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ChanceShaper

K. Lynn Bay

ChanceShaper cover

 A brutal invader. A peaceful world. And one woman born to stand between them.

Kara knows only the life of a slave in a Maga mine. But when a disastrous explosion propels her to freedom, she stumbles into a destiny much greater—and just as unwelcome.
She discovers that she possesses a strange, unpredictable power that can challenge the domination of the Maga invaders, one that makes her an outcast among her own people and a target for the vengeful Maga.
From the deadly depths of a Maga mine, to a hidden refuge, to the treacherous halls of a Maga Master, Kara leaves behind an unwitting trail of storm and destruction. As she struggles to control her wild power, she’ll find out if her determination to stop the hated Maga will defend the world—or destroy it.

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Chapter 1

Kara ran down the tunnels of the mine, in, then out of pools of light that interrupted the blackness. The slap of her sandals on the pourstone floor echoed off the tunnel walls, a counterpoint to the constant rumbling that vibrated the earth itself. Without breaking speed, she rounded a corner—

And ran straight into a Maga.

He grabbed her, slung her into the wall. She hit with a thud and gave a hiss of pain.

“Watch yourself, ga’h’t,” he said. His words were heavily accented, difficult to understand. “Don’t be in such a hurry that you forget to have respect for a Master.”

He towered over her, massive, more than a head taller than any man of her people. She barely came to his breastbone. His eyes were black—all black, with hardly any white. His pale face and hair seemed to glow in the dim light. Like something crawled from under a rock, but no squirming grub or skittering scorpion was as loathsome and hateful as a Maga.

“My Master’s expecting me at the picking line right away.” Kara’s shoulders and head throbbed where they’d struck the wall, but she showed no expression, and spoke in the neutral tone she was careful—usually—to use with Maga.

He laughed and jerked her away from the wall. “Better get down there and be sure nothing else goes wrong with the machinery. Master Heleg might decide you’ll do as a blood sacrifice to turn around the curse on this mine.”

Kara ducked his parting slap and ran on, no faster than before.

A grinding sound echoed along the tunnel. A rhythmic screech came, too, the painful noise of metal on metal. Dust and the smell of rock filled the air. Kara coughed. The walls and ceiling jumbled away from one another to make room for the hulking machine whose jaws clamped leechlike in the far wall. The pickers bent over its tail of rollers and belts, pushing and pulling the ore with their hoes. Kara caught up her waterskin, dribbled water over her scarf and tied it over her face.

She paused by the first picker. His eyelids were creased with dust. The lines around his dark eyes, where the dust had mixed with sweat then dried, were like cracks in mud. Rock dust coated his clothes and hair, too, so he was all one grey-dun color.

She pulled a pouch from the folds of her wide sash. “Here,” she shouted over the noise. “Pass it along.”

The old man opened the bag, peered at the raisins and black walnuts inside. Above the scarf that covered most of his face, his eyes crinkled in a smile.

Kara passed the line of pickers and swung open the ore digester’s access cover. The grinding-metal noise abruptly increased and a smell of burned lubricant wafted out. Wheels and belts and chains whirled inside. A display unfolded in the air, all colored bars and Maga writing. She couldn’t read the writing, but she knew which bar did what. She stroked the air over one. The machinery slowed. She applied lubricant, careful around the parts flashing and gnashing near her hands. The scream of metal dwindled and died. She closed the cover again without readjusting the controls. With luck, it would be a while before the Machine Master realized she hadn’t set the machinery back to full speed.

The woman nearest put down her hoe and pulled the scarf away from her face. The skin underneath was brown, though dust caked her wrinkles.

She ate a handful of nuts and raisins and sipped water. “I thank you.” She picked up her hoe again. Its blade glowed, and she pulled a lump of ore onto the processing belt. Rock and ore slid past in a ceaseless stream. “You’re the Healer’s daughter, aren’t you?”

“Her name was Kayt,” Kara said. “Yes.” How did people always seem to know?

“Can you Heal, as she did? Your mother came to my village, Pine Rock, what was it, twenty, twenty-five years ago? Before the Maga came, anyway. Healed my cousin’s son of the gasping sickness. They say she could Heal anything.” She started coughing. “Anything…” The woman turned her head and spat phlegm thick with dust and speckled with red.

Kara supported her, struggling with old resentment. “I can carry tools. I can tend the machines. I can crawl into an ore digger’s innards and un-jam the bit.” She held the woman’s shaking, bony shoulders. “But Heal?” The word tasted bitter. “No.”

Someone touched Kara’s shoulder—the woman next on the line. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “It was terrible, just horrible what the Maga did to your mother.”

Kara swung around. “What do you mean?”

The woman pulled back her hand.

“She died of a sickness,” Kara said. “My brother told me.”

“Your brother is right,” the first woman said. The machinery thumped and rattled behind her. She wheezed, then waved Kara away and tugged her scarf back over her face. “A sickness did kill her.” She gestured around her with a crooked hand. “This sickness. The same sickness that’s killing the world.”

Kara couldn’t speak for a moment. “The Maga? They killed her?” Her voice came out thin and strange. Her pulse pounded in her temples. She wanted to break something, pick up a prybar and batter the machinery into bits. But that would shock and horrify everyone. She clenched her fists to keep from shouting. “How? How did it happen?”

All the nearby pickers were looking at her. Now their eyes slid away, back to their hoes.

“Child,” the second woman said. “I beg you. Don’t ask that.”

Kara wrestled with fury. “They destroy everything! I wish—”

She was shaking. She didn’t know what she wished. If only the Maga had never come! If only they’d go away, back to wherever they came from! But they wouldn’t. Not unless something made them leave. Maybe their machines could all break. They didn’t seem to be able to live without them. She glared at the thumping ore-digester, the whining conveyor, the fans that moved the choking haze of dust. Yes. And then maybe it would all stop

The lights flickered, winked once and went out. The conveyor jingled and fell still. Fans wheezed a breath into darkness and silence so sudden and so total, it was like a blow to the head. Kara gripped a corner of metal, staring into the same darkness she’d just imagined. The hair on the back of her neck prickled.

“Oh, child,” one of the women moaned. “What did you do?”

“Nothing!” Kara stammered. She had a sudden, awful sense of a chasm opening under her feet. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Doesn’t matter,” an old man growled. “You were working on the machine. They’ll blame it on you, anyway. Get out of here. Get back to your Master and pretend you don’t know a thrice-cursed thing about this. Do like I say! Go!”

Kara stumbled through the darkness, blundered into a wall. She felt her way along it, found the mouth of the tunnel and fled, trailing her fingers along the wall.

Ahead, work beams slashed the blackness like blades. Maga voices rumbled with curses and questions, muttered about the mine’s curse. She faltered, but a beam swept across her, swung back, pinned her. She fought the impulse to run.

“You Kara?” one of the Maga asked.

She’d be smart to say no.

He apparently took her silence to mean ‘yes.’ He seized her arm. “H’nikh’tal Deven want.” He used the Maga word for ‘machine master.’

He marched her up the sloping tunnel. Deven wasn’t far. He caught the sleeve of her shirt, as well as some the skin of her upper arm, and shoved her toward a wall.

“Look at this!”

It seemed to be a power coupling or distribution node, though the jerking light and the condition of the equipment made it hard to tell. Smoke stinking of ozone and burned polymer still curled from pitted, blackened circuitry. Power conduits lay in cracked globs on the floor of the box. Feeble red and white flashes sputtered from some broken power lead, arcing uselessly to ground. A chill like a thin, cold trickle of water ran down her spine. “What happened?”

“I can tell you what didn’t happen. The monitors didn’t register a problem as they should have.”

The chill deepened. She pulled free of Deven’s grip. “Are you sure?” She made her face baffled and innocent. “There must’ve been an alarm light.”

Ugly laughter surrounded her. “Exactly so. Let’s go tell that to Master Heleg.”

Deven’s hand clamped on her shoulder. The light flashed away from her face. Sudden fear surged. She bucked and struggled.

He slammed her into walls and doorframes, and once or twice lifted her off her feet by the back of her shirt. She was bruised and breathless at the end of the long climb out of the mining complex to Master Heleg’s office.

The Complex Master’s office overlooked the mine from a hillside above. That view always made Kara sick: the stripped soil, the ground-breakers crawling over torn earth like enormous beetles, the fringe of sickly, dusty oaks and manzanita. Right now, she felt sicker than usual.

Heleg paced behind his desk. A yellow jewel winked on a cuff around his wrist, the only color in his dull grey clothing. His hair, white like every other Maga’s, swung heavy to his shoulders with beads of metal and clear glass—one for every enemy he killed, he’d bragged. The beads clicked and hissed when he moved, the whispers of dead souls.

He turned. His black, pupil-less gaze fell on her. Like a shark’s eyes, someone had once said.

A slow, pleased smile spread across his face. Kara’s hatred boiled up, distilled, refined over the years.

Deven spoke in his own language. Kara always pretended she didn’t understand, but his time, she wished she really didn’t. It was like the old man had said it would be—all her fault. Numb clamminess crawled across her skin.

Heleg lowered himself into a chair and folded his hands on his desk, a slab of oak cut from a tree that must’ve been hundreds of years old when it was murdered. A cougar’s skull sat on one corner. Styluses poked out of the eye sockets and a data orb rested between its fangs.

A smell came from Heleg, sharp and musky, like an animal. A vicious, aggressive animal. Kara held herself still, kept her face smooth, her hands open.

“Kara, Master Deven has been explaining the cause of the power failure,” he began mildly, as he usually did. “He says there appears to have been a malfunction in the power nexus for the lower levels.”

“Yes. It was melted.” She concentrated on her breathing. Slow. In, then out.

Heleg nodded, as if thoughtfully. “Master Deven also says you were working in the area.”

The machine master’s grin was predatory, showing the points of his canines, the sharp notches on his front teeth.

A quiver started in her middle, half queasy expectation, half rage. “I was, but down at the picking line.”

“Yet you already seemed certain there was a problem. ‘There must’ve been an alarm light.’ Those were your words, weren’t they? I’d hate to think that Master Deven would fabricate something to avoid blame.”

Deven chuckled. Heleg flicked him a look and he quieted.

“I said that, but it wasn’t like that at all. I said that because he—”

“I’m glad you D’ran-ikh are such honest people.” Heleg showed the points of his own canines and stood. “It makes discipline so much simpler when the wrongdoer accepts blame and submits to punishment.”

Kara’s heart slammed and breath came short. “Submit!” she choked. She stabbed a finger at the machine master. “So now you bring me up here to take your punishment, because you’re too much of a coward—”

Deven snarled and struck her. Pain exploded in the side of her head. The taste of blood welled into her mouth. She staggered across the bear’s skin that lay on the floor, under the tread of Maga boots.

“Too much of a coward,” she repeated through clenched teeth, “to face him yourself.”

She rounded on Heleg. He loomed over her, a mass of muscle and bone and pale flesh, head cocked to one side and smiling a smile that was all sharp teeth. She wanted to…to…to do what he’d done to her so many times. To hurt him.

Her fists knotted. “Well, I won’t take his beating for him!”

Heleg’s hands came down on her shoulders, buckling her knees. “I knew I could depend on you for another interesting exchange.” He lifted one hand from her shoulder, clamped the other tighter—

She brought the heel of one hand up hard, as hard as she could in close quarters, ripped cloth and flesh out of his hold. Someone grabbed her. She spun, sheer fire, blind and unthinking fury.

Suddenly, she couldn’t move. Her arm was twisted agonizingly behind her. An arm—Deven’s?—locked around her neck. The fever-heat of a Maga body seeped through the back of her shirt. Heleg’s hand crumpled the fabric of her collar. He wiped blood from his nose and from a cut in his lip that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“Very good,” he panted, glancing at the blood on the back of his hand. “Very good. No downcast eyes, eh? No enduring in silence, not you, no. Now you’re scarcely D’ran-ikh at all. See, Deven, she’s more h’ckt-tal, valued enemy, than ta-puth. But we’ll have to take some of that out of her, else the rest of them might think they can get away with it. Now, Kara, my h’ckt-tal, how many years have I spent trying to convince you of your place? Seven, or is it eight now?”

Eight, she thought. Not long after Heleg killed old Master Gren, Heleg had laid hands on Nali, her brother’s wife. And Kara, then a small, slight girl of twelve summers, had thrown herself on him and scratched and bitten him bloody. That had been her first beating.

He shook his head with mock regret. “Since you were little more than a child. I’ve made every effort to educate you, but I doubt my success. What do you think? Have I made progress?”

“Depends,” Kara said, shaking so hard she had to grit her teeth to keep them from chattering, “on what you wanted to teach me.”

Heleg nodded. “That it does. I might have to adjust my methods.” He paused to catch his breath and swipe away another trickle of blood. “I’m going to reassign you for a time,” he said. “How does the sorting line sound to you?”

She swallowed a queasy knot of terror, but refused to let it show.

“I understand your people have stories about it, about the ‘wither crystals’ there. Such an explicit, appropriate term.” He shook his head sadly. “It’s an inconvenient necessity, having to continually replace sorters. Your energy will be useful there.” He smiled. “I’ll review you from time to time, of course, and see how you do.

He nodded at Deven. “Let her go.”

Deven abruptly released her. She stumbled, caught herself and tottered to where she could watch them both. Deven looked sullen, cheated of something. Heleg’s amused gaze slid from him to Kara. The amusement faded.

He gave a sharp nod. “I’ll tell the overseer to expect you tomorrow.”

The taste of metal filled her mouth, sickening her. She got her hands up, pushed her hair back from her face and turned, pretending the world hadn’t crashed down around her.

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