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The Curse On The Chosen

Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2007.

Chapter 1

The Curse on the Chosen

Maelys stood frozen in the centre of the cave, glaring at the rigid back of her enemy. The nightmare had come to pass. That monster, Jal-Nish Hlar, God-Emperor of all Santhenar, held her mother, aunts and her little sister Fyllis, the only family Maelys had left, in the festering dungeons of Mazurhize. Now they were going to pay for her failure; they would die in unspeakable agony for helping Nish escape his father’s prison, and it had all been for nothing.

‘Uurgh! Gahh!’

Xervish Flydd was on his knees, throwing up on the floor, and she blamed herself for that as well She had pressured him to renew his aged, failing body, but the spell had gone wrong and the God-Emperor had appeared before Flydd could recover from the trauma. Though he now had the body of a man in middle age, he had lost his gift for the Secret Art. Without it they could not hope to escape through the sealed door into the perilous shadow realm as they had planned, then back to a distant part of Lauralin where they could hide in safety while Flydd regained his strength.

Huge, gentle Zham stood by the columns carved into the rear wall, sword in hand, but he could do nothing to save them. Neither could her friend Colm, beside him. They were also going to die.

And then there was Nish, slumped against the side wall. Maelys had once looked up to him as the Deliverer, the one man who could overthrow the tyrant God-Emperor, break his cruel grip on the world and relieve the suffering of Santhenar’s downtrodden people. Nish had made that promise and all Santhenar looked to him to keep it, but he never would. Ten years in Mazurhize had broken him; he wasn’t a shadow of the hero he’d once been.

Jal-Nish, secure in the power of his Profane Tear, Reaper, stood nonchalantly on the sill of the cave, at the brink of the thousand-span-high precipice of Mistmurk Mountain, gazing out. The twin bands of his platinum half-mask circled the back of his head, one high, the other low, and his good hand fondled the sorcerous quicksilver tear that hung from a chain about his neck. And well he might, for Reaper and its absent twin, Gatherer, gave him the power to control the world.

His sky palace ground its way towards them on the thigh-thick cables anchoring it to the plateau. In a few minutes it would be within reach; his Imperial Guard would come down the gangplank and all hope would be lost.

Maelys’s stomach knotted at the thought of what Jal-Nish’s torturers would do to her little sister, a slender, pretty, blonde-haired girl of nine – no, she would be ten now. Fyllis wasn’t clever, but she possessed a gift that had saved her family several times, when the God-Emperor’s scriers had come searching ruined Nifferlin Manor armed with uncanny spying devices. Jal-Nish wanted to eradicate all stray gifts for the Secret Art, and did not hesitate to kill children to ensure that he succeeded.

Her jaw was clenched so tight that her teeth hurt. A stray breeze swirled through the entrance, icing the sweat on her brow. She must save her family, whatever it took, or die trying. No, she could not die. Failure was unthinkable; she couldn’t give up, even if everyone else had, but how was she to defeat the most powerful man in the world?

Jal-Nish had deliberately turned his back to show his utter contempt for them, and drive home their helplessness. And she was helpless, for Maelys was a small, demure woman, only nineteen, with no training in the warrior’s arts. Moreover, she’d been brought up to be truthful, polite, gentle and respectful, and her stern aunts had taught her obedience with a leather strap. How could she hope to match wits with this cunning and merciless man; to defy his authority over them all?

She had to find a way. Jal-Nish wasn’t as powerful as the world believed him to be, yet he had easily overcome everyone in this cavern. Nonetheless, he had a secret fear – that someone would find the antithesis to his Profane Tears – the one thing that could nullify their power – and lead an army to overthrow him. Maelys had foolishly pressured the old, feeble Flydd to cast that terrible renewal spell upon himself in the hope that he could help her find the antithesis to the tears, and she had to answer to the consequences.

Only one person might know if the antithesis existed, and that was the Numinator, the shadowy figure who had established and controlled the former Council of Scrutators during the one hundred and fifty year war against the lyrinx. The Numinator dwelt in the Tower of a Thousand Steps, on the Island of Noom in the frozen Antarctic wastes, a thousand leagues – a year’s march – to the south of here. It was an impossible distance in a world whose every ell was monitored by the God-Emperor’s human, and inhuman, spies.

The sky palace crept ever closer. It was connected to the mouth of the cave by a long but narrow metal plank which swayed and flexed in the ferocious updraught rushing up the sides of the plateau. Jal-Nish watched the approach, not bothering to check on his prisoners. What if she ran and thrust him over the cliff? Any normal man would be smashed to pulp at the bottom, but Jal-Nish was not a normal man; she felt sure he could save himself with Reaper. Besides, she was no murderer; it wasn’t in her to kill a man from behind, not even him.

She knew he dreaded that everything he’d done would be undone once he grew old and died. He sought immortality with the tears, yet feared that he would never find it. But Maelys did not know how to exploit that weakness, either.

So much for his fears; what about his hopes? Family was everything to Jal-Nish, though his wife had repudiated him many years ago, after a lyrinx’s claws turned him into a monstrosity. His daughter and three older sons had died without issue and he had no living relatives apart from Nish, who had just rejected his father’s offer and all he stood for. Though Jal-Nish felt desperately alone, he was too proud to ask for his only son’s help again.

‘Flames,’ slurred Flydd. ‘White, cold flames, burning but never consuming.’

He had been talking nonsense for ages, always about fire and darkness. He groaned and slumped back to sit on his heels, threads of vomit and blood-stained saliva hanging from his open mouth. Jal-Nish’s head shot around, his fingers working instinctively on the shimmering surface of Reaper, only to let out a short, barking laugh. Flydd heaved up a black clot onto the dry moss; Jal-Nish, bouncing on the balls of his feet, resumed his vigil.

‘Darkness aflame,’ choked Flydd. ‘Never the same; forever in pain; the flame to regain.’ He spat out another clot and began to mumble incoherently.

And Maelys had helped to do this to him. Guilt-ridden, she tried to shut out his groans, for the sky palace would be here in a minute. Family was her only lever and Nish was all the God-Emperor had left – or was he? What if she could convince Jal-Nish otherwise?

Her heart began to thunder. Dare she try? Jal-Nish had been a scrutator, and possessed all their arts of interrogation and torture; he was practised at extracting secrets from even the most hardened opponents. He must be even more skilled now, for Gatherer controlled his wisp-watchers, loop-listeners, snoop-sniffers and all the other instruments, public and secret, with which he maintained control over the world. No one could resist Gatherer, with the possible exception of little Fyllis.

But Gatherer was on his sky palace, and that gave Maelys a slender chance. Could she pull it off, all alone? She quailed at the thought of trying, for deceit was foreign to her nature, but she had to, no matter what it cost her. She knew there would be a cost; she’d discovered that the first time she’d been forced to act against her principles.

Somewhere below the entrance to the cavern, rock crunched. Jal-Nish held up his hand and the grinding stopped as the winch cables were halted. He leaned out, peering down at the gigantic anchor embedded in the precipice below the cavern, which sounded as if it were tearing free.

‘Slowly,’ he said to Reaper. ‘Take it slowly now.’

The grinding resumed; the sky palace inched closer. Flydd was raving about wraiths and darkness, and a woman dressed in red, but his eyes were empty. She began to fear that his old self was lost inside his renewed body and he was sinking into insanity, but she couldn’t worry about that now. It was all up to her and she had to do two impossible things: first, find a way to save her family from Jal-Nish, and second, discover a means of escape.

The glimmering of a plan came to her, so reckless that it just might work, though if she were caught he would put her to such agonies that the chroniclers would still be telling the tale in a thousand years. She looked away, struggling to curb her panic. How could a shy, bookish country girl even think to deceive the God-Emperor and his Profane Tears?

She had to find a way. Maelys glanced through the swaying curtains of moss and lichen that partly closed off the entrance. Jal-Nish was still looking out. She made up her mind; she would not give up on her family while she lived. She would do whatever it took, and pay the price later.

Taking a deep breath, conscious that she might not have many left, she called, ‘Jal-Nish?’ She could not bring herself to use the title God-Emperor.

He turned and put his head through the moss curtain, frowning at her. Maelys’s knees went weak at the thought of what she was about to do. It couldn’t possibly succeed; he would see through her instantly.

‘Yes?’ he said. The platinum half-mask covered the ruined left and central parts of his face, including his nose and chin, but left his right eye, brow and cheek exposed. ‘What do you want, girl?’

Maelys couldn’t bear to look at him, or Nish, who had previously rejected her so humiliatingly; or least of all, Colm, whom she felt sure was in love with her. She cared for him too, and admired him even more, since Colm, honourable man that he was, had previously declined to press his suit at such a difficult time for her. After this, he never would. What she was about to do would cost her all her friends, and mean the death of any hopes she held for Colm and herself.

‘I’m pregnant!’ she said hoarsely. ‘By Nish.’

Chapter 2

 Colm choked. Nish jerked upright. The dead moss rustled where Flydd knelt, bloody strings swinging from his lips. Even the gentle giant, Zham, looked shocked.

Maelys couldn’t afford to look any of them in the face. This meant life or death; nothing else mattered. She kept staring at Jal-Nish, and his one eye lit up for an instant, enough to give him away. Oh yes, he wanted what she could bear him – he wanted it more than anything in his empire. But then his face hardened.

‘Cryl-Nish said, only half an hour ago, that he’s not had congress with any woman since escaping from Mazurhize. Are you calling my son a liar?’

‘No,’ Maelys said faintly.

His cheek went purple. ‘If he’s not lying, you must be.’

‘I’m not lying,’ she gasped. This was much harder than she’d thought; she couldn’t do it.

Jal-Nish turned to Nish, studying him with his left eye. Say nothing, Nish, Maelys prayed. Leave it to me.

‘Well, Cryl-Nish?’ said his father.

‘I have not had relations with her. As far as I know, Maelys is a virgin.’ Nish’s jaw clenched and his eyes flicked towards Colm.

No, Maelys prayed. Please don’t say it, Nish. You’ll ruin everything. If you ever cared about me at all, please keep quiet.

He said thickly, ‘Though he may have taken her on the way here – they were close enough when they arrived.’

Out of the corner of her eye Maelys saw Colm’s look of outrage. ‘I may be just a humble woodcutter to you, Deliverer, but I’ve behaved as a gentleman with Maelys, as I have with all women. While you, surr, are nothing but scum, no matter who your father is.’

Jal-Nish’s fingers stroked Reaper, hooked through its silvery surface and Colm doubled over, gasping for air.

‘Despite his manifest failings,’ he grated, ‘Cryl-Nish is my only son, and the chosen one. You will treat him with the respect due to his station.’

Colm collapsed, clawing at the dead moss covering the floor. Jal-Nish looked away indifferently and spoke to Maelys. ‘Virginity is easily tested, girl. Think carefully before you say any more, for every untrue word earns you a deeper excruciation.’

Maelys had thought very carefully, but even so, she was starting to doubt whether she could pull it off. The story was already spinning out of her control. Besides, she had always been a modest girl, and in her family people did not talk about such matters, especially not to strangers; but there was no going back now.

‘You may have me tested,’ she said, flushing at the thought of it, even at speaking of such an intimate test, ‘and you will discover that I am a virgin still. Colm does not lie. He is a gentleman.’

‘Then you’re a lying slut,’ spat Jal-Nish. ‘You’ve proven it out of your own mouth.’

The sky palace loomed into view, its white stone sails shining in a fleeting ray of sunlight. He stopped it with a backwards hand gesture.

‘I’m neither a liar nor a slut.’ Maelys felt her cheeks going even redder. ‘I am pregnant, to Nish.’

‘Why do you insist on this vicious falsehood?’ Jal-Nish’s forged hand gripped a rock at the entrance, crushing it to dust. ‘Faugh! I’ve had enough of this.’ He turned to step out onto the plank and Maelys could not think how to stop him.

‘There is – a way,’ Flydd said hoarsely from the floor. ‘We both know – it can be done, Jal-Nish.’

Jal-Nish spun on his boot heel on the swaying plank, strode back to Maelys and lifted her by the front of her shirt, staring into her eyes. She forced herself to meet his one eye, and again she saw that fleeting spark of hope in it.

‘Well, girl?’ he said, letting her down again. ‘I have to know. And you must understand that, once I have Gatherer in my hands again, I can sort truth from falsehood in an instant.’

Yet you want this grandchild so desperately you can’t bear to wait until the sky palace arrives. It was his weakness and her opportunity, though only if she could capitalise on it once she’d told her story, and Maelys still hadn’t thought of a way to do that.

‘Your son is a passionate man,’ she said, ‘a lusty man who had been deprived for ten years.’

‘I know my son,’ he said thickly. ‘I was like that myself, before the tears raised me above such animal appetites. Get on with it.’

The cavern was perfectly still; there was no sound apart from the swishing of the moss curtain in the wind and the creaking of the monstrous mooring cables as the sky palace moved in the updraughts.

‘I nursed Nish after he was wounded leading the Defiance in their victory over your army,’ said Maelys. So far, so good, but she hadn’t begun the real lie yet. Her eyes met Nish’s, and it looked as though he was trying to say something, but she couldn’t tell what.

‘It was no victory at all,’ sneered Jal-Nish. ‘I was directing my troops via Gatherer. I let him win.’

No difficulty reading Nish’s face now. He was a man stripped naked to the world, his anguish showing in the shards of his cheekbones, the fingers like fishhooks; the raw, running eyes.

Maelys felt acid rising up into her throat, burning her. Jal-Nish was an even bigger monster than she’d thought. ‘You deliberately sent thousands of men to their deaths, and left the rest of your own army dying in agony in that slaughter heap? Why?’

Jal-Nish chuckled. ‘It amused me to let the so-called Defiance think they could win, for it will make their ultimate defeat all the more crushing. How did you do it, girl?’

Maelys could barely breathe. She couldn’t speak for a moment, but she had to master herself. The soldiers were long dead; she had to take care of the living.

‘Nish …’ It was so difficult to say it; she felt a scarlet blush spreading up her neck and across her cheeks. ‘Your – your son is such a lusty man that, even while recovering from that terrible arrow wound, he was … subject to an, er, nocturnal, um, flux.’

‘Nocturnal flux?’ Jal-Nish cried. ‘Speak in a plain tongue, girl, and be swift about it, or Reaper will sear it out of your living mouth.’

‘Even in the most terrible fever, and half dead, Nish became so aroused each night that he spilled his seed upon the sheets.’ Her cheeks were so inflamed that they stung. ‘I had to have him, any way I could, but Nish would not have me at any price.’

‘I’m not surprised. My son is entitled to princesses; he could see nothing in such a plain little minx as you.’

Maelys was used to insults, she’d had a lifetime of them from her mother and aunts, yet she winced. ‘And so,’ she went on haltingly, ‘on the second night of nursing him, while Nish groaned in his lusty delirium, I gathered up his seed and inserted it within myself, and now I’m pregnant by him. And still a virgin; it can only be his child.’

There was a shattering silence. Maelys lowered her head, trying to see Nish out of the corner of her eye, but he had turned away. Not Colm, though. He was staring at her in appalled, contemptuous disgust. He was not a forgiving man: in his eyes their time together, and their friendship, had been a lie and a stain on his own honour. No matter what happened next, he would never forgive her.

‘The chances of becoming pregnant –’ began Jal-Nish.

‘My clan are very fertile,’ she said truthfully. ‘And it was the right time of the month.’

‘Well, Son?’ said Jal-Nish. ‘What do you have to say?’

Nish wore a faint smile. He was not displeased to be described as a lusty man. Boor, she thought. Oaf! Yet he met her eye and, surprisingly, she saw no censure there – indeed, a trace of admiration that she’d been game to take his father on. Nish possessed qualities that Colm would never have.

‘I am, as we discussed earlier, a man of strong appetites,’ Nish said. ‘What Maelys says could be true. I lay in a fever for days, so how would I know what she got up to?’

Jal-Nish turned back to her. ‘Why?’ he said simply.

She’d scraped over the first hurdle but Maelys couldn’t relax yet. Now was time for the simple truth. ‘Ever since I was a little girl, and first heard the tale of Nish’s heroism and nobility in the lyrinx wars, I’ve looked up to him. I admired … admire him above all men.’

‘So you had to have him, any sordid way you could, to further your absurd fantasy.’ His lip curled.

‘I did not,’ she said with simple dignity, ‘for I knew Nish was far above me and out of reach. I come from a good family, yet I’m a simple country girl and the ways and doings of the mighty are beyond me.’

‘Indeed they are!’ said Jal-Nish. ‘I would not have chosen you for my son; not for anything. Then why?’

‘My mother and aunts knew how I admired Nish and required me to commit this dreadful wickedness, for it was the only way to save our clan – Clan Nifferlin.’

‘Clan Nifferlin,’ Jal-Nish said thoughtfully. ‘An old clan, once troublesome, but no more. All resistance failed with the death of the last male – your father, Rudigo – a week ago.’

That shook her, though her beloved father had been on the run since she was twelve, and had been captured long ago. She’d been expecting his death for a year, but even so, tears welled in her eyes.

‘Father is dead? Please, did he suffer at the end?’

‘Oh, I made him suffer,’ said Jal-Nish with vengeful relish. ‘Once I discovered your role in Cryl-Nish’s escape, I kept Rudigo alive so he could suffer all the more.’

Maelys lowered her head. She couldn’t speak; could not bear to think of her father in torment because of what her mother and aunts had forced her to do.

‘Your aunts put you up to this,’ Jal-Nish said, ‘and somehow you, a simple country girl, succeeded against all the odds. You have saved your family, for the moment at least, for until proven otherwise your clan is bound to mine with indissoluble ties of blood. There’s more to you than meets the eye, girl. Perhaps you aren’t such a bad choice after all – if you’re telling the truth. But I’ll soon discover that, and if you have been truthful, you will have everything you’ve ever dreamed of.’ He studied her, then Nish, then Maelys again. ‘And if you’ve lied – well, I’ll leave that to your fertile imagination.’

Maelys couldn’t relax, for she’d merely won her family a tiny reprieve. It could be as little as an hour, once he took her onto the sky palace and tested her with Gatherer, or as much as a few weeks if she held out, and Jal-Nish had to wait until she had her next monthly courses. But the moment she did, Maelys would be revealed as a liar and a cheat, and both she and her family would be doomed. Claiming that she’d miscarried would not save her. Only Nish’s child could.

Unless she could get away before he tested her. That was the second impossibility, though having achieved the first, however fleetingly, she felt bolder now.

Jal-Nish beckoned the sky palace forwards, impatient to get moving, but there came a terrific crack from below the cave. Gigantic lumps of rock flew in all directions and the mooring cable tore free and hurtled upwards, smashing the gangplank to metal splinters.

Jal-Nish teetered on the rim of the entrance as the cable flailed across the sky like a writhing worm, the massive anchor clanking on its end. The sky palace tilted and the tension of the remaining cables jerking it up out of sight. He cursed, then began shouting orders to his helmsman, via Reaper.

Maelys met Colm’s eyes. He gave her a look of deepest contempt and turned away, and she knew she’d lost a friend forever. It hurt, but she put it to one side. Clan first – always clan first.

‘Xervish,’ she said softly. ‘Try the crystal again. This is the only chance we’ll get.’

He was on his feet now, holding the diamond-clear, thumbnail-sized crystal out on his shaking palm and staring at the fire burning within it – the power it had absorbed from the cursed flame below the obelisk standing in the centre of the marshy plateau. Flame reflected in his brown eyes. ‘Can’t,’ Flydd said dully. ‘Nothing left.’

‘You’ve got to find it again. You’ve got to remember.’

‘Art is gone. Body – renewed, but Arts – didn’t survive. Lost them. Hollowed out; empty; useless.’

Maelys had never heard such bitterness from Flydd before; and without his Arts, how could they hope to escape through the shadow realm to safety? It was a dangerous place where they needed all the protection they could get, and he had long ago woven such protections into his crystals, especially the fifth, the only one left. But no matter how dangerous the shadow realm might be, they had to go through it, for Jal-Nish had covered every other escape route.

‘Xervish,’ said Nish uneasily, ‘please try again. Open the hidden door and get us out of here.’

‘Arts – lost!’ Flydd said through his teeth. ‘She – must have taken them.’

‘Who? Maelys?’ Nish’s eyes probed her.

‘No!’ Flydd gasped, retching again. ‘Woman – in red.’

‘What woman in red?’ said Nish quietly, with an anxious look at his father’s back.

‘Was in my mind – during renewal. Thought she was me.’

‘That doesn’t make sense, Xervish.’

Flydd looked up blankly. ‘Don’t know. Memory in pieces.’

‘It’ll come back. You recognised us, so you’ve still got some memories. Use them!

‘Can’t.’ Flydd began to retch again, and spit bloody muck onto the floor.

‘The crystal is charged,’ said Maelys, staring at it, though without Flydd’s Art it was as useless as a lump of coal. ‘Jal-Nish said it has power to open any barrier. Tell us how, Xervish. Hurry!’ If renewal had gone wrong, internally, Flydd might be dying. All the more reason for her to act quickly.

Jal-Nish stepped inside. He’d overheard. ‘For one who can use it, I said. None of you can, no matter how you try. But try, by all means.’ He smiled maliciously, then turned away and plunged his hand into Reaper again. The sky palace reappeared, listing steeply to starboard in the fierce updraught, and objects began to slide off its decks. Maelys felt her slim hope fading. With Reaper he would soon set the sky palace to rights. What could the God-Emperor not do with the tears?

However the sky palace listed further and Jal-Nish cursed. ‘Pathway!’

With a metallic zing, a copper-coloured plank fizzed into existence between the cavern and the sky palace. Withdrawing his hand from Reaper, he began to stride up the plank. Coloured pressure patterns swirled across its coppery surface with every step, and it shortened behind him so that he was always walking upon its quivering outer end. Without turning, he thrust his arm backwards and a brown wall formed at the cavern entrance, then slowly solidified like baked clay until the light was blocked out. They were trapped.

‘A lucky accident that the anchor tore out,’ said Zham. ‘Can we make something of it?’

‘No accident,’ slurred Flydd. ‘Monkshart – Vivimord – determined – bring down – blasphemous God-Emperor.’

‘And he wants Nish,’ Maelys reminded them. ‘You’d be better off with your father, Nish. Vivimord is insane.’

‘But while Father has Reaper,’ said Nish, ‘Vivimord can’t touch him. Which means –’

‘Jal-Nish – playing with us,’ said Flydd, sounding less incoherent now. He wiped his mouth and stood up.

‘He loves his little games,’ Nish said bitterly. ‘And more than anything Father loves to allow his victims to hope, so he can have the pleasure of crushing it. He wants us to dream that there’s a way out –’

‘Which means there’s none,’ said Flydd. ‘He’s set us up.’

Absolute silence fell, for no sound penetrated the seal at the entrance. The cavern was dark, save for the faint light from Flydd’s crystal.

‘He’s not a god; just a pretender,’ said Maelys. ‘He didn’t expect Vivimord to come through the sealed door at the back of the cave; nor did he know what choice Nish was going to make, or what I was going to say. And he can’t know what we’re going to do next. We’ve still got a chance. Teach us to use the crystal.’

‘Secret Art – years to master. No novice can use – crystal – no matter how much – power it contains.’

His voice was cold; nothing remained of the charming, friendly Flydd she’d met just days ago. Why was he so bitter? Renewal had been a terrible ordeal for him, but he was alive and had a healthy and vigorous body. Couldn’t he be thankful for that?

Nish snatched the fiery crystal out of Flydd’s hand and thrust it into Maelys’s. ‘You’ve got a small gift for the Art. Try it – Father could be back any minute.’

‘He could be waiting outside right now, laughing his head off,’ said Colm grimly. ‘We should have jumped off the cliff when we had the chance.’

‘My family needs me,’ Maelys hissed.

‘And it’s abundantly clear that you’ll stoop to any depths for them.’

His words were another slap in the face. She wanted to do the same to him; felt an urge to hurt him, but Maelys turned away and clenched her slender fingers around the crystal, trying to think her way into its heart. Its light came pinkly through her flesh, flaring and fading; a pulse was beating in one of the veins of her wrist. Think! There’s got to be a way.

She couldn’t think of one; Maelys didn’t know anything about her little gift, which had been suppressed too long, and now was stunted. Training in the Arts needed to begin in youth and, at nineteen, she was too old to ever achieve mastery.

Could there be a simpler way? She touched the crystal to the columns carved into the rear wall, left and right, high and low, and to the flat section in between, where the secret door had opened. Nothing happened. Maelys imagined Jal-Nish’s mocking laughter.

She rubbed the crystal against her forehead and touched it to the taphloid hanging on its chain around her neck, again to no effect. Nish was frowning at her. Did he think their peril was her fault? In a way, it was, but surely it was better than the alternative? If she’d refused her aunts’ demand in the first place, he would still be in his father’s prison, going mad, and she and her family would be hiding in the mountains, slowly starving to death.

‘You try it.’ She passed the crystal to him. ‘You’re the one with the clearsight.’

‘My gift is puny,’ he reminded her. ‘Totally insignificant.’

‘But linked – to God-Emperor,’ said Flydd. ‘Gift came from – touch of tears, Nish.’

‘I’ll never forget it.’ Nish was clutching the crystal in both hands, one clasped around the other. ‘During the war, Father thrust my hands right into the tears in an effort to bend me to his will. Fighting his compulsion almost broke me.’

‘But you got free – single-handedly saved what was left of – mighty army,’ said Flydd, sounding more coherent now. ‘Fighting him strengthened you – Nish. Strength you can draw on now.’

‘It’s a wonder you still have your hands,’ rumbled Zham. ‘The touch of Reaper crisped Vivimord’s belly like a roast pig, and he’s a great mancer.’

‘Father protected me, I suppose,’ said Nish.

‘Power of – tears has grown mightily since – beware!’ said Flydd. ‘Anything coming to you?’

‘Not a thing.’

Maelys’s eyes met Zham’s. He was standing between the columns, holding his enormous sword. He gave her an encouraging smile, and it warmed her. She still had one friend left. Colm was grimly practising strokes with his notched blade; was he mentally using it on her?

‘Nish,’ she said, ‘what if you used your clearsight to see what’s happened to Xervish’s Art?’

‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ There was a long silence while Nish strained until a muscle began to jump in his jaw. ‘I can’t see anything.’

Panic was creeping over Maelys, suffocating her, but she couldn’t give in to it. Whenever she wavered, the thought of Fyllis in the hands of Jal-Nish’s torturers stiffened her spine for one last try.

‘What about using me?’ she said.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Nish.

‘I’m not sure I do, either, but something strange happened to Flydd during renewal last night. After he’d used the fourth crystal, he had to draw on me. He took my hand and I could feel the heat running up my arm to my heart … the strength being drawn out of me …’

‘How does that help?’

‘What if he didn’t just take from me? What if he gave as well?’

Nish frowned, the flickering crystal lighting the furrows across his forehead. ‘Xervish? Could Maelys be the woman in red you were raving about?’

‘She isn’t wearing red.’

‘Perhaps, in the fever, she seemed to be.’

Flydd shook his head vigorously, then winced. ‘The woman in red looked nothing like Maelys. She wasn’t beautiful; her face was stern and arrogant; and she was bigger, taller, and older.’

Maelys stared at Flydd. He thought she was beautiful? No one had ever said that before.

‘Did you give anything to Maelys?’ Nish persisted.

‘Can’t remember what happened during renewal,’ Flydd said hoarsely. ‘Few mancers ever do.’

‘Is it the kind of thing you might have done?’

‘Not unless I was desperate. What mancer would willingly give away the least fraction of his Art, knowing he might never get it back?’

‘But you were desperate, Xervish,’ Maelys said softly, glancing over her shoulder at the barrier. Jal-Nish could return at any second. ‘Nish, use your clearsight on me, quickly.’

He put his hands around her skull, above her ears, and Maelys shivered at his touch. Nish didn’t press hard, nor hold his hands there long, and when he drew away there was an odd look in his eyes.

‘Xervish, I think you did pass something to Maelys, and yet …’

‘My Art?’ Flydd said hoarsely. ‘My precious Art?’

Maelys hadn’t realised that it meant so much to him, though when she thought about it, to have been a great mancer for so long, and then to lose it in a moment, must be like losing a limb. No, worse, for a man with no legs can walk with crutches, but losing one’s Art would be like going back to the helplessness of infancy.

‘There’s something not right, though.’ Nish swallowed.

‘I’ve lost my Art!’ Flydd cried. ‘The one thing that has sustained me all my life. I’m naked without it.’

‘That’s not what I meant.’ Nish was staring alternately at Flydd, then Maelys. ‘My clearsight tells me that there’s more of you now, Xervish.’

‘That’s absurd. If I’ve passed my gift to her, there should be less of me.’

‘Can you remember doing that?’

‘I can’t remember anything save the woman coming into me. She had strange eyes – a reddish purple … now what does that remind me of?’

‘Can you take your talent back from me?’ said Maelys.

‘Not without the Art … though there may be a way to use it where it lies,’ said Flydd. ‘Look deeper, quick.’

Nish put his hands on Maelys again, and shook his head. ‘I can’t tell. My clearsight is too feeble.’

‘If only there were a way to strengthen it,’ said Maelys, musing on what had been said. And how could there be more of Flydd when he’d lost his Art? That didn’t make sense.

‘If we could eat rock, we could chew our way to freedom!’ sneered Colm.

‘There is a way,’ said Nish, ignoring him, ‘though I’m not sure I’ve got the courage to try it.’

‘I wouldn’t,’ said Flydd. ‘Your father won’t save you this time, Nish.’

Maelys didn’t know what they were talking about. ‘I’ll try anything if it helps to save my family.’

‘Not this way,’ said Nish. ‘I won’t let you.’

Flydd’s eyes were on Maelys. ‘I do believe she would, Nish. She’s braver than any of us.’

‘Just tell me what to do,’ snapped Maelys.

Thump. Something struck the barrier from the outside and it cracked like an ancient bowl. Nish was staring at it, his fists clenched rigidly at his sides and his jaw muscles standing out. He turned to her, and something shone in his eyes. Admiration? Surely not from Nish? Now he let out a long breath, but the fine hairs stirred on the back of Maelys’s neck – what was he going to do?

He eased himself into the deep shadows to the left of the opening, crouched and pulled up great handfuls of dead moss until he was covered in it.

‘Nish?’ said Maelys.

‘There’s only one hope left,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s do or die this time and I don’t care which.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Stay back; distract Father so he thinks I’ve escaped. As soon as he breaks through, scream my name and leave the rest to me.’

‘To the wall,’ hissed Zham, sweeping them together in his long arms and thrusting them backwards as the clay seal began to crack and fall out. ‘Pretend Nish has gone through the hidden door. When Jal-Nish comes in, we all attack him at once.’

Fragments crashed to the floor and misty light flooded in. Maelys reached out towards the wall and yelled, ‘Nish?’ as shrilly as she could.

‘What the –?’ cried Jal-Nish, then leapt to the floor of the cave.

Maelys spun around, trying to maintain the pretence that Nish had disappeared. Jal-Nish came forwards, staring at the closed door. ‘How did he get away?’

‘Get him!’ roared Zham, hurling himself at Jal-Nish.

Nish propelled himself to his feet. Jal-Nish spun around, sure he was under attack, but Nish wasn’t going for him. He dived and thrust his left hand deep into Reaper.

And shrieked.

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