern, away from the Tower of Light. To the outside.

Rafe heard the screaming, high-pitched, agonized and animal.

By the time he recognized that it was his, his voice had fallen into a shredded whisper and the ka was gone, like a lightning flash. The after-image glared for a moment, then faded and Rafe pitched into merciful darkness.

Episode Eighty Four

Chapter Thirty One, Part Two

The Barrens

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.

“Now what?”

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!”

Episode Eighty Three

Chapter Thirty One, Part One

The Barrens

Rafe realized that he was still standing, not writhing in quartz-madness. He could sense the immensity of the ka within the quartz, but as from a great distance, muffled as though with layers upon layers of cloth. He forced his gaze away from the quartz. Even unpolished, it shone too bright to let his look linger.

“Look!” Rafe dropped his pack and moved to the wall where twelve rectangular cubbies had been crudely hacked out. Each cubby held dusty skeletal remains. “The kayan who died while binding Salerus. They were here. He was here. Renat was here.” The legend was suddenly a real man, a living man who had walked this very cavern, talked and argued with his companions as they faced the worst disaster their world had ever known, had perhaps even interred his fellows.

Galvanized, Rafe went over to a dark purple quartz pedestal and ran his hand wonderingly over it. Then he drew out the bag with the Keys and pulled out one of Leo’s Keys, the one with the same color. It fit snugly into the cup-shaped top. Another five pedestals completed a ring around the Tower.

“Look! These look to be some kind of perimeter, possibly defensive, probably activated by the Keys. If we can get it working, we can hold out against hostile…” He turned in time to see Isabella sag against the wall, face twisted in pain, grabbing on to a ledge occupied by the mortal remains of one of the most powerful mages to ever exist for support.

He ran to her side. “What is it?”

“My gut,” she whispered. Her eyes were narrowed and angry. “Something I ate—Rafe!” She shoved him hard just as a report went off behind Rafe.

Pain exploded in his side in metal-tinged red heat. Isabella, still against the wall, took out her dark dagger and threw it. There was a gasp, and a clang. Sulfur hung in the air.

Blood. Bullets. Gun. Rafe struggled to connect the dots. They were being attacked.

But there was just the three of them here. And he trusted….

Isabella grabbed his arm and pulled him back behind a block of quartz, carelessly left like a giant baby’s toy. Rafe held sticky hands to his oozing side. Isabella turned her head to her side and retched, throwing up all the contents of her stomach.

“Bitch.” Rafe had never heard Bryony sound like this, cold and venomous. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

“I didn’t like the oatmeal cake,” Isabella called. “I ate a bite and threw away the rest on the trail when no one was looking. I didn’t want to hurt Rafe’s feelings. You don’t deserve him for a brother, you know.”

“Bryony.” Rafe struggled to sit up and was rewarded by a fresh gush of blood. “Bryony, what are you doing?” Isabella untucked her long tunic from her pants and ripped out a strip from the bottom. She applied it to Rafe’s side.

“Doing what I should have done years ago. Finally getting rid of you.

“But, I thought you…”

“What? That I liked you?” Her laugh was wild and bitter. “You poor sod. You couldn’t see, could you? I hated you. You were the reason I was sent away. You thought I came home to heal you? No, I came home to make sure you were dead, but you survived anyway. You always survived. I thought you’d die at sea, or in a landslide, or in battle, but you never did.

The Tower swam in front of his eyes in a haze of light. Rafe’s side hurt abominably, but he welcomed the pain, embraced it. It distracted him from the hollow feeling in his chest, the weight on his voicebox and lungs.

Bryony hated him. Had always hated him.

“So,” said Isabella casually as she tied the ends of her makeshift bandage, “who are you working for, Bryony? You’re too clever to lose control in a sudden passion. You’re too much of a careful planner. Who’s waiting for you outside, so you can hand the Tower over?”

“I’ll say this for you, Isabella, you’re not stupid.” Bryony laughed scornfully, and the sound ripped at Rafe. “You’re right.  I’m going to hand the Tower over to the only state in the world that treats everyone equally, that doesn’t discriminate based on birth and stupid custom.”

“You’re giving it to Blackstone, then?”

Bryony said nothing, but her silence said it all.

Rafe closed his eyes. “Blackstone.” His voice came out weak and hoarse. “Blackstone.” He chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” asked Bryony.

Rafe gasped as the movement hurt his side. Isabella laid a restraining hand on his shoulder, and answered for him. “Oh, he finds it funny to hear someone pontificating about the virtues of Blackstone when they’ve never had to live there. So Karzov and his agents sold you a pretty vision, then? Poor Bryony.”

“Enough.” Bryony’s voice took on an ugly sneer.

“You want me to stop talking? Come make me. You and your handgun, against a wounded man and a sick woman with just a dagger. Surely you can take us on?” Isabella mocked.

“I’m not a fool. I don’t have to come after you. You can stay there and bleed to death or die of poison. Blackstone’s already out there by now, and we can flush you out. See how you do against a team of soldiers. Nice try, Isabella, but I’m not buying it.” Her footsteps crunched. “And, Isabella? Don’t rely too much on Rafe’s so-called ka powers? I’ve been feeding him magebane in his tea. He can’t use the magic. Enjoy the light while you can. It won’t last.”

And on this parting shot, she was gone.