“Whatever it takes.” Jarryd glared at Hamisi and Kathor, daring them to challenge him. The crystal was hot in his hand. Holding it felt right. This weapon was meant for him.
Kathor looked troubled. The big man had his arms crossed, regarding Jarryd from under knotted brows.
Looking at Hamisi made Jarryd flinch inside. Hurt and anger warred for dominance on her face, but in her eyes there was only hurt. The pain pierced him, triggering a tiny voice inside that was yelling he was making a mistake.
“You lied to me.”
There was so much anguish in her voice that he almost faltered. He came this close to breaking down, to telling her he was sorry, confessing everything he’d done.
But there was a coldness over his heart. He could feel it even then, like ice against his skin.
The black scales.
The mark the Dragon Queen’s assassin had given him. It chained him to her. She knew his every move. She haunted his dreams. She was trying to corrupt him.
Only the Thaumaturge stone gave him a chance. It was his only hope.
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” Jarryd said.
“You didn’t even try.” There were tears in her voice, though her eyes were still dry. The intensity of the stare she fixed on him was almost more than Jarryd could bear.
“You wouldn’t have listened.” Jarryd held up the crystal. “They guided me here. They wanted me to find this.”
“Who, Jarryd?” Kathor asked. “Who guided you?”
Jarryd was momentarily surprised. He’d been talking to himself, he realized, not expecting a reply. “I don’t know. The gods, I suppose. I felt it from far away. With it, I am finally strong enough to fight back.” His grip tightened on the crystal until it felt like it was cutting into his palm. The pain felt good.
“You can’t fight a war without weapons.”
“You can’t fight a war by yourself, either,” Hamisi said. “But it looks like that’s what you’re doing.”
She was curling in on herself, walling him away. Jarryd wanted to cry out, wanted to tell her it wasn’t like that at all. But his fear and his rage stood in the way.
“You never wanted any of this anyway,” he said. “Now you have an excuse.”
Her face darkened. “I was a fool. I never should have…” She folded her arms around herself and turned away. “I’m done with you, Jarryd.”
“Hamisi—” Kathor began, but she cut him off.
“No. I don’t want to hear it. This is not my quest, and I see now that it never was. All I want to do is get out of here and go my own way.”
Jarryd started to say something else, hot words, oil to pour on the fire that was already raging, but right then a sudden tremor shook the tower.
“What was that?” Kathor asked, looking around.
Another tremor. Dust sifted down. A bottle fell off a table and smashed on the floor.
“We have to get out of here,” Kathor said. “This place is coming down.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Jarryd replied. “This place withstood the Cataclysm. It will—”
Another tremor, this one accompanied by groaning, cracking sounds. Down below, something large and heavy toppled over with a crash.
Hamisi wasn’t waiting around for more. She headed for the stairs at a trot. Kathor was only a moment behind.
Jarryd hesitated, not wanting to give up the place so easily. He looked around. There was a bookcase, heavy with leather-bound tomes. Shelves lined with jars in which floated strange creatures. Jars and stoppered bottles stood on a long table.
So much knowledge right here, knowledge he needed.
Another tremor. One of the bodies pinned to the walls fell with a dry clatter.
Then, even more ominous. A loud crackling, hissing sound from down below, followed by a violent shudder that staggered him. A sudden crack appeared in the wall. It branched out and up, already a hand’s width and getting wider by the moment.
Jarryd ran for the stairs. The important thing was he had the stone. The rest he would have to figure out on his own.
The stairs twisted like a living thing under his feet. More bodies were falling from the walls, falling oddly slowly, like the husks of strange, long-dead moths.
But it was the strange root—ancient, gnarled, a mass of unnatural rootlets as big around as a man—that ran up the center of the tower that drew his attention. It was glowing with an odd yellow-orange light and writhing madly. Had he awakened something?
More cracks appeared in the tower walls. A large piece broke free and crashed to the stairs a short distance ahead of Jarryd, tearing out a whole section of the stairs.
Jarryd was moving too fast to stop. He did the only thing he could and leapt across the gap, hoping the stairs on the far side were still stable enough to support him.
The stair he landed on broke away instantly, but he fell forward onto the remaining stairs. A surge of kriyana kept him from breaking his ribs, but the wind was knocked out of him and he nearly lost his grip and fell.
Levering himself up, he regained his feet and continued running down the stairs. They were unsteady under his feet, some breaking away as he put his weight on them. Only his momentum saved him from several falls. He glanced over the edge, trying to see the floor, thinking it might be better to jump the rest of the way.
But he couldn’t see the floor. He couldn’t be sure what he would land on.
Another tremor and an entire section of stairs ahead of him simply collapsed in one huge piece. Jarryd reacted without thinking, shifting his momentum in an instant and leaping out toward the center.
He latched onto the root, hoping it would support him.
It swayed, but held. More sections of stair fell, accompanied by chunks of walls and withered bodies.
Quickly, Jarryd climbed down the root. It was moving under his hands, but he knew the movement wasn’t caused by the tower’s tremors.
The root was moving on its own.
Jarryd tried not to think about what that meant. He remembered that the root also went down through a hole in the floor at the base of the tower.
Where did it go? What was down there?
He could see the floor now and he leapt free of the root. Pieces of glass and dead bodies were raining down around him, but he paused to look down into the shaft from which the root emerged. How could he not? A red-orange light was coming from the shaft. He had to see.
Far down in the shaft was a red-orange mass, like molten steel. It was rising quickly, crackling and spitting loudly as it did so. Heat poured off it.
Jarryd didn’t wait to see more but took off running for the door.
Knights Rift is available on pre-order now at Amazon. I’m better than halfway through the rough draft and hope to have the book completed before Christmas.