“Otger! What’d you do to him?” gasped Petra.
Otger swung something in a string net. “Hit him with a cheese.”
“You have a cheese?”
“Saved it for you, against dire need. It’s the sort of thing a besotted sap does.”
Petra looked down at Cort, lying senseless at her feet. “How much of that did you hear?”
“Enough. We’d better go—the knock won’t last long. Back inside Karlward, right?”
“Yes—are you fit?”
“Look, I’m almost upright.”
They hurried inward through the maze of fissures in Karlward’s crystal skin, guided by the exhalation of warm, metallic air. After a while, Petra had to stop to throw up. There was nothing but bile in her stomach, but it came out with painful heaves and helpless sobs. Cort was coming out of her; that’s how it felt. How fascinating she’d thought him, sweet and sour and dangerously spiced—now rotted down to poison in her gut.
Otger turned away until it was over, and for that she was grateful.
Then they set off across a lake of once-molten iron in which enormous drooping stumps stood in mute testimony to an ancient holocaust. They’d not crossed it before, so it was clear they’d lost the way.
In the middle of it, Otger shared a slice of cheese. “To fill the void,” he said.
Petra laughed, as thankful for his dry humor as for the cheese, which only made her stomach cry out for more. It brought her thirst to mind, too. They’d finished the last of the jugger water back at the sleeping nook.
They rested with their backs to an iron stump, staring into the darkness and the small circle of brown desolation revealed by a spider light’s flame. The silence of the place was a solid, crushing thing. But in Petra’s head was the thinnest whine, a pinprick of noise, insistent and unpleasant. She tried to ignore it.
She didn’t mean to say anything, but the words came out anyway. “He was my brother’s friend. That’s almost the worst of it.” The tightness of her throat made her voice sound funny. Her words fell like dead things on the surface of the iron lake.
Otger spoke carefully. “I remember Cort’s story of that visit. He said he’d made friends with the boy who was going to be Drakhorn Tash, and taught him shooting tricks. But Cort exaggerates to make himself important, you know?”
Petra hugged her knees. A Drakhorn had to prove himself to be elected Tash, and there was an order of succession, too. If Ward died, her father would be next, then Fallon after him. Fallon was young. Unless disaster struck, it was unlikely that Tarran would ever have become Tash. As far as she knew, he hadn’t cared.
“You know, your clanmarks explain a lot I didn’t understand before,” mused Otger. “Like why Gronnor wanted me to beat you at Clash. It would be less likely Ward would let you leave camp.”
Petra looked into his eyes, dark holes in the dimness. It also explained why Gronnor had troubled to argue against Ward’s idea to take her along.
Otger continued. “It explains Lucan—why Gronnor would use that power to send him after you. And it means …” He hesitated.
Petra finished the thought for him. “It means that the Flays in the Blood Gorge are just a distraction, to get Ward and the men out of camp.”
“Yes, because the important raid is on the Drakhorn nest,” said Otger. “And you were supposed to be the prize. Only—”
“Only the egg has flown. I guess that makes you the draken,” said Petra, with a lopsided grin.
“No,” said Otger, earnestly. “You’re draken and egg together—a fledgling. You flew by yourself.”
I wouldn’t have got far without company, thought Petra.
“Cort was right,” said Otger. “Gronnor won’t give up.”
“Then we’d better be moving,” said Petra, trying to muster a leader’s confidence.
“Um, Petra, I’ve only one torch left.”
Petra dug into her pack and pulled out a sock. From it she squeezed a little milky ball that threw out three candles’ worth of light.
Otger blinked like an owl in the gentle glow of the stolen ‘tarlic in her palm. “Wow. You’re way smarter than a dog.”
Petra grinned and got to her feet. She peered into the gloom. It looked the same in all directions.
Otger rose to stand beside her.
“Listen, Otger, …” Her voice grated. She licked dry lips and cleared her throat. “I hope you don’t imagine I know what I’m doing, because I don’t. Good chance we’ll die in here.”
“Die trying, at least. What you told Cort was right. Going north through Karlward is the only way. You’re a true-born Drakhorn, and Drakhorns are legends for trail-sense. You’ve clanmarks—two of them. I read that …” He shook his head, then murmured. “Like crossing Kastra’s Stair in the dark. That isn’t something just anyone could do. Trust your instinct.”
Petra pressed her lips together and stared into the vanishing desolation. His words weren’t helping; they just made her feel desperate. She didn’t want to let him down, but her instinct, if she had any, had dried up. Herm’s Eyes—I don’t need instinct. I need a map.
The whine at the back of her head grew louder. It made her wince. It was like a prelude to the terrible scream Ward’s tarlic had made in her skull. She put a hand to her temple. Her skin prickled in dreadful anticipation. But the whine softened to a hiss and a whispering and a babbling and then the map was everywhere around her. She shook her head, confused. Was she falling asleep? The pebble eyes were there again. She felt them. They’d seen her. They were intent on her.
“You okay?” asked Otger.
“Um. I think so.” The babble was fading, the map fainter, but still there. It’s hunger, she thought. Thirst and hunger and tiredness and poisoned air. The watchful eyes were hungry too.
When she turned, the delicate web of the map wheeled about her, golden lines stretching through the darkness. That way was north. She didn’t understand it, but didn’t doubt it either. Holding up the stolen lamp ‘tarlic, she followed the ghostly map, and Otger followed her.
“I hear water,” croaked Otger.
Petra hadn’t mentioned it, unsure the sound was real. They’d passed through cathedral halls filled with wreckage and passages with drifts of dust and dried-out webs. The countless rooms had iron doors, many sagging from their slots or hinges. In some rooms were rusted skeletons that had been furniture. Not once had Otger asked Petra if she knew the way.
They stepped through a doorway into a broad hall.
A foot-thick iron door lay like a discarded tissue, buckled as though it had been punched by an angry troll. The hall had been sliced across the middle—and across their path. The rift extended through the walls, the ceiling, and the floor.
Water cascaded through the tear in the ceiling. It splashed on a narrow ledge of torn iron floor on the far side of the rift, where a doorless doorframe gave onto darkness. The air smelled deliciously wet. Petra and Otger approached the rift cautiously and peered around. To either side, and above and below, darkness echoed with the clatter of falling water. Warm air blew upwards from the depths.
“Snowmelt,” said Petra. “It must be falling all the way though from the Crown.”
“It does smell like it. Look at the lime and dried mud—it sometimes falls on this side too.”
Unfortunately, none was falling on their side now, and the rift was too wide to jump across. They stared at the water and licked parched lips.
“See that?” said Otger suddenly.
On the far side, a clumsy pipe on stilts ended at a square funnel under the waterfall.
Petra and Otger looked at each other. “Juggers!” they whispered in unison.
“We’ll have to cross,” whispered Petra. “Who knows how far this crack goes.” She paced from wall to wall. She looked at the fallen door and the pipe, then unclipped her hook.
“Um, that thing looks rusty,” said Otger, nodding at the pipe. “And with the line so low, how would we climb out the other side?”
Petra pressed her lips together and thought. The web of the map was dense here, confused. The way ahead seemed lower. “The next level down!”
She dared not stand close to the brink, because the drooping edge was slippery. She lit a torch, snagged the hook on the door, and with the taut line in her hand, eased herself toward the precipice.
Otger stood behind her, craning his neck.
Petra planted a foot at the edge and leaned out over the void, holding the torch above her head so as not to blind herself. The darkness went down forever, and through it the snowmelt fell in curtains and streamers. Some splashed off the jagged edge of the next floor down, the noise of it echoing through the chasm. The narrow ledge made by the remaining strip of floor was heaped with mud. Below it, barely visible, the edge of yet another floor. Petra’s stomach clenched. The sight was worse even than the Cloven Tower’s chasm, because here the falling water made the depth more real. She could imagine the rift plunging to the center of the world, and at the bottom, not stones and bones, but Hell’s own demons waited.
“See anything?” said Otger.
That’s when they learned that in Karlward, some juggers went bootless and were as silent as cats. The only warning was a bad smell.
“Yah!” cried Otger.
Petra glanced back in time to see Otger lifted off his feet by a skinny jugger in a uniform. The jugger’s face twisted into a grin and it honked a guffaw. Petra’s foot slipped. She spun and fell heavily on her front with her legs in space and only the hook’s cord to hold her.
“Petra!” screamed Otger, reaching helplessly.
The jugger clamped him under one arm.
Petra tried to haul herself forward without losing the torch.
The jugger honked something at a bigger one behind it. That one followed her cord back to the door. His sausage fingers plucked at the hook, fumbled it, grabbed for it, missed—and to jugger howls and Otger’s scream, Petra slipped off the edge and fell into darkness.