Chapter 39

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Nix and Etrikis had decided to go to Mikai's cave alone.

Etrikis said they had a better chance of parley if there weren't too many people involved. So they went, across forested ground and meandering streams, and up Ashira's south-western slope, the shaman guiding the way. They made it there before dark.

Nix hadn't come unarmed.

Along the years, through selling klar and other Yoxai crafts, he'd amassed a small fortune in risters. One of the things he liked to buy with this money was weapons. Nix could venture deep into the East Side, visit sketchy shops or Little Cheztrian, and procure knives, swords or even firearms without too much difficulty.

By now, his hut harbored quite the trove. Today, he'd picked two long knives. Both blades were strapped to his belt in brown leather sheaths he'd asked Steba to make for him. His fellow apprentice was crafty with that sort of thing. One of the knives was long and thin, the other was larger and slightly curved.

"We're almost there," Etrikis announced as they climbed a rocky rise side by side. Behind them, daylight was fading fast, with dark, gray-blue clouds troubling the sky.

Nix sensed a presence, heard a sound like hooves on rocks. Looking up, he saw a tall mountain goat emerge from small trees, blocking their path.

The goat went still, and so did Nix and the shaman. It was male, there was no doubting that – the long, curving horns atop his head reached upward, large and powerful. One blow dealt by those horns and death was almost certain.

"They don't usually come this far down Ashira," Nix said, frowning.

Across Etrikis's face lay a mixture of fear and fascination.

His pale blue eyes were very wide as he said, "When Mikai Shrivka is near, rules no longer apply."

"Oh come on," Nix hissed. "Don't tell me you actually believe in that crap."

"How can you not?" Etrikis asked, incredulous. "He's guarding the entrance to her cave in her absence," he explained like it was obvious.

The shaman gestured at the short stretch of rocks and stones behind the goat. Nix followed his gaze but didn't see anything resembling a cave entrance. He wondered, not for the first time, if Etrikis was simply mad.

Still, Nix slid out both his knives, wielding one in each hand. He lowered himself into a slight, tense crouch as the mountain goat did something like a snarl.

"We'll just have to scare it away, won't we?" Nix said.

But the goat didn't look frightened. Instead, he approached, tall and proud, lowering his horns as though getting ready for a fight. Nix felt a tinge of fear. He'd never fought one of these before.

Nix had heard their meat was delicious, but trying to hunt one wasn't recommended if you cared about keeping your innards intact. Plus, too heavy and difficult to carry all the way back down to the clan.

Etrikis looked stricken. "Nix, don't! You fool! Stop this."

Nix ignored the shaman, instead trying a few moves that he thought might scare the goat away. He arced into the air with a knife, lunged and stabbed with the other.

The goat did a low groan and jerked his head to the side. His horn caught one of the knives sideways and Nix lost his grip on it. The blade flew and clanged away into the rocks. Nix stepped back, his eyes fixed on the goat, heart thundering in his chest.

Etrikis was right behind him, but he seemed on the tips of his feet, as if ready to run away.

Maybe the shaman had the right idea.

Nix would have suggested it, too, but then, Mikai Shrivka appeared. Emerging from the trees as the mountain goat had done before her. The wind blew her long red tangles of hair, her pale tunic clung to her golden skin, which gleamed from a slight film of sweat, and slung across her back were two dead viscacha rabbits. Her hand held a short spear, blade jagged and stained in blood.

Pale yellow-green eyes caught the fading sunlight as she glared at Nix, and somehow, in that moment, she frightened him much more than the goat's long deadly-sharp horns.

Mikai came to a stop at the sight of them, small rocks crunching under her sandals. She didn't look surprised to find them here. Mostly annoyed.

Without Mikai saying or doing anything, the mountain goat turned away and trotted off, past her and up the sloping path. A shiver spidered down Nix's spine. It was hard not to believe the shaman now. Still, he tried to reason with himself – maybe it was just a coincidence.

"Put your knife away," Etrikis hissed at him, and Nix lowered his weapon, but kept it in his hand.

Mikai tilted her head and looked at Etrikis, her gaze narrow and hard, but also questioning. Etrikis stepped forward, raising placating hands. Mikai didn't move.

"Do you know why we're here?" Etrikis asked her, softly.

Mikai actually answered, which surprised Nix. Her voice was low and rough on the edges.

"You're not satisfied with my brother?" she asked; it sounded like a challenge.

"Mikai," Etrikis said, "please, I just want the truth. Did you betray me? Did you betray my trust? I must know."

This time, her only answer was silence, thicker than humidity between them.

Impatience flared inside Nix, making him burst out even though he'd promised Etrikis he would let him do all the talking.

"We know he's not Xefen," Nix said, letting anger sharpen his tone.

Etrikis shot him a silencing glare, but Nix ignored him.

Mikai's dangerous gaze darted to Nix, and she threw her rabbits to the ground where they crumpled with a thump. Her spear rose in the air.

Nix swallowed, but went on, "Is Xefen even alive? Or did you lie about that too?"

Mikai pounced, feral and feline-swift. The spear's blade cut deep into the back of Nix's hand and he yelped, dropping his knife. Then, snarling, she pushed him to the ground, pressed one sandaled foot to his chest and aimed the spear's jagged tip at his throat.

Nix desperately tilted his head back as he felt a sharp prickle, followed by the hot lick of blood down the side of his neck.

Etrikis approached her from the side, wide-eyed. "Mikai please, stop! If you let him go, we'll leave, I promise."

Mikai growled low in her throat, then seemed to draw in a calming breath. Abruptly, she removed herself from Nix, stepping back, and he was free. He scrambled up, shaky and humiliated.

"Leave now. Don't come back," Mikai warned, picking up her rabbits.

"All right, all right," Etrikis said, nodding many times, looking almost comical.

He made his slow, careful way down the rise, walking back the way they'd come, motioning frantically for Nix to follow him. After picking up both his knives, and after one last glance at Mikai, Nix went after Etrikis, frustration seething inside him.

This isn't over.  

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