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THE BLACK PRISM

CHAPTER 3

Three thunks. Three hisses. Three gates between him and freedom. The chute spat a torn brick of bread at the prisoner’s face. He caught it, and the cheese that followed. He knew they were blue, the still blue of a deep lake in early morning, when night still hoards the sky and the air dares not caress the water’s skin. Unadulterated by any other color, drafting that blue was difficult. Worse, drafting it made the prisoner feel bored, passionless, at peace, in harmony with even this place. And he needed the fire of hatred today. Today, he would escape.

After all his years here, sometimes he couldn’t even see the color, like he had awoken to a world painted in grays. The first year had been the worst. His eyes, so accustomed to nuance, so adept at parsing every spectrum of light, had begun deceiving him. He’d hallucinated colors. He tried to draft those colors into the tools to break this prison. But imagination wasn’t enough to make magic, one needed light. Real light. He’d been the Prism, so almost any color would do, from those above violet to the ones below red. He’d gathered the very heat from his own body, soaked his eyes in those sub-reds and flung that against the tedious blue walls.

Of course, the walls were hardened against such pathetic amounts of heat. He’d drafted a blue dagger and sawn at his wrist. Where the blood dripped onto the stone floor, it was immediately leached of color. The next time, he’d held his own blood in his hands to try to draft red but he couldn’t get enough color given that the only light in the cell was blue. Of course. His jailer had thought of everything. But then, he always had.

The prisoner sat next to the drain and began eating. The dungeon was shaped like a flattened ball: the walls and ceiling a perfect sphere, the floor less steep but still sloping toward the middle. The walls were lit from within, every surface emitting the same color light. The only shadow in the dungeon was the prisoner himself. There were only two holes: the chute above, which released his food and one steady rivulet of water that he had to lick for his moisture, and the drain below for his waste.

He had no utensils, no tools except his hands and his will, always his will. With his will, he could draft anything from the blue that he wanted, though it would dissolve as soon as his will released it, leaving only dust and a faint mineral-and-resin odor.

But today was going to be the day his vengeance began, his first day of freedom. This attempt wouldn’t fail—he refused to even think of it as an “attempt”—and there was work to be done. Things had to be done in order. He couldn’t remember now if he had always been this way or if he’d soaked in blue for so long that the color had changed him fundamentally.

He knelt next to the only feature of the cell that his brother hadn’t created. A single, shallow depression in the floor, a bowl. First he rubbed the bowl with his bare hands, grinding the corrosive oils from his fingertips into the stone for as long as he dared. Scar tissue didn’t produce oil, so he had to stop before he rubbed his fingers raw. He scraped two fingernails along the crease between his nose and face, two others between his ears and head, gathering more oil. Anywhere he could collect oils from his body, he did, and rubbed it into the bowl. Not that there was any discernible change, but over the years, his bowl had become deep enough to cover his finger to the second joint. His jailer had bound the color-leaching hellstones into the floor in lines. Whatever spread far enough to cross one of those lines lost all color almost instantly. But hellstone was terribly expensive. How deep did they go?

If it only extended a few inches into the stone, his raw fingers might reach beyond it any day. Freedom wouldn’t be far behind. But if his jailer had used enough hellstone that the crosshatching lines ran a foot deep, then he’d been rubbing his fingers raw for five thousand days for nothing. He’d die here. Someday, his jailer would come down, see the little bowl—his only mark on the world—and laugh. With that laughter echoing in his ears, he felt a small spark of anger in his breast. He blew on that spark, basked in its warmth. It was fire enough to help him move, enough to counter the soothing, debilitating blue down here.

Finished, he urinated into the bowl. And watched.

For a moment, filtered through the yellow of his urine, the cursed blue light was sliced with green. His breath caught. Time stretched as the green stayed green… stayed green. By Orholam, he’d done it. He’d gone deep enough. He’d broken through the hellstone!

And then the green disappeared. In exactly the same two seconds it took every day. He screamed in frustration, but even his frustration was weak, his scream more to assure himself he could still hear than real fury.

The next part still drove him crazy. He knelt by the depression. His brother had turned him into an animal. A dog, playing with his own feces. But that emotion was too old, mined too many times to give him any real warmth. Five thousand days on, he was too debased to resent his debasement. Putting both hands into his urine, he scrubbed it around the bowl as he had scrubbed his oils. Even leached of all color, urine was still urine. It should still be acidic. It should corrode the hellstone faster than the skin oils alone would.

Or the urine might neutralize the oils from his hands. He might be pushing the day of his escape further and further away. He had no idea. That was what made him crazy, not immersing his fingers in his own warm urine. Not anymore.

He scooped the urine out of the bowl and dried it with a wad of blue rags: his clothes, his pillow, now stinking of urine. Stinking of urine for so long that the stench of urine didn’t offend him anymore. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that the bowl had to be dry by tomorrow so he could try again.

Another day, another failure. Tomorrow, he would try sub-red again. It had been a while. He’d recovered enough from his last attempt. He should be strong enough for it. If nothing else, his jailer had taught him how strong he really was. And maybe that was what made him hate Gavin more than anything. But it was a hatred as cold as his cell.

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