THE BLACK PRISM
Kip crawled toward the battlefield in the darkness, the mist pressing down, blotting out sound, scattering starlight. Though the adults shunned it, he’d played on the open field a hundred times—during the day. Tonight, his purpose was grimmer.
Reaching the top of the hill, Kip stood and hiked up his pants. The river behind him was muttering obscenities, or maybe that was the warriors beneath its surface, dead these sixteen years. Kip squared his shoulders, ignoring his imagination. The mists made it seem he was suspended, outside of time. But even if there was no evidence of it, the sun was coming. By the time it did, he had to get to the far side of the battlefield. Farther than he’d ever gone searching.
Even Ramir, wouldn’t come out here at night. Everyone knew Sundered Rock was haunted. But Ram didn’t have to feed his family; his mother didn’t smoke her wages.
Gripping his little belt knife tightly, Kip started walking. It wasn’t just the unquiet dead that might pull him down to the evernight. A pack of giant javelinas had been seen roaming the night, tusks cruel, hooves sharp. They were good eating if you had a matchlock, iron nerves, and good aim, but since the Prisms’ War had wiped out all the town’s men, there weren’t many people who braved death for a little bacon. Rekton was already a shell of what it had once been. The alcaldesa wasn’t eager for any of her townspeople to throw their lives away. Besides, Kip didn’t have a matchlock.
Nor were javelinas the only creatures that roamed the night. A mountain lion or a golden bear would also probably enjoy a well-marbled Kip.
A low howl cut the mist and the darkness hundreds of paces deeper into the battlefield. Kip froze. Oh, there were wolves too. How’d he forget wolves?
Another wolf answered, farther out. A haunting sound, the very voice of the wilderness. You couldn’t help but freeze when you heard it. It was the kind of beauty that made you shit your pants.
Wetting his lips, Kip got moving. He had the distinct sensation of being followed. Stalked. He looked behind himself. There was nothing there. Of course. His mother always said he had too much imagination. Just walk Kip. Places to be. Animals are more scared of you and all that. Besides, that was one of the tricks about a howl, it always sounded much closer than it really was. Those wolves were probably leagues away.
Before the Prisms’ War, this had been excellent farmland. Right next to the Umber River, suitable for figs, grapes, pears, dewberries, asparagus—everything grew here. And it had been sixteen years since the final battle—a year before Kip was even born. But the plain was still torn and scarred. A few burnt timbers of old homes and barns poked out of the dirt. Deep furrows and craters remained from cannon shells. Filled now with swirling mist, those craters looked like lakes, tunnels, traps. Bottomless. Unfathomable.
Most of the magic used in the battle had dissolved sooner or later in the years of sun exposure, but here and there broken green luxin spears still glittered. Shards of solid yellow underfoot would cut through the toughest shoe leather.
Scavengers had long since taken all the valuable arms, mail, and luxin from the battlefield, but as the seasons passed and rains fell, more mysteries surfaced each year. That was what Kip was hoping for—and what he was seeking was most visible in the first rays of dawn.
The wolves stopped howling. Nothing was worse than hearing that chilling sound, but at least with the sound, he knew where they were. Now… Kip swallowed on the hard knot in his throat.
As he walked in the valley of the shadow of two great unnatural hills—the remnant of two of the great funeral pyres where tens of thousands had burned—Kip saw something in the mist. His heart leapt into his throat. The curve of a mail cowl. A glint of eyes searching the darkness.
Then it was swallowed up in the roiling mists.
A ghost. Dear Orholam. Some spirit keeping watch at its grave.
Look on the bright side. Maybe wolves are scared of ghosts.
Kip realized he’d stopped walking, peering into the darkness. Move, fat head.
He moved, keeping low. He might be big, but he prided himself on being light on his feet. He tore his eyes away from the hill—still no sign of the ghost or man or whatever it was. He had that feeling again that he was being stalked. He looked back. Nothing.
A quick click, like someone dropping a small stone. And something at the corner of his eye. Kip shot a look up the hill. A click, a spark, the striking of flint against steel.
Illuminated for that briefest moment, Kip saw few details. Not a ghost, a soldier striking a flint, trying to light a slow-match. The slow-match caught fire, casting a red glow on the soldier’s face, making his eyes seem to glow. He affixed the slow-match to the match-holder of his matchlock, and spun, looking for targets in the darkness.
His night vision must have been ruined by staring at the brief flame on his match, now a smoldering red ember, because his eyes passed right over Kip.
The soldier turned again, sharply, paranoid. “The hell am I supposed to see out here, anyway? Swivin’ wolves.”
Very, very carefully, Kip started walking away. He had to get deeper into the mist and darkness before the soldier’s night vision recovered, but if he made noise, the man might fire blindly.
Kip walked on the balls of his feet, his back itching, sure that a lead ball was going to tear through him at any moment.
But he made it. A hundred paces, more, and no one yelled. No shot cracked the night. Farther. Two hundred paces more, and he saw light off to his left, a campfire. It had burned so low it was barely more than coals now. Kip tried not to look directly at it to save his vision. There was no tent, no bedrolls nearby, just the fire.
Kip tried Master Danavis’s trick for seeing in darkness. He let his focus relax and tried to view things from the periphery of his vision. Nothing but an irregularity, perhaps. He moved closer.
Two men lay on the cold ground. One was a soldier. Kip had seen his mother unconscious plenty of times; he knew instantly this man wasn’t passed out. He was sprawled unnaturally, there were no blankets, and his mouth hung open, slack-jawed, eyes staring unblinking at the night. Next to the soldier lay another man, bound in chains but alive. He lay on his side, hands manacled behind his back, a black bag over his head and cinched tight around his neck.
The prisoner was alive, trembling. No, weeping. Kip looked around, there was no one else in sight.
“Why don’t you just finish it, damn you?” the prisoner said.
Kip froze. He thought he’d approached silently.
“Coward,” the prisoner said. “Just following your orders, I suppose? Orholam will smite you for what you’re about to do to that little town.”
Kip had no idea what the man was talking about.
Apparently his silence spoke for him.
“You’re not one of them.” For the first time, a note of hope entered the prisoner’s voice. “Please, help me!”
Kip stepped forward to help. The man was suffering. Then he stopped. Looked at the dead soldier. The front of the soldier’s shirt was soaked with blood. Had this prisoner killed him? How?
“Please, you can leave me chained if you must. Please, I don’t want to die in darkness.”
Kip stayed back, though it felt cruel. “You killed him?”
“I’m supposed to be executed at first light. I got away. He chased me down. He got the bag over my head before he died, though. If dawn’s close, his replacement is going to come take his watch any time now. ”
Kip still wasn’t putting it together. No one in Rekton trusted the soldiers who came through, and the alcaldesa had told the town’s young people to give any soldiers a wide berth for a while—apparently, the new satrap Garadul had declared himself free of the Chromeria’s control. Now he was King Garadul, he said, but he wanted the usual levies from the town’s young people. The alcaldesa had told his representative that if he wasn’t the satrap anymore that he didn’t have the right to raise levies. King or satrap, Garadul couldn’t be happy with that, but Rekton was too small to bother with. Still, it would be wise to avoid his soldiers until this all blew over.
On the other hand, just because Rekton wasn’t getting along with the satrap right now didn’t make this man Kip’s friend.
“So you are a criminal?” Kip asked.
“Of six shades to Sun Day,” the man said. The hope leaked out of his voice. “Look, boy—you are a child, aren’t you? You sound like one. I’m going to die today. I can’t get away. Truth to tell, I don’t want to. I’ve run enough. This time, I fight.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. Take off my hood.”
Though some vague doubt nagged Kip, he untied the half-knot around the man’s neck and pulled off the hood.
At first, Kip had no idea what the prisoner was talking about. The man sat up, arms still bound behind his back. He was perhaps thirty years old, Tyrean like Kip but with a lighter-complexion, his hair wavy rather than kinky, his limbs thin and muscular. Then Kip saw his eyes.
Men and women who could harness light and make luxin—drafters—always had unusual eyes. A little residue of whatever color they drafted ended up in their eyes. Over the course their life, it would stain the entire iris red, or blue, or whatever their color was. The prisoner was a green drafter—or had been. Instead of the green being bound in a halo within the iris, it was shattered like crockery smashed to the floor. Little green fragments glowed even in the whites of his eyes. Kip gasped and shrank back.
“Please!” the man said. “Please, the madness isn’t on me. I won’t hurt you.”
“You’re a color wight.”
“And now you know why I ran away from the Chromeria,” the man said.
Because the Chromeria put down color wights like a farmer put down a beloved rabid dog.
Kip was on the verge of bolting, but the man wasn’t making any threatening moves. And besides, it was still dark. Even color wights needed light to draft. The mist did seem lighter, though, gray beginning to touch horizon. It was crazy to talk to a madman, but maybe it wasn’t too crazy. At least until dawn.
The color wight was looking at Kip oddly. “Blue eyes.” He laughed.
Kip scowled. He hated his blue eyes. It was one thing when a foreigner like Master Danavis had blue eyes. They looked fine on him. Kip looked freakish.
“What’s your name?” the color wight asked.
Kip swallowed, thinking he should probably run away.
“Oh, for Orholam’s sake, you think I’m going to hex you with your name? How ignorant is this backwater? That isn’t how magic—”
The color wight grinned. “Kip. Well, Kip, have you ever wondered you were stuck in such a small life? Have you ever gotten the feeling, Kip, that you’re special?”
Kip said nothing. Yes, and yes.
“Do you know why you feel destined for something greater?”
“Why?” Kip asked, quiet, hopeful.
“Because you’re an arrogant little shit.” The color wight laughed.
Kip shouldn’t have been taken off guard. His mother had said worse a hundred times. Still, it took him a moment. A small failure. “Burn in hell, coward,” Kip said. “You’re not even good at running away. Caught by ironfoot soldiers.”
The color wight laughed louder. “Oh, they didn’t catch me. They recruited me.”
Who would recruit madmen to join them? “They didn’t know you were a—”
“Oh, they knew.”
Dread like a weight dropped into Kip’s stomach. “You said something about my town. Before. What are they planning to do?”
“You know, Orholam’s got a sense of humor. Never realized that ’til now. Orphan, aren’t you?”
“No. I’ve got a mother,” Kip said. He instantly regretted giving the color wight even that much.
“Would you believe me if I told you there’s a prophecy about you?”
“It wasn’t funny the first time,” Kip said. “What’s going to happen to my town?” Dawn was coming, and Kip wasn’t going to stick around. Not only would the guard’s replacement come then, but Kip had no idea what the wight would do once he had light.
“You know,” the wight said, “you’re the reason I’m here. Not here, here. Not like ‘Why do I exist?’ Not in Tyrea. In chains, I mean.”
“What?” Kip asked.
“There’s power in madness, Kip. Of course…” he trailed off, laughed at private thought. Recovered. “Look, that soldier has a key in his breast pocket. I fiddled for an hour, but couldn’t get it out, not with—” He shook his hands, bound and manacled behind his back.
“And I would help you why?” Kip asked.
“For a few straight answers before dawn.”
Crazy, and cunning. Perfect. “Give me one first,” Kip said.
“What’s the plan for my village?”
“What?” Kip asked.
“Sorry, you said one answer.”
“That was no answer!”
“They’re going to wipe out your village. Make an example so no one else defies King Garadul. Other villages defied the king, too, of course. His rebellion against the Chromeria isn’t popular everywhere. For every town burning to take vengeance on the Prism, there’s another that wants nothing to do with war. Your village was chosen specially. Anyway, I had a little spasm of conscience and objected. Words were exchanged. I punched my superior. Not totally my fault. They know us greens don’t do rules and hierarchy. Especially not once we’ve broken the halo.” The color wight shrugged. “There, straight. I think that deserves the key, don’t you?”
It was too much information to soak up at once—broken the halo?—but it was a straight answer. Kip walked over to the dead man. His skin was pallid in the rising light. Pull it together, Kip. Ask whatever you need to ask.
Kip’s eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness now, and he could tell that dawn was coming. Eerie shapes were emerging from the night. The great, twin looming masses of Sundered Rock itself were visible mostly as a place where stars were blotted out of the sky.
What do I need to ask?
He was hesitating, not wanting to touch the dead man. He knelt. “Why my town?” He poked through the dead man’s pocket, careful not to touch skin. It was there, two keys.
“They think you have something that belongs to the king. I don’t know what. I only picked up that much by eavesdropping.”
“What would Rekton have that the king wants?” Kip asked.
“Not Rekton you. You you.”
It took Kip a second. He touched his own chest. “Me? Me personally? I don’t even own anything!”
The color wight gave a crazy grin, but Kip thought it was a pretense.”Tragic mistake then. Their mistake, your tragedy.”
“What, you think I’m lying?!” Kip asked. “You think I’d be out here scavenging luxin if I had any other choice?”
“I don’t really care one way or the other. You going to bring that key over here, or do I need ask real nice?”
It was a mistake to bring the keys over. Kip knew it. The color wight wasn’t stable. He was dangerous. He’d admitted as much. But he had kept his word to Kip.
Kip walked over and unlocked the man’s manacles, and then the padlock on the chains. He backed away carefully, as one would from a wild animal. The color wight pretended not to notice, simply rubbing his arms and stretching back and forth. He walked over to the guard and poked through his pockets again. His hand emerged with a pair of green spectacles with one cracked lens.
“You could come with me,” Kip said. “If you what you said is true—”
“How close do you think I’d get to your town before someone came running with a musket? Besides, once the sun comes up… I’m ready for it to be done.” The color wight took a deep breath, staring at the horizon. “Tell me, Kip, if you’ve done bad things for your whole life, but you die doing something good, do you think that makes up for all the bad?”
“No,” Kip said, honestly, before he could stop himself.
“But it’s better than nothing. Orholam’s merciful.”
“Wonder if you’ll say that after they’re done with your village.”
There were other questions Kip wanted to ask, but everything had happened in such a rush that he couldn’t put things together.
In the rising light Kip saw what had been hidden in the fog and the darkness. Hundreds of tents were laid out in military precision. Soldiers. Lots of soldiers. And even as Kip stood, not two hundred paces from the nearest tent, the plain began winking. Glimmers sparkled on the ground, as broken luxin gleamed, like stars scattered on the ground, answering their brethren in the sky.
It was what Kip had come for. Usually when a drafter released luxin, it simply dissolved, no matter color it was. But in battle, there had so much chaos, so many drafters, some sealed magic had been buried and protected from the sunlight that would break it down. The recent rain had uncovered more.
But Kip’s eyes were pulled from the winking luxin by four soldiers and a man with a stark red cloak and red spectacles walking toward them from the camp.
“My name is Gaspar, by the by. Gaspar Elos.” The color wight didn’t look at Kip.
“I’m not just some drafter. My father loved me. I had plans. A girl. A life.”
“You will.” The color wight put the green spectacles on; they fit perfectly, tight to his face, lenses sweeping to either side so wherever he looked, he would be looking through a green filter. “Now get out of here.”
As the sun touched the horizon, Gaspar sighed. It was as if Kip had ceased to exist. It was like watching his mother take that first deep breath of haze. Between the sparkling spars of green, the whites of Gaspar’s eyes swirled like droplets of green blood hitting water, first dispersing, then staining the whole. The emerald green of luxin ballooned through his eyes, thickened until it was solid, and then spread. Through his cheeks, up to his hairline, then down his neck, standing out starkly when it finally filled his lighter fingernails as if they’d been painted in radiant jade.
Gaspar started laughing. It was a low, unreasoning cackle, unrelenting. Mad. Not a pretense this time.
He reached the funerary hill where the sentry had been, taking care to stay on the far side from the army. He had to get to Master Danavis. Master Danavis always knew what to do.
There was no sentry on the hill now. Kip turned around in time to see Gaspar change, transform. Green luxin spilled out of his hands onto his body, covering every part of him like a shell, like an enormous suit of armor. Kip couldn’t see the soldiers or the red drafter approaching Gaspar, but he did see a fireball the size of his head streak toward the color wight, hit his chest and burst apart, throwing flames everywhere.
Gaspar rammed through it, flaming red luxin sticking to his green armor. He was magnificent, terrible, powerful. He ran toward the soldiers, screaming defiance, and disappeared from Kip’s view.
Kip fled, the vermillion sun setting fire to the mists.
Continue to Chapter Two below!