The folks at Night Shade Books have put together an advent calendar/holiday countdown throughout December to help promote specific pieces of content around the web. And I'm happy to kick things off with an excerpt from Courtney Schafer's The Whitefire Crossing. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He's in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it's easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel--where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark--into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.
But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution--and he'll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.
Yet the young mage is not the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other--or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.
The wagon jerked to a halt, nearly unseating Kiran from the outboard. He snatched at a supply sack to regain his balance. “We’re stopping again?” He couldn’t help the pained tone of the question. He’d already lost count of the number of stops they’d had as the convoy crawled along the southern side of the basin. At this rate, they wouldn’t see the border for weeks.
“Told you there’d be lots of repairs today.” Dev stood in his stirrups and peered over the wagon’s stacked crates. “We’ve hit the Desadi Couloir. That’s a wide one, still full of snow. Maybe an hour’s work for today’s crew to compact the snow and put down planks so the wagons can cross.” Dev slouched back in his saddle and began idly retying a broken cord on one of his waterskins. His pinto mare stood patiently, her eyes half-lidded.
Kiran leaned back on a bulging sack. Towering rock crags loomed above, their massive heights buried in snow. The sky was a deep and dazzling blue, in stark contrast to the blinding white of the ridge. On the steep slope below the trail, oddly contorted pinnacles twisted skyward from the talus like isolated monoliths. Any other day the grand scenery would capture all of his attention. Instead, his thoughts turned back to Pello. What would a shadow man find most intimidating?
A faint wash of magic rippled past his barriers, like the echo from a distant shout. Kiran scrambled upright, his heart accelerating. He strained his senses. Had Ruslan –
A sharp crack split the air. Dev jerked to attention in the saddle, the waterskin falling from his hands. He twisted to stare at the peaks above. The drovers on the wagon behind him mirrored his frozen pose, faces all pointing up and leftward.
Kiran’s inner senses were silent. “Dev, what –”
Dev cut him off with a harsh gesture. He kept his gaze on the peaks, one hand shading his eyes. Kiran saw only rock and snow and a small puff of cloud, spiraling upward to the indigo sky.
“Suliyya, mother of maidens…” Dev whispered. The fear in his voice stiffened Kiran’s spine. He opened his mouth, only to be silenced by a piercing whistle from Dev. The shrill sound was echoed by another, and a bell clanged out an alarm from the front of the convoy.
Avalanche! With terrible clarity, Kiran saw Ruslan’s intent. Unless he could reach safety in time, he’d have no choice but to use magic. He snatched for his horse’s tether.
Dev smacked Kiran’s hand away and gripped his arm. “Get up behind me,” he ordered, his voice tight.
“But my horse –”
“Shut up and get on, damn you!” Dev grabbed Kiran’s belt, lifting and pulling. Kiran barely got his leg high enough in time to slide it over the mare’s back. Dev pulled his belt knife and slashed Kiran’s gelding’s tether free of the wagon. He tossed the tether over stacked crates to Harken, shouting, “No time to clear the slide path – ride for a pinnacle!”
Kiran caught a single glimpse of Harken’s sallow face and wide eyes before Dev drove his heels into their horse’s side. The mare squealed and exploded into motion. They pounded along the trail past braying mules and shouting men. Kiran risked a look up at the ridgeline. The formerly innocent cloud puff had swelled to tremendous size.
Dev cursed and jerked their mount’s head to the side. The mare leapt down off the trail toward one of the twisted pinnacles below, this one broader than most. Dev drove her onward, straight up the steep scree field on the pinnacle’s side. She slowed, snorting and struggling for footing on the sliding fist-sized rocks. Now that the clatter of hooves on stone was no longer deafening, a deep rumbling trembled the air.
Kiran yelled into Dev’s ear, “What about the wagons –”
“Too late,” Dev spat back over his shoulder.
Kiran twisted around again. The cloud was larger, and lower, sweeping down the mountainside straight toward the long string of the convoy. Frantic figures fought with horses and scrambled away from wagons.
“But all those men are –”
“I know.” Dev’s voice was flat. “Nothing we can do. If we live, we’ll dig for survivors.”
The rumbling grew loud enough to cover any screams from below, but a different voice screamed in Kiran’s memory. A kaleidoscope of images whirled in his head: Ruslan’s longfingered hands, black with blood; Lizaveta’s cool, remote smile; Alisa’s amber eyes, shimmering with terrified tears; Dev, clawing desperately for purchase on Kinslayer.
Hundreds of men would die, if Kiran surrendered to fear as he had on the cliff. Kiran released Dev’s waist and threw his weight sideways. He slid off the horse and landed in an ungainly tumble.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Dev screamed, struggling to turn the horse. He snatched for Kiran’s arm. Kiran dodged and ran back down the scree slope in great plunging steps, barely keeping his balance.
He’d have the best chance of saving the convoy if he could place himself between the avalanche and the wagons, but would he have enough time? Worse, his need for power far outstripped his own store of energy, yet the only other source within reach was the ikilhia of those at the convoy.
With precise enough control, he might be able to draw ikilhia only from the livestock and exclude the people. He had to try. Fear churned in his guts and darkened his thoughts. The instant he worked magic, he lost all hope of remaining hidden. But if he didn’t, the cost of his safety would be far too high to bear.
Kiran regained the trail and darted between two wagons. He scrabbled his way up the talus and snow on the far side. The onrushing wall of snow roared loud as thunder. No more time; he’d have to act now.
Kiran flung himself to his knees in front of a sharp-edged boulder protruding from the snow. He ripped down his barriers. Pulses of ikilhia burst into his perception, strung out all along the line of the convoy like a series of candles. Dull, muted pinpricks for the mules and horses, and vivid flames for the people.
In one swift movement, Kiran sliced his palms open on the boulder’s ragged edge, then buried his bloody hands in the snow. The shock of connection blazed through him, and the life-lights snapped into sharper focus in his head. Hurriedly, he visualized a rough-meshed net, with holes too small for the larger lights to pass through.
Kiran threw open the gates to his innermost self and called power. In a distant part of his awareness, he registered heavy thuds and agonized squeals. Ikilhia flooded into him, sweet and burning.
He took as much as he dared in the few instants he had left. Magic danced in his blood, sweet as water to a thirst-parched throat, brilliant as sunlight after endless dark. Grimly, he hung on to his focus. No time for anything subtle. He would have to use brute force and hope it was enough.
Kiran raised his bloodstreaked hands. With a shout, he funneled a column of power forward. Magical energy slammed into the avalanche. The collision of forces sparked white-hot agony throughout Kiran’s body as power splashed back along the conduit. He forced every shred of power back out, keeping the barrier solid, until at last the strain overcame him and he fell into blackness.
* * *
I fought to stay on the plunging, snorting mare as she struggled for footing. My own fault, for trying to turn her too fast – what the fuck had gotten into Kiran? The mare stumbled again, badly, and for a frantic moment I was too busy to worry about anything else.
By the time I got her sorted out, the avalanche’s rumbling had died away to silence. I dreaded what I’d see when the white fog of spindrift cleared. That avalanche had been massive enough to bury the entire convoy. Countless men dead…and Kiran lost along with them, if he’d run back into the slide path. My best chance of saving Melly, consigned to Shaikar’s hells.
Cold, sick foreboding filled me as I strained to see through the haze. I’d have to direct a search along with Cara and Jerik, assuming they’d survived. Dig out the crushed bodies of men I knew, their blue-tinged faces drawn in airless screams. Slowly, the spindrift settled. The sight it revealed brought a rush of stunned relief so great it near knocked me from the saddle.
The majority of the convoy sat unharmed on the trail. Halfway down the couloir, the avalanche had split in the middle, sweeping down the edges instead of the center. The righthand river of snow had missed the convoy completely, spilling harmlessly across the trail a hundred yards in front of the lead wagon.
The lefthand slide had caught the convoy a few wagons short of the end. Scattered pieces of metal and wood poked up through the snow, all that remained of the wagons in the avalanche’s path. I drove the mare back down the pinnacle’s side, urging her to the fastest pace I dared on the unstable rocks. Any men buried in the thick snow of the avalanche had only minutes to live.
Deep gouges in the scree marked Kiran’s running footsteps. They led straight back to the trail. I scanned the intact wagons, quickly. No sign of him, and damn it, no time to look further.
A sharp whistle pierced the air. Jerik’s dark figure stood on a crag beside the slide path. He pointed first to himself, then to the broken remnants of wagons. As the closest outrider to the scene, he’d direct the first hasty search for survivors.
I whistled in reply, and stabbed a hand at the convoy to indicate I’d collect more men for the search. A third, fainter whistle echoed from the head of the convoy. I sighed in relief. Thank Khalmet, Cara hadn’t been caught by the opposite end of the slide. As the mare clattered back to the trail, I glanced up at the couloir. Nothing unusual showed at the point where the avalanche had split. No rocks, no ice lumps, nothing to explain the avalanche’s bizarre behavior.
Shouting, pale-faced drovers milled around wagons knocked askew by panicked mules trapped in their traces. Mid-line, many of the mules had fallen, and appeared to be so badly tangled that they couldn’t rise. I burst onto the trail, and yelled loud enough to silence those within earshot, “Get down the line! Avalanche hit the tail end, we need probe teams!”
Men ducked their heads and hurried off. One man with the copper skin and dark curls of a Varkevian grabbed my stirrup, his other hand clamped around the spiked bronze loops of a devil-ward charm. “Khalmet spared us, but our mule teams are dead!” He pointed.
I rode to the front of the wagon. The mules lay collapsed in their traces, eyes staring and tongues protruding. What in Shaikar’s hells?
The drover had followed me. “Neriyul said men are down too, dead without a mark on them. The banehawk, the storm, and now this – surely we’re demon-cursed - ”
“You can’t help dead men, but those buried in the slide still have a chance. So quit whining about demons and get the fuck down the line!” Not much hope Jerik’s teams would find anyone to save, not with an avalanche as monstrously powerful as this one, but we had to try.
He swallowed and bobbed his head. Another drover, younger even than Kiran, came racing up the trail. He skidded to halt in front of me. “Jerik says he’s got enough gear to hunt survivors, but he needs more probe poles and shovels before teams can search for salvageable goods.”
“Tell him I’m on it.” I spurred the mare back up the trail toward the outrider wagon. My heart pounded as we passed more sets of dead mules and a few limp bodies of men. What in Khalmet’s name had happened? And where the hell was Kiran?
A familiar scuffed boot poking out from behind a boulder caught my eye. I hesitated, then jerked the mare to a halt. Damn it, if Kiran was dead like those mules, I had to know. I scrambled around the rock.
He lay sprawled face down. Blood stained the snow red around his outflung hands.
I dropped to my knees and reached for the pulse in his neck, sending up desperate prayers to both Khalmet and Suliyya.
His pulse beat steady under my hand. I passed shaking fingers over my eyes, then ran my hands over his body in a rapid search for wounds. I found none other than the cuts on his palms. From the blood streaking the edge of a rock above him, maybe he’d tried to catch himself as he fell.
I eased him over onto his back. He was completely unresponsive, his face ice-pale. Whatever had struck him down, a healer would have to sort out. I’d take him back to the outrider wagon, and send word for Merryn while I unpacked the poles and shovels.
I hauled him up and over my shoulder. Thank Khalmet he was so skinny. He was tall enough to be awkward for me to carry, but at least he wasn’t very heavy. I staggered down the talus, one question repeating over and over in my head. Why the fuck had he run back to the convoy?
No answer to that unless he woke. The minute he recovered, I’d kick his scrawny highside ass so hard he’d never dare to leave my side again. I slung him over the mare’s saddle with a grunt of relief, and swung up behind. As I urged the mare onward, I glanced up at the couloir.
The split in the avalanche path was directly in line with where I’d found Kiran. Icy shock stopped my breath.
Highside or streetside, no charm I’d ever heard of had the power to stand against an avalanche. But a mage…yeah, a mage could pull that off.
All at once, the nagging little discrepancies about Kiran reshuffled themselves into a terrible new pattern. Oh, no. Oh, fuck, no. How could I have been so fucking stupid?
I’d always thought of mages as living in their own arrogant, unknowable world, for all they shared the city with the rest of us. Gods knew even the lesser ones either stalked past like ordinary folk mattered less than sandflies, or drifted along with an eerily distant expression that was scary as shit. I’d never imagined a mage as a naive soft-spoken kid, desperate to leave his troubles behind.
Unless that was only a role Kiran had played, for some strange reason of his own. I eyed the limp form draped over my saddle, warily. But then why divert the avalanche and save the convoy, when he’d been safe at my side?
Twisted metal and shattered wood filled my mind’s eye. He hadn’t saved all of the convoy. And Pello’s wagon was one of those hit.
Last night, at Ice Lake…the odd tension I’d seen beneath Pello’s show of anger, and Kiran’s white-faced insistence that I do something about him…oh, shit, of course. I’d thought Pello merely excited over marking Kiran as a highsider, but he must have marked him as more than that. And Kiran…when I’d refused to act, had he decided to take matters into his own hands?
An even more unwelcome thought piled in. Assuming Kiran’s nerves hadn’t all been an act, and he did have an enemy back in Ninavel…not some rich highsider, but another mage? Khalmet’s bloodsoaked hand! One thing to risk some wealthy bastard maybe hiring a disinterested mage to fire off a spell…another thing entirely to face an angry mage with a personal grudge.
I swallowed, my throat dry as bone. If I was right about any of this, then taking this job was the biggest mistake of my life. Better to dance barefoot in a scorpion pit than play a mage’s game, the streetside saying went. Bren’s money would do me no good if I didn’t survive to use it.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was so spooked from the avalanche that I’d read far too much into a simple coincidence of position. I had no proof, damn it, and no more time for speculation. Not with so much urgent work to do. Mage or not, I had no choice but to dump Kiran at the outrider wagon for now and worry about the truth of his identity later. --------------
There is also a six-chapter sampler on the Night Shade Books website.