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There had been a great fire and there had been a great flood. Both are forces of nature that sweep clean, that wipe the slate and promise a new beginning. Thurin had been the cause of the fire and of the flood. And yet both had failed to wash away his desire to be with Yaz of the Ictha: the girl for whom the stars shone brighter.
Thurin stared up at the miles-long hole stretching vertically through the ice to a world that he had never seen. It seemed impossible that he had driven the fire that melted it. The release of his fire-talent, of energies that had built inside him for years and years, had hollowed him. The subsequent battle with the Tainted had left him bruised, bitten, and torn. And almost immediately after that he had used the full extent of his ice-work in a desperate attempt to ensure Yaz’s brother joined her escape.
Even as he wondered what it was that still kept him upright, Thurin found himself collapsing to the floor. The last image to remain with him was of Yaz’s impossibly white eyes locked on his as the cage rose ever further and vanished into darkness.
Thurin rolled to his side, groaning. A pleasant heat wrapped him and for a beautiful moment he thought himself at home in his mother’s house within the settlement. He tried to cling to the illusion but it slid through his grasp, leaving only pieces of the darker dreams that had haunted his sleep, ones in which Theus stood above him pulling puppet strings to make him dance to a tune that was not his own.
‘Still with us? Good.’
Thurin cracked open an eye. A fierce glow, distorted by his blurry vision, stole detail from the scene but he saw enough to tell that he was lying in one of the forge sheds. Lengths of chain and a variety of tools hung from the support beams. ‘Kaylal? That you?’
‘It is.’ The young smith clapped a hand to Thurin’s shoulder. ‘Takes more than a hundred screaming Tainted to put me down.’
Thurin struggled to sit. All of him hurt. Bites and scratches that he hadn’t noticed before now cried for his attention. ‘You’re all right?’
‘Well, I lost both legs . . .’
Thurin smiled at the old joke. Kaylal looked as bad as he felt, both eyes blackened and puffy, his ear torn and bleeding, bruising round his neck. Still, the greatest of his hurts was the loss of Exxar. The rest of his wounds would heal. ‘It’s good to see you. How did I get here?’
‘Arka had the wounded carried to shelter. The worst of them are at the settlement.’ Kaylal hauled himself up a chain to gain his work stool. ‘Your friend Yaz left in spectacular fashion, I’m told.’
‘She’s your friend too.’ Thurin scowled, angry at his own evasion.
Kaylal shook his head. ‘I lost Exxar and there’s no getting him back. Yaz has only been gone half a day. She’s up there.’ He pointed. ‘It’s a journey that took even me almost no time at all.’
‘I’m told it’s harder on the way up.’ Thurin stood, groaning at the stiffness in his limbs.
‘Seriously, though, you need to do something, Thurin. I saw how you looked at her. What will it be like spending the years to come always wondering where she is, what she’s doing?’
Thurin stretched, imagining he could hear his leg bones creaking. He knew Kaylal was right and it scared him. He moved closer to the forge pot, still radiating residual heat despite being empty. ‘The Broken need me.’
‘That’s just an excuse. We have Arka. We have our people back from the taint. And if this whale is really there . . .’
‘It is. Getting it out of the black ice will be a problem, but I saw it. I never believed the stories when they said how big those things are!’
Kaylal grinned. ‘I want to see it too!’
Thurin echoed his friend’s smile. It seemed madness for the two of them, neither having any memories of the ice, to be discussing his going to the surface. But if ever there had been a time for madness it was here in the days since Yaz’s arrival.
‘I don’t know how to follow her.’ Thurin said it in a small voice. It seemed a sorrier excuse than being needed here. But the truth was that two miles of ice was a daunting barrier. It wasn’t as if anyone had ever overcome it before Yaz made her escape.
Kaylal laughed. ‘They say you’re the one who made that hole in the first place. If that’s true then surely you can get yourself up it. I doubt they’ve been able to close it off yet.’
Thurin frowned. ‘Maybe . . .’ He bit his lip. ‘It would be dangerous though. Very.’
‘Oh, well. Better stay then.’ Kaylal took down one of his hammers and began to inspect the open chain links scattering the table before him.
‘Heh.’ Thurin shook his head. ‘Everything has been dangerous since she came. I guess I’ve got a taste for it now.’
Kaylal reached out behind him and took hold of something dark and heavy that he tossed to Thurin.
‘Exxar’s cloak?’ Thurin stroked a hand down over the garment: double-layered rat-skin. It had taken an age for Exxar to barter for the furs.
‘He was never warm enough.’ Kaylal managed a smile.
‘Take it. I heard it’s chilly up there.’
Thurin swirled the cloak around his shoulders and started towards the door. He paused to set a hand on Kaylal’s shoulder. ‘You’ll look after them all for me, won’t you?’
‘I will, brother.’ Kaylal put down his hammer and laid a calloused hand on top of Thurin’s. ‘And we’ll be here if you need a place to come back to. Now go and get her.’
Thurin returned to the city cavern, passing through cave after cave where the Broken wandered in numbers greater than he’d ever seen them. Those reclaimed from the taint outnumbered the Broken who had remained free, but they were intermixed now, families reunited. There were greetings from people who remembered Thurin as a baby, and others he recalled from his childhood. Some, taken more recently, rushed to hug him, trying to drag him off to this or that celebration. The joy that Yaz had left in her wake was just starting to sink in. The Broken were only now beginning to truly believe that this was no dream, that it was something real that couldn’t be taken from them.
Each invitation, each reunion, weakened his resolve; each was a hook sunk into his flesh and needing to be torn free if he was to continue to his goal. It would be so easy to stay, so easy to resume the familiarity of his life, to enjoy the improved future within the company of his extended family. But Thurin knew that if he turned from his course, if he surrendered to what was easy, then Yaz would haunt him all his life, however long it might be. A great ‘what if’ hanging over his head year after year.
And so he came to the city cavern and crossed the puddled expanse of stone, the iced-over remnants of the flood cracking beneath his feet. He walked among the abandoned wealth of iron, the wreckage of broken hunters, discarded armour, weapons cast aside. He gave a wide berth to the pit into which Theus and the other tainted gerants had fallen when Yaz collapsed the floor beneath them into a chamber of the undercity. He assumed that the pit remained full of the bodies of those who had fallen amid a tumult of shattered rock, but he had no wish to see the truth of the matter for himself. The families of the dead would come for them soon enough.
Thurin spotted a lone figure poking among the debris of Pome’s hunter, Old Hanno, who after Eular had to be the oldest of the Broken at well over fifty. He raised his hand in greeting. Apart from the two of them the ruins stood deserted.
Thurin came to a halt beneath the wide throat of the hole that stretched up through the roof of the city cavern to the surface of the ice, allegedly miles above. The stardust marbling the ice illuminated the first twenty or thirty yards of the shaft in a dim multi-hued glow. Beyond that, only darkness, no hint of the sky that the stories told of. Most of Thurin’s friends had memories of the surface, but none of their words really painted a picture in his mind, or even made sense. What held this ‘sky’ up? How high above the ground was it? Where were the walls? Thurin sighed and guessed that if his plans succeeded then he would soon see for himself and being an adult he would understand what the Broken had failed to explain from their childhood recollections.
A deep breath calmed him a little. Another deeper breath, exhaling the tension. Thurin’s power to work the ice came from his marjal blood. Next to shadow-work the elemental skills were the most common to manifest in marjals. He had been strong with water and ice since his early years. By the age of ten he had been able to weaken the cave walls, allowing the gerants to dig through much more swiftly in their hunt for stars. The talent had slowly strengthened as he grew and used it daily with the mining crew, but it still hadn’t been anywhere near as strong as Tarko’s.
That had changed when Thurin returned from the Tainted. Something had shifted within him; some barrier had broken. He found himself capable of new feats. And in the week since Yaz’s arrival it had seemed that some hitherto unsuspected barrier had broken each day. In the fight with Hetta he had held her off by seizing the water that suffuses all humans. Yaz’s arrival had heralded a sequence of life-or-death situations, and in each new extremity Thurin had clawed his way to some fresh height, unlocking more strength, his ice-work at last becoming equal to that of their former leader. Perhaps even surpassing it.
Another deep breath and Thurin reached for his power. The idea had come to him when he thought about how he had saved Zeen. The boy had lost his grip as the cage accelerated upwards towards the shaft. Thurin had reached out with his ice-work, his mind taking hold of Zeen’s blood. Thurin had lifted the boy and sent him in pursuit of the cage, letting him grab the bars once more.
Now Thurin turned his ice-work inwards, taking hold of the water in the blood that ran through his own veins, the water that suffused his flesh. You only had to see how solid a corpse would freeze to know how much of us is water. With a small grunt of concentration Thurin lifted his feet clear of the rock. It was easier than he had feared, yet still hard enough to make him worry that sustaining the effort for as long as was necessary might be beyond him.
He rose slowly into the air with the sense that he was balancing on the narrow top of an invisible, ever-growing tower. The pressure needed to raise his bodyweight pushed back on some elastic part of his mind, some focus of his talent that would stretch and stretch again, providing whatever effort was demanded of it . . . right up to that moment when suddenly too much had been asked and without warning it might snap.
Empty yards piled up beneath his feet. The ground grew more distant, the roof closer. With the ice ceiling looming above him on every side, Thurin found himself seized by a swift and unexpected terror. The distance yawning beneath his feet seemed to exert a pull all of its own. The invisible tower on which he balanced became an unstable stack of loosely connected parts, piled way too high. The rocky expanse bearing the city’s scars demanded that he rejoin it with crushing speed.
A panicked burst of power sent Thurin rushing into the shaft, and in its rapidly narrowing, rapidly dimming confines the distance beneath him was quickly tamed. Within a short time, all that could be seen below him was a shrinking circle of light that yielded no impression of the fall it concealed.
Within a hundred yards the darkness wrapped Thurin completely and from then on he was simply a dot of warmth rising blind through the night, grazing the ice walls from time to time, and wondering if the seemingly endless shaft would spit him out into the world above before gravity’s pull overcame his willpower and dragged him screaming back to a quick but ugly death.
Up, always up. Thurin lost track of time. The pain built behind his eyes until he also lost all sense of where he was going and why. Up and up. And the hurt kept getting worse.