Chapter 23

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Amates 29, 1277. Outside the town of Talabrae’s Deep at the edge of the Great Chasm

 
     “Infected?” I sputtered. “Like a plague?”
 
     Ki shrugged. Maybe it was all his physician’s training, but he seemed far too calm about that.
 
     “Infected? Yes. Like a plague? I have no idea. There isn’t much written about mind magic.” He sighed before he took a sip of his coffee. “Magic isn’t clean, Tela. It’s a gamble. That’s why I try to be so precise when I cast healing spells. It helps me cut down on the risk; to get the magic working in a smooth, predictable fashion. That’s also why I’m so tired afterwards.”
 
     I didn’t know what to say. Ki hadn’t ever talked like that about magic before. He looked thoughtful, so I kept quiet and waited. Eventually, he continued.
 
     “I heard a sorceress say that magic was once perfect; like a flawless gemstone. Today? It’s more like a pile a broken glass. Shattered, razor-sharp fragments churning around over each other in a barrel.”
 
     He shrugged. “Maybe that’s what magic storms, or a backlash hitting a spellcaster, really is? Just all that ‘broken glass’ clattering around and spilling out of the barrel.”
 
     A deep, ominous silence filled the air while my thoughts ran in circles.
 
     Magic backfiring and infecting people? I didn’t like any of those implications. It also made me wonder about Baron Marius and his lunatic ideas over how to best use an Automatic Crystal. Had he been ‘infected’ by a bad cast of mind magic? Did he already know about this?
 
     I shuddered at the memory of stabbing him, which made him bleed dust, not blood. There was something deeply wrong there that I just didn’t understand.
 
     It was a good two sentences past time to change the subject, so I grabbed at the first topic I could find. Anything to make me quit obsessing over what happened at the campsite.
 
     "Talabrae’s Deep. We could enter the Chasm from here. If the Talabreans let us past the Churlgrave Gates and into the Direnight Passage.”
 
     Ki raised his eyebrows before he gestured out the window with his mug at the jagged, ugly rise of rocky hills on the Chasm-side of town.
 
     “Big ‘if’. Last I heard, they’re still under constant threat from predators and other things crawling up out of those tunnels.”
 
     He shook his head. “The Talabreans keep a close guard on those tunnels, though. Maybe if we ask their Slate Watch politely, they’ll let us through?” Ki shrugged. “Of course, they’ll shut and lock the gates behind us.”
 
     I took a deep breath before I finished off my own coffee. Ki was right. The locals take guarding those passages seriously. They don’t let just anyone through.
 
     The Talabrean people are descended from dark elves and dwarves that lived below ground in the Deepland caverns. It took Awldor shattering from the Great Collapse to drive them to the surface. The mutated horde that chased after them made them learn to work together. But it hasn’t been easy. Things from the Deepland are still trying to get to get above ground. When they do? People die in a bad way.
 
     Enter the Slate Watch. They are the Talabrean’s answer to that ugly problem. The Slate Watch are basically professional monster hunters. They study the mutated things that try to kill them, using what they learn to hone their skills at how to deal with the seasonal invasions.
 
     I don’t like that word ‘monster’ because most use it wrong. More than half the time, the ‘monster’ is just some animal trying to get by in the world. The person calling it a monster is the invader, not the wild animal.
 
     But, from what I understood, the Talabreans use the word correctly. What keeps trying to crawl out of the Deepland? That’s closer to a rabid creature the size of a wagon that can spit acid and tear metal with its claws. Sometimes the Talabreans get a break and it’s just a swarm of ancient, mindless undead migrating up from below; if undead actually migrate.
 
     I watched while a thin, streamlined cloudglider took flight out of the Leapport district in the distance. It lurched up after being tossed into the air by the wagon sized slingshot. With a snap, the crew spread the cloudglider’s sails, and the ship caught the wind in the Great Chasm.
 
     Cloudgliders are large, catamaran-like flying boats with silk sail-wings to keep it in the air. They’re a regular sight along the few Great Chasm rim settlements. The miles-deep Great Chasm is the only place on Planus I’d ever heard of them being used.
 
     I remember them from the last time we came through Talabrae’s Deep. They’re still impressive.
 
     “You know, that’s another idea.” I pointed at the flying boat while it unfurled its sail-wings. “A cloudglider. We could make up for the lost time. Maybe even get ahead of the Crimson Company.”
 
     Ki rubbed the bridge of his nose.
 
     “I remember those. It could work provided there’s enough room to maneuver,” he waved a hand idly toward the window, “or even land.”
 
     “We landed last time,” I replied. “It was a little rough, but we landed.”
 
     “A little rough?” Ki raised his eyebrows. “I don’t think we remember that the same way.”
 
     I shook my head. Just then, a crunch of metal on stone in the distance caught my attention.
 
     To the right of Leapport, where the cloudgliders launch, a spider-shaped wagon lumbered into view between the buildings. A stonejack. Another result of Talabrean creativity. It rumbled on its eight, metal-braced legs while the crew aboard worked the lines, winches and more that made the thing work. Slowly, the vehicle clambered over some rocks before it scaled down the canyon’s cliff face, out of sight.
 
     “We could catch a ride on a stonejack,” I suggested. It was another attempt to keep distracted from my previous thoughts, which would not quite go away.
 
     Ki’s sea-blue complexion turned a light gray-green. It practically reached the horns on his head.
 
     “What?” I asked.
 
     “The walking wagons they use for cliff mining? Dangling off the edge of a miles-deep canyon, held up by a single line?” After a deep breath, he sighed. “Negotiating with the Slate Watch sounds simpler.”
 
     I snorted, grateful for his typical paranoia about the world trying to murder us. It was comforting in a really strange sort of way.
 
     He squinted at me.
 
     “Tela, other than ignoring the whole ‘die by splatter’, I think there’s something here at Talabrae’s Deep that could help us before we head into the Chasm.”
 
     I had to think about that for a moment. Equipment? Supplies? We might need those. But I got the impression Ki wasn’t talking about that. It wasn’t like I knew Talabrae’s Deep like the back of my hand. I had only been here once before, years ago. Suddenly, I understood what Ki meant.
 
     “Hunter’s Hall!” I said with a grin. “Their library, the Obsidian Armory! That’s here in their Hunter’s Hall!”
 
     Ki grinned back. “The same. Remember the last time? They had a few records on Long Deep. Like that partial map which led us to the bottom of the Chasm. It’s been a while, so they might have collected more by now. After all, the Slate Watch keeps detailed records on anything that slithers through the Great Chasm.”
 
     Baron Marius jumped back into my mind. The quiet part of me wondered if the Talabreans had anything about him? Like that ‘dust for blood’ condition? It was worth a look. I pushed away from the window.
 
     “I’ll get my coat.”
 
     “Tela,” Ki said sharply. “Tyre said to wait, and he’s right! This isn’t the time to walk into an ambush to set it off.”
 
     I wasn’t sure if it was what Ki said, how he said it, or just bad timing. But something inside me snapped. I turned on my heels and scowled at Ki.
 
     “That’s it!” I snapped. “Ever since I’ve been back, people have been treating me like I’m going to shatter into little pieces if I get bumped wrong. All because of what happened.”
 
     The urge to pace made me fidget. “I’m not a glass statue and I will not go sit safe on a shelf! I’ve been through worse and bled from worse!”
 
     Heat rose to my cheeks while I clenched my fists. I had kept my temper on a short leash recently, but right then? It broke that leash and roared to life.
 
     “I told you what happened with Baron Marius! Also about Vargas having me dumped out on the prairie like garbage. At least I was half expecting that from Vargas!”
 
     Ki started to interrupt, but stopped himself. Instead, he stood still and looked pensive. Me? I had a head full of hot frustration, so I just kept going.
 
     “I get what you and Odro told me. I do. But I need to know what that bastard did to me! Especially since this,” I waved a hand at my eyes, “is permanent right? Isn’t that what you and Odro said? Also, I have to know just what Baron Marius is! He bled dust Ki! Dust! People don’t do that!”
 
     To his credit, Ki stayed where he was and listened. He didn’t interrupt me, try to explain it all away, or anything. At most, he fiddled with his coffee cup and pursed his lips while I ranted like a madwoman.
 
     I forced myself to stop yelling at the world through Ki, then took three slow, deep breaths. After that, my temper receded enough that I could talk with my calm, inside voice.
 
     “Ki, given all that’s happened, there is no way we won’t run into Vargas, the Crimson Company, and Baron Marius again. We know about Vargas and his little ‘condition’. The Crimson Company isn’t anything new. But the baron? Remember, what we don’t know could kill us. Right now, it feels like we don’t know a lot.”
 
     We stared at each other for a long time after I stopped talking. A last few words bubbled up from the back of my mind. This time, my voice was small, quiet. But in the near silence of the Sheldrake, they sounded far too loud in my ears.
 
     “The baron. That man. He hurt me in a way I don’t entirely understand, Ki. I refuse to be that helpless again. Especially since we both know we’re going to have to deal with him at some point.”
 
     Kiyosi didn’t reply. Instead, he walked over to a small table bolted to the wall frame to set his cup inside a small bin. That done, he turned to face me; his tail swayed idly behind him.
 
     “Then we’d better grab Mikasi and get your coat,” he said with a small smile. “Daylight’s burning and we’ve a lot of searching to do.”

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