alliance

06. Hidden

Raz is gone again when I wake. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of him moving around the room while I’m unconscious, but I probably just picked that particular paranoia up from living with the countess. The thought that she’s nowhere nearby is positively heartening.

 

Raz and I don’t run into each other until evening, at which point he tells me that, judging from the way the Vanan coastline is melting into the horizon behind us, we’ll be at port in Koregon within the hour. He’s a little easier to deal with now that I’m learning to avoid his sensitive topics of conversation: anything not directly related to our strategy and path forward.

 

That’s fine by me. Everything around us is confusing enough already.

 

“What do you think it means?” I ask as we surreptitiously examine the crystal flower on the forward deck. It’s so beautifully wrought that I almost can’t believe the thing was forged by human hands and not plucked from some ethereal garden.

 

“Difficult to say.” I wonder if Raz is at all worried about the device making that same buzzing noise as it did before, but the thing’s been utterly quiet since that moment in the river. The flower’s crystal petals flash with light from the clouded sky as he turns it over in his hands; his fingers are slim, almost elegant, but calloused from his axes. “If I had to wager, I’d say it isn’t purely symbolic.”

 

He won’t elaborate any further, so I turn to asking him about his contact in Koregon.

 

“His name’s Rook Chyne, and he may not actually be in Koregon at the moment. He moves around a bit.” Raz’s mouth twists in distaste. “We’re going to have to talk to Mav Reycraft first — he’s a sort of drifter who trades in information. He’ll know where to find Rook.” Raz scratches his beard, and for a moment he looks almost young. Then he frowns again, and his surliness closes in again like thunderheads. “People here are bound to be looking for us — or you, at any rate — and Mav’s a damn fool. Watch your step.”

 

He strides away without another word, heading for the stairs that lead down to our stolen cabin. I was annoyed the first few times he walked off like that, but I’m beginning to think he’s just oblivious, not intentionally being rude. Or maybe he is rude, and I’ve simply stopped caring.

 

A shape emerges through the twilit water ahead of the paddle boat, a lump of land that grows steadily larger as we approach. Though it’s just a vague silhouette through the mists at first, I can soon pick out towers emerging from the land like coils of smoke.

 

Koregon. 

 

The sole consistent thing I’ve heard about the island city can be summed up in two words: stay away. And in mere minutes, we’re going to be there. 

 

Something slips along my back like a snake regripping around my spine. I hurry back to the cabin to grab the shamshir, eager to be on the move once again.

 

~

 

The paddle boat’s other passengers crowd to the front quarter of the vessel when we dock in Koregon’s tangled port, but Raz and I slip to the aft to disembark from the cargo deck. We swing from the ship to shore, and as soon as we’ve released the lines behind us we melt into the dense crowd, completely anonymous. 

 

I want to look everywhere, but that would draw the attention of the squalling merchants — so instead I keep my eyes low and shoulder through the throng after Raz, who seems perfectly at ease threading his way out of the quayside crush and into wider streets spiraling upward.

 

The first few sets of intersecting avenues are quite pleasant, lined by neat shops in front and tidy apartments further back. Raz hooks around the corner, leading us into the maze of buildings, and the alleys soon become dank. The byways themselves are overshadowed by protrusions from taller edifices that broaden partway up like stone and metal trees, with needle-sharp archways and gargoyles in place of leaves and birds. The people here seem to have a dazed air about them, as if unsure how they came to find themselves in this grimy backwater, and the children’s lonely eyes tug at my overwrought heart.

 

A jangle of raucous, off-key singing echoes through the streets, and I follow Raz around another corner to find a crooked lane, its bounds barely discernible in the deepening night. Amber light glistens off damp-slickened bricks, but after a few seconds of hard staring I make out the impression of a doorway recessed in the wall, which gives way to a corridor leading back into the building. The shades of men lurk in the shadows, murmuring and sinking away at our approach; Raz’s head turns toward them only briefly, and then he leads us straight to the wooden door and the hallway beyond.

 

The brick walls prove to belong to a shadowy tavern, and again my eyes can’t find edges to the room through the darkness. Raz takes a seat at the chipped blackwood bar, and the one-eyed bartender slams a pair of grimy tankards down in front of us. 

 

The beer’s bitter scent makes my nose twitch, but I force down a healthy gulp of the acrid draft so I don’t look conspicuous, clamping my lips shut to keep the bubbles down as they rush up my throat. I steal a surreptitious glance around the tavern but can’t make out any particular figures amid the gloom, just more shifting suggestions of human likenesses. “What now?”

 

“Patience,” Raz replies in the same low tone, staring straight ahead. 

 

At first I can’t figure out what he’s doing — there’s a mirror behind the line of bottles at the barkeep’s back, is he staring at his reflection? — but then I realize he’s keeping an eye on the doorway. He’s expecting someone.

 

I fix my eyes on the doorway’s reflection and wait, too.

 

Sometime later there comes a swell in the tuneless singing. A staggering silhouette makes its way through the wan lamplight of the corridor and tumbles into the main room. The drunk man lurches toward us and I’m sent sprawling forward against the bar, pint sloshing, as he slams into my back.

 

“’Scuse me, love,” the man slurs as he slides his hand along my jacket, seeking to pick my pocket.

 

My hand flashes to Raz’s belt and I’ve got the short knife up against the man’s ribcage a moment later. “Back off, pal.”

 

The man gently bumps my chin with his fist, grinning. His pale eyes glitter from beneath a tousled mop of brown hair; he’s unkempt, but rakishly so, and his smile is infectious despite the circumstances. A rippling scar winds from his jaw down the length of his neck, and I instinctively wonder how he came by the injury. Maybe he’s been to war, too.

 

For a moment I’m surprised Raz isn’t up in arms about this sloppy newcomer, but then I realize who the man is, and why Raz’s irascible air has suddenly deepened.

 

I shove the knife back into its sheath on Raz’s belt and regard the handsome interloper again. “You must be Mav Reycraft.”

 

“Oh, I like you, bird,” Mav mutters with a savvy wink. He leans against Raz, grin growing steadily wider as he regards me; he isn’t drunk, but for whatever reason he’s sure acting like it. “You’ve got spine — not unlike my dear Raz here.”

 

It’s tough to decide which is more amusing, Mav’s absurd, almost manically lighthearted air or Raz’s wrinkled glower at Mav’s touch, as though the dark man’s swallowed something unpleasant.

 

I can’t stop the laugh from spilling out. “Raz has friends? Actual ones?”

 

Mav chuckles along with me and slaps Raz’s back without tearing his pallid eyes from mine. “She’s got you figured, mate.”

 

“Mav, we’re not here on a social call,” Raz says curtly. Then he stands and heads for the tavern door. 

 

“Typical,” I mutter.

 

“You’ve no idea.” Mav grins at me again, utterly unhurried by Raz’s ornery departure. “So what’s your name, beautiful?”

 

The brunette man  is evidently one of those irrepressible flirts that somehow manages to also remain perfectly inoffensive, like Lord Anselm’s former footman, who ended up breaking all the hearts when he ran off with young Lady Durning three summers ago. Last I’d heard they were living quietly in the Karkonian Hills — so I feel a corresponding if baseless rush of warmth for Mav. For one thing, it’s nice to be around someone who doesn’t openly loathe me for a change.

 

“Uh, Khthonia,” I manage through the smile tugging at the corners of my lips. “Khthonia Fern.”

 

Mav’s eyes flare a little at my name. “Surely not the Khthonia Fern that ran off from Vana and created all that fuss? I’ve got to hear all about this!” 

 

He grabs my hand and pulls me out off my stool, and I can’t help giggling as he drags me off toward the door, singing tunelessly again.

 

We catch up Raz in a shadowy doorway outside the pub, and as his eyes light on Mav’s and my linked hands, I guiltily reclaim my fingers. Mav is such a pleasant change from Raz’s dour glower that I can’t help but actually enjoy myself for a while. I’ve been miserable and heartbroken too much; grief is threatening to drag me down and drown me in a black sea of despair.

 

Raz pulls the crystal flower and lens out of his knapsack and hands them to Mav one at a time, keeping a casual eye out for any unwelcome company. The men who were loitering out here before have vanished, and I’m unnerved by their speedy disappearance.

 

“We’ve got to be on the move quickly — within hours, if possible,” Raz tells Mav in a low tone.

 

The younger man eyes Raz warily over through the lens. “So that was you two in Riverfall, eh? I’d heard it was a Vanan scullery maid and a tall, dark-eyed fellah, but blimey, Raz—”

 

“Are you going to stand there dithering or actually make yourself useful?” Raz demands.

 

Mav is utterly unruffled by Raz’s pique. “Untwist your short hairs, Rook’s down at the Night Fair.”

 

“Doesn’t that just figure,” Raz huffs, dragging his fingers through his hair in exasperation. “We don’t have time to waste on detours.”

 

“What’s the problem?” Mav frowns prettily. “You should be thanking providence he’s not across the godsdamn ocean.”

 

In response, Raz jerks his head toward me. 

 

Mav’s eyes instantly widen. “Oh, y’mean— cripes, yeah, could take a while if you’re going that way.”

 

“I doubt that very much,” Raz says, his voice hitching with a quiet laugh, “but it does make our schedule that much more pressing.”

 

I glare daggers at the two men, but they seem utterly insensate to my presence. What the hell?

 

Mav’s eyes finally dart to meet mine, and he flicks the handle of the shamshir with one fingernail. “I’m assuming this isn’t merely a fetching accessory.”

 

I nod.

 

“And you haven’t—?” Mav asks Raz, who gives a curt shake of his head.

 

“What the fuck is going on?” I growl, but they still don’t seem to hear me.

 

Mav offers the dark-eyed man a nod, and then his hand is in mine again, drawing my arm through his as he stumbles off down the alley. “Then it’s a nonissue.”

 

“Care to fill me in?” I inquire as we meander along, sheathing my anger in my gritted jaw. “Or am I a fetching accessory?”

 

“Love to, darling, but I actually can’t. Name of the game and all that.” Mav touches the side of his nose with a finger, pretending to nearly poke himself in the eye. His tone becomes chattier and he pats my hand as though he’s been possessed by a solicitous spinster: “But enough of that — how did you end up falling in with Raz, m’dear? Bound to be an interesting story there.”

 

I glance at Raz. His brow is furrowed, but his dark eyes flick to mine and he gives a barely perceptible nod, granting tacit permission before looking away and slipping off into his own mental world again.

 

“He actually rescued me near Triptyllach Castle,” I admit. “We found out we were after the same thing, and decided to work together.” It’s easier to omit that our “decision” to work together wasn’t entirely mutual — and that I’m still not quite sure why outlandish, brooding Raz hasn’t tried to leave me in the dust yet.

 

“How very romantic,” Mav muses.

 

“Raz? Romantic?!” I snort quietly, trying to keep from full-on cackling. “You can’t know him very well if that’s what you think.”

 

“Oh, you.”

 

We emerge onto a wider street between the trunks of buildings; my feet were right, and we’re going down. Shadows extend far into the boulevard, and Raz skulks through the pitch black depths while Mav and I saunter along the line of moonlight and shade.

 

Maz appraises me. “Word has it you’re a swordmaster’s daughter, so I suppose that’s how you came by such a fine blade?”

 

I pull the shamshir out to show him, provoking squeaks of alarm from a gaggle of pedestrians on the other side of the cobblestoned road. Mav gives a little stagger and I pretend to fumble; they quiet again as we pass, evidently soothed from thinking us a pair of harmless drunkards.

 

Mav gives the sword a swing once we’re alone on the street again. The curved blade nearly leaps out his grasp, and he whistles approvingly.

 

“I’ve heard about these,” he muses as he hands it back to me. “Hard to come by, even harder to wield properly.”

 

I admire the blade, the decorative marks that trickle down the flat of the blade rendered unfamiliar again under the icy moonlight. “Father used to say there was nothing in the four kingdoms like it.”

 

“Quite right,” Mav says quietly, and warning thrums through me from the strange way he’s looking at my sword: as though it fell from the sky. As though, like me, it doesn’t quite belong.

 

I resheathe the sword across my shoulders— and as though sensing my disquiet, Mav switches to an even more uncomfortable subject. 

 

“Now what’s all this about Prince Daschen?” His pale eyes smolder in the moonlight as he pokes the tip of my nose. “They’re saying all sorts of dreadful things about the two of you, you naughty girl.”

 

Raz sounded so judgmental when he brought up Daschen, but Mav seems impressed. Fortunately, Raz is still ignoring us completely, and I cave to my curiosity: “What are the great and almighty they saying?”

 

“That you’re a prince-punching young lass on a bloodthirsty vendetta to revenge your broken heart. Or a bitch, depending on who you hear it from,” he adds, mildly chagrined.

 

A wave of indignation rises in my chest, binding my breaths like a burning corset, but I just as quickly realize there’s no point in fighting the sentiment. It isn’t wrong. Sometime during the past week — gods help me — I’ve become a person most decent people fear.

 

Then the backlash unexpectedly passes, and I shrug hollowly, emotions draining from me like water down a sink. All four kingdoms evidently know some twisted version of my story by now — or will soon. 

 

“Close enough.”

 

“Excellent,” Mav chuckles, thoroughly pleased. “And how’s the big old world treating you? Not too terribly, I hope.”

 

I sigh, trying to get some kind of grip on everything that’s happened. Only a few days ago I was the Myre’s dutiful servant, Mr. Cade speaking up for my obedience, and now… “I don’t think everything’s sunk in yet, but things have been pretty decent. Surprisingly so.”

 

Mav’s tone drops to a mutter, and he jerks his head back over his shoulder. “If you don’t mind my asking, how’s that one holding up?” 

 

“I’m sure you know Raz better than I do,” I reply stiffly.

 

“He isn’t exactly what one would call approachable, is he? Even to me, he’s like a godsdamn fortress. Mind, I could tell you some interesting stories about Raz — we grew up together, you know—”


Mav,” Raz cautions from a few feet away, and we jump in surprise as we realize he’s been listening to our every word.

 

Mav and I giggle — quietly at first and then uproariously, and Mav tugs me with him as he skips forward to slurrily serenade a pair of scandalized nuns.

 

“Why do you keep doing that?” I ask Mav breathlessly after the nuns are a safe distance behind us. “We need to be avoiding attention, not drawing it.”

 

“Staying alive in a place like this — in any dangerous place where you’re outnumbered — means being invisible,” Mav answers lightly, “but that doesn’t mean simply going unnoticed. It means blending in. One way of doing that is to exaggerate some part of yourself that’ll fit wherever you happen to be.”

 

“How d’you mean?”

 

Mav swings my hand cheerily. “I’m generally a happy sort of person, so it’s easy for me to be inoffensive to others when I pretend to be—” He staggers against me, and I catch him in time to see the wink he throws me. “—drunk. No one wants to look at a shaggy drunk. I might have fleas, y’know.”

 

I push Mav to his feet again, trying not to laugh again as he drags me on. “What about Raz?”
 

“He’s more comfortable on his own, so behold…” Mav gestures behind us, and it takes me a few moments to find Raz’s dark eyes following us from the far side of the street. He’s standing beside an iron gate that fronts a tall, narrow church, and I glance back at Mav, but he only shrugs. “That’s true invisibility, there. Which is useful when you’re trying to get into unexpected places.”

 

“Is that what makes him such a good bounty hunter?”

 

Mav laughs, but the sound is tight, twisted. “Yes, that’s what makes him so good at hiding.”

 

He nods over my shoulder again, and I turn back to see the iron gate standing open. The elaborate bars cast such odd shadows on the street that I would’ve noticed if it had stood open when we passed it a few moments ago — and Raz has vanished altogether.

 

“Invisible, y’see?” Maz mischievously flashes his eyebrows at me, and we scamper toward the gate. His wild enthusiasm makes me giddy, and I’m grateful for the reminder of how to smile. “Now let’s follow that ghost!”

 

The headstones littering the graveyard are cracked and crumbling, and the excessively curlicued script is indecipherable to my untrained eyes. Raz appears ahead of us once again as we round a rear corner of the church, striding diagonally through the wandering lines of stone plaques like a bird navigating over buildings. He nods to a night watchman slumped outside a moss-covered mausoleum and stops before the door that the man’s guarding, turning back to Mav and flipping the puzzle lock on the door with his forefinger.

 

Mav frowns. “What, don’t you remember?”
 

“It’s been a while,” Raz snaps gruffly. Embarrassment is a peculiar thing on him, and his cheeks glow ruddy beneath his dark beard. “Just make yourself useful, you git.”

 

Mav raises an eyebrow at me and expertly spins the puzzle lock. “Now, Razling, you know the rules. if you can’t remember the combination—”

 

The dark man’s gaze threatens to reduce Mav to ash. “Would you care to waste a quarter-hour standing here waiting for me to remember it?”

 

“As you please, your great and loftiness.” Mav sighs melodramatically as he snaps the puzzle lock open, unhooking it and shouldering the door to the mausoleum open for me with a grandiose bow. “After you, Miss Fern.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Reycraft,” I offer, mirroring his mock pompousness as I sweep into the darkness.

 

Beyond the threshold isn’t the smallish room I’m expecting, but a dank tunnel with rough-hewn rock steps leading downward at a steep angle. Lanterns dot the walls at infrequent intervals, and long niches recessed in the walls hold sets of reposing human bones. A barely perceptible wind blows up along the graven stairs, bringing the warm scent of brine to my nostrils.

 

The hairs on the nape of my neck thrill with animal warning. Something’s down there, hidden in the earth.

 

There’s a muffled smacking noise behind me, and Raz saunters past, an oddly smug expression on his face as he heads down into the dappled darkness.

 

“He hit me,” Mav complains petulantly, rubbing the back of his scruffy head as the door clanks shut behind us. A metal scrabbling noise issues from without, followed by a muffled click; as Mav hops down the steps to walk beside me again, I realize the watchman has roused from his stupor long enough to lock us in.

 

“Aww, I think you’ll survive,” I say, patting Mav’s hair to console him — and myself.

 

Raz’s aggravated voice echoes back up through the tunnel at us. “Would you two please mind what we’re doing?”

 

Mav slings one arm across my shoulders as we jerkily descend. “Don’t worry, love, I’ll protect you from the monsters down here.”

 

“More like I’ll protect you.”

 

“That’s the spirit,” Mav laughs, and raises his voice so that Raz can’t help but hear him. “He’s just jealous, anyway, the great lump. He’s a big ol’ meanie...”

 

Raz’s head swivels to the side, but I can’t tell whether he’s just regarding one of the ancient skeletons or listening to us again.

 

“All right, let’s lay off him,” I mutter, abashed. Raz has a lot of good reasons to want to keep his wits about him, and I suddenly don’t feel right about teasing him, even indirectly at that.

 

~

 

The tunnel down is incredible, and takes more than a half hour to traverse. My legs are sore and wobbly before we’re even halfway down, but Mav keeps my spirits up by regaling me with stories of evading guards from each of the four kingdoms, sailing through the mists and the inlets of the surrounding coastline, and attending gatherings of nomads as they stop through Koregon en route to more exotic locales.

 

“Do you ever get tempted to go with them — just up and leave?” I ask as we jerkily make our way deeper into the earth’s embrace. That salty breeze and Mav’s conversation are the only things keeping me from going mad with fear in this interminable, dank tunnel.

 

“I would, but I’m a soldier in the information army, love, a cog in the great machine,” Mav sighs rakishly. “And unfortunately, for the moment that means staying here in Koregon.”

 

I have no idea what he means by that, but the word soldier makes me think of war, which makes me think of Raz. My gaze unconsciously slides to his now-familiar back. He’s been quiet this entire time, just a silent silhouette slipping onward without regard for us.

 

I’ve never been so grateful for my few years of education as the countess’s stepdaughter as I am talking to Mav. I’d always imagined that if I ever traveled beyond Vana, it would be as a seasoned adult in full confidence of my abilities; at least I’ve a scant knowledge of each of the four kingdoms, and the relative perils and virtues that inhabit each. But they’re still only words in my mouth — the ice tundras of Samunder, the farmlands and deserts of Khet, and the mountains of Pahara. They’re all merely ideas; the only world I actually know is one of tortuous stone towers and icebound trees.

 

My skin prickles as I think of Raz’s curious attitude about what lies beyond Char, and the whispering box tucked deep in his pack. The Vanan governess had been firm on the subject: there was nothing beyond the four kingdoms but lawless tribes — but she’d been idiotic on other matters, and we’d been discouraged from asking questions. Father had told me to simply memorize what she said without questioning it, the way Gennefra and Helia did, and so I had.

 

I’d been too young to think twice then, but now…

 

What’s really out there? Even the thought of the question makes nausea curl in my gut, and the scars on my calves itch.

 

I don’t dare ask Mav, though. Not right now, so near to Raz. His cold attitude toward the younger man makes me think I should be tight-lipped, too.

 

The precipitous stairs finally give way to a level stone cavern, and from how the low hall bends at the end I’d wager that this is simply the entrance to a larger chamber. Sweat drips along my spine and down the backs of my knees, but it’s from more than mere exertion; the air here is significantly warmer than it was high above, like we’re knocking on the door to the first hell.

 

Two muscle-bound people in wrapped garb lean against the wall at the end of the long alcove. They rock to their feet as Mav and Raz slide to flank me, their faces obscured by strips of fabric just like the rest of their bodies. Only a scant rectangle of space is bare to reveal eerily pale eyes, more ashen even than Mav’s.

 

Raz launches off with some rapid-fire syllables in another language, and the taller of the two anonymous guards responds in a similar tone and tongue. Mav intercedes more casually, and they bicker back and forth for a few tense moments before the four come to some sort of accord.

 

Mav turns and speaks to me quietly, his characteristic levity lost amid the dazing heat. “They’re going to ask you a question. Be honest in how you answer, Khthonia — I can’t stress that enough.”

 

My heartbeat thunders in my ears as Mav and Raz melt out of my peripheral vision, and I’m left facing the two shrouded figures alone. Suddenly I’m keenly aware that they’re each carrying an assortment of weapons that almost rival Raz’s for thoroughness. The slighter stranger limbers up their fingers, hidden almost behind the curve of their leg, but I still catch the flicker of movement.

 

“Has anyone prepared you for this test?” the taller guard asks in precise but accented language.

 

I frown. Raz and Mav have been very careful to conceal what this test is, so my answer comes quickly: “No.”

 

The two pale-eyed sentinels are staring at me as if trying to see through me, but they relax at my monosyllabic answer, bored again. Then Mav’s hands are on my shoulders, squeezing reassuringly, and he nudges me forward as the cloaked figures stand aside.

 

“Was that it?” I demand, the breath sticking in my chest.

 

Mav smiles apologetically. “Not exactly.”

 

The cavern that greets my eyes beyond the antechamber is far larger than its entrance hints at. Though the ceiling is low, the ground beneath our feet ends in an escarpment over a subterranean creek rimmed with glowing blue rackweed. An assortment of flat-topped pillars sprout from the shimmering water, rising to ground level; beyond them, a vertical edge mirrors ours on the far side of the fast-flowing creek, the rock ground abruptly beginning anew like the far side of a canyon.

 

Drums throb gently from somewhere in the cavern, rattling chains that dangle from an iron grid suspended over the pillars. A line of silhouetted figures stretches along the length of the far plateau, backlit by more of that azure glowmoss.

 

All of them are armed.

 

“Single combat,” Mav breathes from over my shoulder. “Sorry, love, would’ve told you earlier, but that’s against the rules, and the Thieves Guild doesn’t take kindly to liars. Not from the mouths of inductees, anyway — once you’re in, there’s a different set of rules.”

 

“Fantastic,” I say softly. It’s doubtful sarcasm will hide my fear, but right now I’ll try anything to stop my knees from trembling.

 

For a moment I see the cloaked guards’ weapons again as if they’re still before me. I struggle to keep my expression neutral as my gaze flicks to Raz, ignoring my mind’s entreaties to do exactly the opposite. But there’s too much similarity between the paddle boat’s cargo bay and this space to be denied.

 

Raz’s expression is utterly dispassionate, but his dark gaze meets mine with such force that it feels like he’s knocked the wind out of me with that single glance. It’s the only answer I need.

 

He prepared me. He believes in me, he must … now it’s my turn to prove to myself and all these strangers what I’m made of.

 

“CHOOSE,” a deep voice booms through the cavern, and the line of shadowy figures comes alive, each obscured person bending and twisting as they limber up.

 

“Of course, simply because the thieves don’t take kindly to cheating doesn’t mean the system isn’t rampant with it,” Mav adds to no one in particular as he squints at the line on the opposite side of the cavern. “Now, come on, Raz, let’s help pick out a nice bloke for Khthonia to decimate.” He grins winningly at me. “We’re allowed to do that much, anyway.”

 

“She doesn’t need my help,” Raz mutters.

 

I glare at him. After all he’s clearly done to make sure I stand a chance here, he’s backing off now? My legs are trembling so badly that I’m not even sure I can walk, and my skin is so slick from the heat emanating off the water that holding onto chain-link metal will be a dangerous prospect — yet all I can think about is how furious I am at Raz for being moody right now.

 

I force myself to tear my eyes away from his grim form and survey my potential opponents. I honestly can’t tell which of them I fear least, because the shadows are glittering with concealed metal of all kinds — but I point to an insectile man who’s easily a full head taller than I am. His arms are so long that he could probably reach out and poke me right now without moving his feet. “Him.”

 

The other dark figures sulkily slouch away, leaving only the willowy man ahead of me.

 

Mav nods approvingly. “Now that you’ve made your decision, I’ll not tell you Chamberlain’s a rather squeamish fellow, so if you’ve the opportunity to sneeze on him, absolutely do that.”

 

“Dammit, Mav!” Raz snaps, scowling at me as though it’s my fault.

 

“At least he’s trying to be helpful!” I growl back.

 

Raz’s brow furrows like the mountains of his homeland, and his voice becomes ominously soft. “And I haven’t been?”

 

I grab Raz’s arm and shove him a few feet away. I don’t want Mav to see my face go all ruddy as the angry blush fills my cheeks.

 

“Look, I don’t know why you chose to bring me down here — I’d’ve trusted you enough to wait at the surface if there was someone you needed to come down here and see,” I snarl, quietly enough that we won’t be overheard. The words are a surprise to me, but in saying them I realize they’re true: I do trust him. What’s more, I’m upset because I actually do want Raz’s help — and without even meaning to, my voice softens. “But we’re here now, so if you’re going to do the instructor thing, stop it with the anger. It’s making it really hard for me to focus, which seems pretty important given all the times you’ve nagged me about it.”

 

Raz blinks, and I realize I’ve taken him by surprise as much as myself. I’ve always just felt so pissed toward him that I guess I’ve never considered asking him without charging my words with frustration. I didn’t think he’d care.

 

“Right,” Raz says, and his voice is different, gravelly for a moment. Then he’s back with me, that diamond-sharp focus in his eyes. “You want to know why I brought you here, Khthonia?”

 

Anxiety claws at my gut at his strange tone, so different from how he usually sounds, but I nod.

 

“You have good instincts,” Raz says quietly. “Trust them, and trust yourself. You’ll know the move you want to make when you see it. You will win.”

 

It’s not the solid battle plan I was hoping for, but his confidence bolters me somehow. The drumming from the far side of the cavern becomes more insistent, and Raz nods to the edge of the precipice, urging me forward.

 

It’s time.

© 2018-2020 Elegy Goldsmith

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