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.
Gavin Guile sleepily eyed the papers that slid under his door and wondered what Karris was punishing him for this time. His rooms occupied half of the top floor of the Chromeria, but the panoramic windows were blackened so that if he slept at all, he could sleep in. The seal on the letter pulsed so gently Gavin couldn’t tell what color had been drafted into it. He propped himself up in bed so he could get a better look and dilated his pupils to gather as much light as possible.
Superviolet. Oh, sonuva—
On every side, the floor-to-ceiling blackened windows dropped into the floor, bathing the room in full-spectrum light as the morning sun was revealed, climbing the horizon over the dual islands. With his eyes dilated so far, magic flooded Gavin. It was too much to hold.
Light exploded from him in every direction, passing through him in successive waves from superviolet down. The sub-red was last, rushing through his skin like a wave of flame. Gavin jumped out of bed, sweating instantly. But with all the windows open, cold summer morning winds blasted through his chambers, chilling him. He yelped, hopping back into the bed.
His yelp must have been loud enough for Karris to hear it and know that her rude awakening had been successful, because he heard her unmistakable laugh. She wasn’t a superviolet, so she must have had a friend help her with her little prank. A quick shot of superviolet luxin at the room’s controls threw the windows closed and set the filters to half. Gavin extended a hand to blast his door open, then stopped. He wasn’t going to give Karris the satisfaction. Karris’s assignment to be the White’s fetch-and-carry girl had ostensibly been intended to teach her humility and gravitas. So far that much had been a spectacular failure, though the White always played a deeper game. Still, Gavin couldn’t help grinning as he rose and swept the folded papers Karris had tucked under the door to his hand.
He walked to his door. On a small service table just outside, he found his breakfast on a platter. It was the same every morning: two squat bricks of bread and a wedge of cheese. The bread was made of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt, unleavened. A man could live on that bread. In fact, a man was living on that bread. Just not Gavin. Indeed, the sight of it made Gavin’s stomach turn. He could order a different breakfast, of course, but he never did.
He brought it inside, setting the papers on the table next to the bread. One was odd, a plain note didn’t look like the White’s personal stationery, nor any official hard white stationery the Chromeria used. He turned it over. The Chromeria’s message office had marked as being received from “ST, Rekton”: Satrapy of Tyrea, town of Rekton. It sounded familiar, maybe one of those towns near Sundered Rock? But then, there had once been so many towns there. Probably someone begging an audience, though those were supposed to be screened out and dealt with separately.
Still, first things first. He tore open each loaf, checking that nothing had been concealed inside it, and broke open each wedge of cheese. Satisfied, he turned toward the morning sun. A pale, granite blue swirled in his eyes like smoke, passing from Gavin’s multicolored irises to the whites, and then disappearing deeper into his body. Wisps of that pale blue brushed the skin around his temples, then in his neck, before coming to rest in his right hand. Gavin drafted only enough magic to fill the fingers of his right hand. He held his hand up against the pale, granite blue sky of a painting he kept on the wall as his reference. Then he turned his hand over. There wasn’t much pigment in the backs of his tan fingers, but there was almost none in the front, and it was vital to get this exactly right, to adjust even for the reds that shone through his skin from his capillaries.
He did it perfectly, of course. He’d been doing this for five thousand mornings now. Almost sixteen years. A long time for a man only thirty-three years old. He drafted the blue into the bread, dyeing it the same color, same intensity, same saturation throughout. Then the cheese.
Gavin picked up the note.
“I’m dying, Gavin. It’s time you meet your son Kip. -Lina”
Son? I don’t have a—
Suddenly his throat clamped down, and his chest felt like his heart was seizing up, no matter that the chirugeons said. Just relax, they said. Young and strong as a warhorse, they said. They didn’t say grow a pair. You’ve got lots of friends, your enemies fear you, and you have no rivals. You’re the Prism. What are you afraid of? No one had talked to him that way in years. Sometimes he wished they would.
Orholam, the note hadn’t even been sealed.
Gavin walked out onto his glass balcony, subconsciously checking his drafting as he did every morning. He stared at his hand, splitting sunlight into its component colors as only he could do, filling each finger in turn with a color, from below the visible spectrum to above it: sub-red, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, superviolet. Had he felt a hitch there when he drafted blue? He double-checked it, glancing briefly toward the sun.
No, it was still easy to split light, still flawless. He released the luxin, each color sliding out and dissipating like smoke from beneath his fingernails, releasing the familiar bouquet of resinous scents.
He turned his face to the sun, its warmth like a mother’s caress. Gavin opened his eyes and sucked in a warm, soothing red. In and out, in time with his labored breaths, willing them to slow. Then he let the red go, and took in a deep icy blue. It felt like it was freezing his eyes. As ever, the blue brought clarity, peace, order. But not a plan, not with so little information. He let go of the colors. He was still fine. He still had at least five years left. Plenty of time. Five years, five great purposes.
Well, maybe not five great purposes.
Still, of his predecessors in the last four hundred years, aside from those who’d been assassinated or died of other causes, the rest had served for seven, fourteen, or twenty-one years after becoming Prism. Gavin had made it past fourteen. So, plenty of time. No reason to think he’d be the exception. Not many reasons, anyway.
He was still holding the White’s note. Cracking her white seal—the old crone sealed everything, though she shared the other half of this floor and Karris hand-delivered her messages. But everything had to be in its proper place, properly done. There was no mistaking that she’d risen from Blue.
The White’s note read: “Unless you would prefer to greet the students arriving late this morning, my dear Lord Prism, please attend me on the roof.”
Looking beyond the Chromeria’s buildings and the city, Gavin studied the merchant ships in the bay cupped in the lee of Big Jasper Island. A ragged-looking Atashian sloop small enough that it was maneuvering in to dock directly at a pier.
Greeting new students. Unbelievable. It wasn’t that he was too good to greet new students—well, actually, it was that. He, the White, and the Spectrum were supposed to balance each other. But though the Spectrum feared him the most, the reality was that the crone got her way more often than Gavin and the seven Colors combined. This morning, she had to be wanting to experiment on him again, and if he wanted to avoid something more onerous like teaching he’d better get to the top of the tower.
Gavin drafted his red hair into a tight ponytail, and dressed in the clothes his room slave had laid out for him: an ivory shirt and an well-cut pair of black wool pants with an oversize gem-studded belt, boots with silverwork and a black cloak with harsh old Ilytian runic designs embroidered in silver thread. The Prism belonged to all the satrapies, so Gavin did his best to honor the traditions of every land—even one that was mainly pirates and heretics.
He hesitated a moment, then pulled open a drawer and drew out his brace of Ilytian pistols. They were, typically for Ilytian work, the most advanced design Gavin had ever seen. The firing mechanism was far more reliable than a wheellock—they were calling it a flintlock. Each pistol had a long blade beneath the barrel, and even a belt-flange so that when he tucked them into his belt behind his back, they were held securely and at an angle so he didn’t skewer himself when he sat. The Ilytians thought of everything.
And, of course, the pistols made the White’s Blackguards nervous. Gavin grinned.
When he turned for the door and saw the painting again, his grin dropped.
Gavin walked back to the table with the blue bread and blue cheese. Grabbing one use-smoothened edge of the painting, he pulled. It swung open silently, revealing a narrow chute.
Nothing menacing about the chute. Too small for a man to climb up, even if he overcame everything else. It might have been a laundry chute. Yet to Gavin, it looked like the mouth of hell, the evernight itself opening wide for him. He tossed one of the bricks of bread and the cheese into it, then waited. There was a thunk as the bread hit the first lock, a small hiss as it opened, then closed, then a smaller thunk as it hit the next lock, and a few moments later, one last thunk. Each of the locks was still working. Everything was normal. Safe. There had been mistakes over the years, but no one had to die this time. No need for paranoia. He nearly snarled as he slammed the painting closed.
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.