CHAPTERS 31-39 - FOR SECRET SOCIETY MEMBERS ONLY!
In a kingdom where women have been banned from using magic—punishable by death—Jena has been blessed (or cursed?) with the most powerful magic in centuries. When her master is murdered by assassins, she embarks on a journey of revenge.
Nate has the opposite problem to Jena. In a family packed with powerful mages, he’s a failed mage with very little traditional magic at all. A disgrace to his grandfather, he’s living in the dangerous salt mines of the volcano region, when he’s targeted by the same assassins who killed Jena’s master.
Turns out, there’s a secret plot underway to overthrow the Kingdom, and Jena and Nate are the only ones standing in the way. Together, they must try to save their kingdom and return the crown to its rightful owner…
Nate pulled the leather strap tight across the flank of his chestnut mare, securing the travel bag. Miara had allowed him access to the stables to retrieve his horse, and his saddlebag held the drink and food rations he’d been given by the friendly head cook at Flamehaven.
He hadn’t said good-bye to anyone, and a small lump of guilt scratched at him for leaving Bree and Jena without a word of thanks. But he knew he needed a big head start on Argus, and telling the sisters would only lessen that.
He even felt bad about deserting Argus. The mercenary had saved Nate’s life twice now. But if he’d said his good-byes to Argus, he’d have ended up hog tied to a horse, heading out behind Argus on the trail before he could speak another word.
No, this was the right decision. The only one he could make. One foot in the stirrup, Nate leaped onto his horse. The trees blocked part of the landscape beyond, but he knew what lay ahead of him.
The initial trek through the forest had worried him more. He hadn’t been sure he could find his way out through the dark trees, but it had been surprisingly easy, almost as if the forest was helping him. He shrugged. It was entirely possible, given the centuries of power it held.
“Are you sure this is wise?” said a voice behind him.
Nate jumped, his heart in his throat as he swiveled around in the saddle. How could they have found him so quickly?
His fears eased when he saw the ghost mage standing behind him. The familiar lined face was frowning, his long hair held back by a strip of leather. The ghost clasped his gnarled hands in front of him.
“Pardon me?” Nate said. Surely, this was too far from the original site for a ghost to have traveled. He pulled on the reigns and turned his horse to face the old mage. Another damn ghost who’d figured out a few things he shouldn’t have.
“You need the protection offered by the mercenary right now.”
“What concern is it of yours?” Nate frowned at the ghost. He knew too much, and he was behaving strangely. Something niggled at the back of Nate’s consciousness, but it slipped away before he could figure it out.
“You’re the realm’s concern, Nate. What happens to you concerns us all. You’re not grasping the truth of your situation. I’m disappointed in you.”
“Who are you? What do you want?” asked Nate. Could this apparition be some dark creature sent by Lothar? Was he about to meet his death?
“I’m simply a concerned observer. My status as a ghost means I’m no longer able to actively participate.”
“Then you’ll be aware this decision is nothing to do with you,” Nate snapped. He turned his horse and walked her to the edge of the forest.
He looked out at the view before him, ignoring the ghost. The land was barren and dry, rolling hills struggling to provide sustenance for even the most hardy of grasses. In the distance, he could just make out the tips of the Ember Volcanoes. To the south, rocky hills moved into rigid mountains. A road carved out a path through the middle, heading squarely for Flame City.
He hesitated for a moment, unsure even now where to go. He couldn’t go home, that was certain. Looking to the volcanoes, he saw a spurt of orange flame burst out of the distant peak and made his decision. It was the last thing Argus would expect, that he’d head in the direction of Argus’s master.
If he got enough of a head start, he could veer off at any point and find a place to lay low.
He didn’t know if his departure from the forest would immediately alert Lothar. He was counting on the king-in-waiting having better things to do than hunt for Nate all day long.
“Only one way to find out.” He urged his mare forward and headed out of the forest into the pastures beyond.
Turning back for one last glimpse of the dark trees, he saw the shimmering reflection of a ghost in the shadows.
They stopped for camp that night, tired and dirty after a long day in the saddle. Jena eased her aching legs from her horse and watched Bree do the same. Argus was already off his horse, unsaddling, and starting to brush the stallion down.
Damn arrogant mercenary.
“We can’t light a fire. We’ll eat our rations as is and sleep close.” Argus didn’t look at them as he spoke, just kept rubbing the sweat off his horse. He was still annoyed that he’d lost the fight with Miara. Jena wasn’t even sure how it had happened. Miara had kept acting as if it was a given, and soon it just was.
In the end, Jena knew why she had to be part of this undertaking. The weight of the Hashishin knife in her bag spurred her on, and Nate was as good a connection to Lothar as she was going to get. But she didn’t fully understand why Bree had agreed to go.
Although as she watched her sister begin to rub down her horse, Jena figured it was probably something to do with the glances Bree kept giving Argus when she thought no one was watching.
“Everyone looks after their own horse,” said Argus. “That means making sure they’re comfortable before you see to yourself. We won’t make it without the horses.”
Argus glared at Bree, as if expecting her to argue with him. Bree didn’t even glance at him, just continued the care she had already been giving her horse.
It was the end of their first day in the saddle, and they were heading directly for the Ember Volcanoes. Miara had done a casting, and then Jena’s raven had secretly flown up into the sky to confirm the direction. For some reason, Nate was heading in the very direction Argus wanted him to go.
“He’s trying to fool us. He thinks we’ll search in the opposite direction,” Argus had said.
Jena finished with her horse, giving the mare a lump of sugar from her pocket.
She started to organize their evening meal by pulling out the rations they’d been given. Beef jerky, travel bread, and cheese would sustain them for the next few weeks, supplemented by whatever she could scrounge for them along the roadside. Her gypsy upbringing had some uses.
As she sliced the bread, she considered whether they would actually be able to catch up with Nate. He had a half day head start, and he was only one person. They were three, one of whom was recovering from a near fatal wound. Despite the healing sessions Bree insisted on, Argus was the one who would slow them down, not the other way around.
But she would do everything she could to make sure they did find Nate, and to make sure she crossed paths with Lothar.
Her life had been strange, broken, unsettled, but her time with Thornal had been her happiest. He had given her a home, a place in life. If nothing else, she owed him vengeance.
Lothar needed to pay for the life he had taken, for the family ties he had broken. Knowing Thornal was her grandfather just made the desire for justice stronger, more immediate. Her anger rumbled close to the surface. Jena planned to make sure Lothar paid for his crimes.
It was a promise that shimmered in the very core of her soul.
This time around, however, it was much harder to travel. She was so much more afraid of giving herself away. She now knew who she was and where she’d come from. And it wasn’t just herself she had to worry about; Bree’s life was at stake too.
Even Miara telling Argus that Jena could protect them from Lothar’s eyes through the Flames was dangerous. If he started asking questions, she had no answers.
It seemed impossible that she would survive this trip without ending up at the bottom of some dungeon or burning in mage fire. The only way she had a chance of defeating Lothar was by using the power of the Book of Spells, and what other reaction could be expected than to call for her immediate death? Especially if she’d just killed the most powerful man in the kingdom?
Her life expectancy wasn’t that great, whatever way she looked at it. But the anger that burned deep inside her every time she thought of holding Thornal’s dying body in her arms wasn’t just going to go away. And all she really needed to do was survive until her reckoning with Lothar. After that, it didn’t matter.
To do that, she needed to be smart. She needed to keep her powers hidden. She squared her shoulders; then jumped when Bree tapped on her arm.
“He’s struggling,” said Bree next to her ear, low enough that only Jena could hear. “That’s why he’s so angry.” She settled beside Jena on the log she’d set up as both table and chairs for their evening meal.
“I think he’s annoyed we’re even here.”
Bree glanced over to where Argus was patting his horse, delaying coming to the meal. “Do you ever wonder about that spell? The one we found inside him?” she asked.
“It means we have to be careful, Bree. No matter how much we think we know Argus, he’s not a man with a free will.”
“Is there anything you know of that might help undo it? Perhaps we can free him from this mage Remus?”
Jena shook her head. “That kind of thing is difficult. We could as easily kill him as save him, if we tried.”
Bree sighed. “I feel sorry for him. He’s so proud. It can’t be easy.”
“No, I suppose not.” Jena looked at Argus, trying to see how the spell was affecting him. Would he be the same man if that dark fog wasn’t settled around his heart?
She rather thought he would be. He didn’t seem the kind to bend easily, even for this unknown master.
Nate licked at the metallic taste of blood on his lips, and a familiar smell assaulted his nostrils—baneberry root. He tried to lift his head, but couldn’t.
When he’d found the cave after a long day’s ride, Nate had thought the Flames were on his side. He’d settled himself down, prepared a cold dinner from his rations, and slid into his makeshift bed.
He’d been asleep when they arrived.
Rough hands had grabbed his arms and dragged him up. A punch to his stomach had knocked the wind out of him. He hadn’t even been able to gasp in pain. There had been no time to think before ropes were around his hands. A sacking bag, similar to the one Argus had used, was shoved over his head. A rope was tied around his neck a little too tight.
He was strangely grateful to Argus; this time he’d been able to recover quickly after the sacking was thrust over his head.
He didn’t panic as he had when Argus had done it the first time, and he was faster getting his focus back, despite the continuing effects of the baneberry root.
Hands pushed him again, and he kept blindly walking, one step in front of the other.
“Hurry up, we ain’t got all day,” a voice jeered behind him. Another man sniggered somewhere to his left.
“D’you think we’ll get more, ‘cause we was the ones found ‘im?” a whiney voice asked.
“You ask th’ C’ptain that, see wot he says,” said the first voice.
Rough laughter surrounded Nate, and he stumbled as someone gave him another push. He righted himself and continued to lurch blindly along a path only his captors could see.
His nose twitched beneath the sacking bag, and he could smell meat roasting over a fire, and damper cooking in the embers. The sounds of a camp became obvious; voices raised, utensils clashing, the nickering of horses. It wasn’t long before his small band was reunited with their camp.
“Look what we found up in them caves.”
“You never! The C’ptain was right, weren’t he?” said a new voice.
“We’re the ones found him,” said the whiney voice.
Abruptly something changed in the mood of his captors. Throats cleared nervously, and the man behind Nate tapped his finger against his leather jerkin in an agitated pattern. He listened carefully to understand what was happening, but all he could be sure of was there seemed to be at least ten men.
“Sir, we found him. Up in the caves, where you said to look.”
There was a pause, and then a quiet, clipped voice answered, “Well done. We journey to the Flame City on the morn. Tie him to the chain; you two take first guard shift.”
Nate tried to hide the tremor that rocked his body at those words. Not even a day out from the forest, and he was already in Lothar’s hands. He was pushed forward and then dumped on the ground, away from the warmth of the fire. Blindly, he tried to get up again, and unseen hands punched him, a heavy fist to the face, and another gut-pummeling blow to his stomach.
“Do that again, and I’ll knock yer senseless,” a voice snarled in his ear. Nate swayed, stars swirling in front of his eyes.
He was pushed to his knees, and hands grappled with something made of heavy metal. A chain. They attached it around his neck and pulled tight. The sacking scratched at his skin, and he gagged, his entire body convulsing. He was forced even further down when the chain was yanked from behind, and he realized they’d attached him to the ground.
The chain was excessively heavy; the large links pushed at his skin through the material of the sack, and he found it hard to breathe. He struggled to keep his head up for a while, but he was soon lying with his neck against the ground, unable to continue resisting the weight.
His two guards seemed to have moved closer to the fire. He could hear them talking and laughing a short distance away. The clinking of plates and cutlery indicated they were eating, but he could smell nothing other than the putrid sacking hood coated with baneberry root.
“I did warn you it wasn’t a good idea,” said a voice close to his head. Nate squeezed his eyes shut, not moving, in case it was a guard messing with him. He tried to remember where he’d heard the voice before.
“Can you smell it? The baneberry root?” The voice was tantalizingly familiar.
“Yes,” said Nate.
“The baneberry root will keep you confused until they deliver you to Lothar.”
“I know,” said Nate impatiently. “It’s the second damn time I’ve had it used on me recently.” He tried to think past the effects of the root. Why was the voice so familiar?
“You’re going to have to think past your bindings, past the baneberry root, and use your latent abilities to summon a demon. The others are coming, but not fast enough to rescue you. You’re going to have to rescue yourself.”
The next morning Jena woke early, her stiff muscles painful after a night on the hard ground. She’d slept in worse places as a slave, but she’d gotten soft living with Thornal and having her own bed every night.
Morning was barely started, the light only just peeping over the hills, and the birds clearing their throats, but Argus was already up. Keeping as still as she could, she watched him moving around the campsite.
Argus was silent; he never stepped on a stray twig, never brushed his leg against a leaf or a branch. Even as he searched for something in his travel bag, there was little sound.
Sitting up, she stretched her arms above her head, trying to find the energy to start another day of hard riding. With a grunt of effort, she stood.
She followed Argus to where he was now feeding his horse.
Argus didn’t jump. He’d known she was awake the whole time. “Morning,” he said without looking at her.
“You’re a gypsy. I don’t know why I didn’t see it earlier.” Jena’s heart was thumping.
“I was born Utugani,” he agreed. “I left many years ago and have never been back.” His voice was clipped, not inviting further comment. He brushed a hand over his horse’s neck.
“It’s not an easy life.”
Argus stared at her, his dark eyes serious. “There is nothing better than being Utugani,” he said. “I didn’t leave because I wanted to.”
“I lived with them as a child.” Jena couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice, despite the years that had passed. Her scars were too constant a reminder.
Argus frowned. “They did not treat you well?”
“No.” Jena paused, touching one hand to the scar on her face. “I wasn’t of the true blood. Perhaps that’s why.”
“They weren’t of the true blood either, to have treated a child badly. Utugani take care of our own, yes, but they would never allow a child to suffer. Ever.” Argus’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Jena’s face.
She blinked. Argus spoke with a ring of truth, and what she knew of him already backed it up. He was proud and stern, but he took care of his own. He was Utugani; he would know.
But she knew what had happened to her. “It was our leader who pushed me into a fire, gave me these burns.” She gestured to her cheek. “When I healed, they sold me.”
Argus frowned, his eyes flicking to the visible scars on her face. “When your group met up with everyone at the Summer Gathering, they would have asked questions. It’s not the Utugani way to be silent about abuse.”
“I never knew any others,” said Jena, frowning.
“You never went to a Summer Gathering?”
“No. Elsa sometimes spoke of them, but we never went.”
Argus shook his head. “Who were these people you were with?”
“It was a small group, led by Elsa and her son Otis Blackmoon. Elsa found me and took me in.”
Argus nodded slowly. “I think I know of them. They were exiled.”
“I was only a child, but I remember. It caused a huge uproar. There was a fight at Summer Gathering. A young girl was killed, and the son was in the middle of it.”
Jena shivered. Otis had always had a nasty temper. Jena had often protected the younger kids from him. He’d been in a rage when he threw her into the flames of the campfire. She closed her eyes. Strange how her view of events could be changed with a few words. “So they were outcasts?”
“No one in my family would ever have hurt a child. I’m sorry for what happened to you, Jena.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. Feathers ruffled around her stomach, shifting position. “When I was younger, I used to think it was me. That I’d done something wrong.”
“It wasn’t you. Otis Blackmoon was broken; there was something wrong with him. He is a disgrace to my people.” Argus gave a brisk nod, and stalked back toward their makeshift campsite, to where Bree was just stirring. She heard him telling Bree to hurry and get up.
Jena smiled, tears in her eyes.
They rode hard again that day. Argus led them toward the Ember Volcanoes, and if he was struggling, he hid it better than he had the day before. Sometime just before noon, he called a rest and food break near a stream that was more of a trickle, but provided some water for the animals. Jena slid from her horse, scratching at the tired animal’s ears and trying to ignore her aching muscles.
She sighed; looking into the distance, she attempted to measure how much farther they would be able to travel before the light failed them. In the distance, the mountains and the Ember Volcanoes rubbed against each other, but in the foreground, there was nothing but scrubland and small stubby trees on undulating ground.
She patted her horse as it drank from the stream, trying not to think about the rough journey they had in front of them.
“We don’t have time for day dreaming, Jena. Eat your rations and get back on your horse.” Argus stood next to his horse, scowling in her direction. He was pale, and his eyes had dark shadows beneath them. She knew he was suffering, but he refused to give in. Despite his expression, Jena smiled back at him and turned to obey his words.
He was right. They didn’t have time.
Next to her, Bree gave Jena a meaningful glance. “He’s not doing well,” she whispered.
Jena nodded. “I know. I don’t know how much longer he’ll last in the saddle.”
“Is there anything you can do?”
Jena considered her options. She didn’t really want to use a spell from the Book of Spells. It would mean Argus would know even more about her. He already knew too much.
Even if she wanted to try it, Mages weren’t actually known for their healing skills, so there was very little to choose from that might actually work. “Can we try your healing first?”
Bree nodded, understanding in her eyes. “I’ll give it another try. He’s not easy to convince to sit still for it.”
A sharp peck on her stomach reminded Jena about the raven. “I’ll do a searching spell while you work on Argus. We need to see how far ahead Nate is.” She just needed to find somewhere a little private to get the raven off her stomach.
Bree nodded and headed over to Argus. Jena watched them arguing for a moment, then strode to the other side of a nearby tree. Its bare branches offered no shade from the weak winter sun, but it was just enough to hide what she was doing from the others. She pulled up her shirt so her waist was bared. She thought about the blue sky overhead, about finding Nate, and waited.
The raven tore itself from her body, grabbing at her skin on the way out. She gasped at the spasms of pain and then sucked in deep calming breaths as the raven spiralled into the sky.
It would find Nate, and report back.
Nate pondered the strange timbre of the mildly reproving voice that was telling him how to escape. Whoever it was also had an unusual knowledge of what was happening to Nate.
Then it clicked into place in his head. He knew who it was: the untattooed mage ghost.
But how could he possibly be here? Nate shook his head in a tiny movement. Just like Seamus, the old mage had probably been dead for forty years and had figured out how to leave the area where he died.
Except the mage ghost didn’t have the same blurred edges as the older ghosts. He’d always appeared to Nate as clear as a bell.
And then it finally came to him. The explanation for the strange feeling he’d had at the back of his mind whenever he’d seen the old mage ghost.
The old mage had never asked anything of Nate. He hadn’t demanded help. He hadn’t requested that he fix some family feud or find his body in the desert.
“Who are you?” he whispered, his voice hoarse. This wasn’t an ordinary ghost. He was breaking all the rules Nate had ever known about the spirits who strayed from the Edges.
“I’m the one person who can help you. These fellows are heading straight for Lothar at first light. The price on your head is for dead or alive, so don’t think they won’t hurt you. Paid mercenaries, every one. Masquerading as Flame Guards, damn his soul. And he’s told them about baneberry root. That kind of knowledge makes all mages more vulnerable.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I pay attention, boy. Unlike you, too busy running off to understand what’s going on around you. Now, summon a demon.”
Nate opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. The ghost was right; he needed the help of a demon. He just needed to concentrate long enough to complete the spell. “What about the baneberry root?” he asked.
“You should still be able to call a demon. The baneberry just blocks your ability to call up mage spells.”
Nate nodded and tried to focus. It was difficult to think past the layers of distraction his captors had provided. The baneberry root was coming in through his senses and his gag reflexes were working overtime in his throat.
He was also bleeding on his face; the bruises on his stomach were aching, and the rope burns on his body stung. He could barely think through a full thought, let alone move into the Edges to call a demon.
The disorientation provided by the baneberry root meant the majority of his magic was out of his control. He could feel it spinning inside him, fizzing and spitting like an angry cat.
But there was a place deep inside that the baneberry root couldn’t affect. He had accessed it to use the fire ruby against the wolvans, and he could still feel those fires inside him, dormant, waiting. Perhaps he could use that part of him to move into the Edges.
As he touched hesitantly at this fiery core, a long-forgotten childhood memory filtered into his head. He’d hidden himself in the dark corners of his grandfather’s castle and calmed his fears, both real and imaginary, by sinking into his mind and hiding in this comforting flame-filled center.
It was like coming home, sinking into something so familiar and safe.
A fierce light, like the center of an intense candle flame, kept him steady and closed off the physical pain of his body.
Calling a fire demon was altered in this internal place. His connection to the Edges felt different, less like a barrier and more like an extension of himself. The Edges and the real world became the same place inside his head; a strange combination of thought and feeling pulled the demon toward him.
It was both easier and harder than anything he’d ever done before.
His body shook and the heavy chains around his neck chinked in reaction. The heat of the demon warmed his body as it arrived with a small hiss at his side.
“How may I serve you, master?” the voice whispered in his ear.
“Untie me and get me out of here,” croaked Nate, his face still smashed up against the earth.
He felt heat on his hands, and then they were free. The blood pumped back into his fingers, making them at first cold and then wickedly painful with pins and needles.
He was shivering in reaction, but he still had to get the sacking off his head. He lifted trembling hands and worked at the rope, trying to get it undone. He was hampered by the chains sitting on top and the lack of feeling in his hands. When his flingers slipped for the third time, the demon pushed him aside.
A hot flame, the smell of burning rope, and the sacking was gone.
He gasped a clean breath, loud and desperate. Too late, he remembered his captors. The mage’s words about dead or alive rang in his ears, and it was only when he could see them all around the campfire, undisturbed by his movement, that he let himself breathe again.
The next task was to get the chain from around his neck. It was pulled tight, and seemed to be attached somewhere behind him. He couldn’t see anything past the dirt in his face, but he felt a humming heat coming from behind him; the demon was already working on the problem. A vibration came through the metal of the massive chain links and warmed his neck.
He waited, letting the demon burn his way through the metal, while he rubbed the feeling back into his blood-starved hands.
“Keep still, master.”
The heat from the metal chains was growing, the vibrations becoming bone jarring. The heat pulsed at his face and body; he squirmed away in reaction.
“I can’t handle much more heat, demon,” he whispered, gasping at this new torture.
“You can handle much more than this.” The ghost mage was back, sitting at the edge of Nate’s line of sight.
“What makes you think that, old man?” Nate was getting sick of the cryptic comments. And when the mage wasn’t being cryptic, he was criticizing.
“You can dance with the flames and not feel a thing. You just have to learn how.”
A shaft of heat burned its way along Nate’s neck. He yelped in pain, surprise making his voice carry.
From the campfire, voices rose in response, and he saw two men stand and walk toward him.
“Now look what you did! You made me lose concentration,” whispered Nate to the mage. He tried to turn his head toward the demon but just made the metal chains burn deeper into the skin on his neck. “Demon, am I nearly free?”
“Almost, master. I will need a little more time. Perhaps your new friend can help you with a spell?” The demon’s voice was silky with sarcasm. Nate wondered if the creature would be happy or sad if he didn’t make it.
It probably wouldn’t mind either way.
“I can actually help you, Nate, despite your creature’s disdain.” The mage ghost leaned forward. “You just have to trust me and do what I say.”
Nate looked to where the men were looming in the darkness, their slow progress speaking volumes. They weren’t worried about him escaping, that was certain.
“Tell me then. Tell me how to get out of here,” Nate croaked. His heart was pumping, and trails of sweat were running down his face. He couldn’t bear the thought of that sacking going back over his head.
“Close your eyes, and go inside yourself. Look for the burning light in your center.”
Nate closed his eyes and did as he was told, easily finding his way back to the flame-filled point inside his mind.
“Now pull some of that flame away from the core using your mind.” The ghost-mage’s voice was calm and even.
Nate hesitated and then moved directly into the center of the flames. He pulled at the flame, and nothing happened. The flames continued to burn. He took a breath and did it again. This time the flames moved as if a small breeze had floated past.
The third time he tried, the strength of the internal flame attached itself to the part of his mind that was seeking its power. He felt the surge heading up through his body, just as the hand of one of his captors grasped his arm and hauled him up.
It was difficult to concentrate on anything but the enormous welling of power inside his body. Everything else seemed to be happening from a distance. His ears popped, he saw stars, and his legs felt like they wouldn’t hold him even if he could manage to stand. Magic crackled around him. It was like being in the middle of a massive fire, but one that didn’t burn.
At least, it didn’t burn Nate.
He looked at the mercenary who had grabbed him. The man’s hand still clung to Nate’s arm, but he seemed to realize that Nate wasn’t completely helpless anymore.
“The baneberry root... he said it would...” The man’s voice trailed off.
Nate covered the man’s fingers with his own and pried them off, all at once. It was surprisingly easy. The digits snapped backward, breaking like dry twigs. The man screamed. It seemed to come from somewhere far away.
The man jerked back, cradling his broken hand. He watched Nate with a terrified expression, and took several more steps backward. He tripped and fell in his haste, then scrambled back on one hand and his feet, never taking his eyes off Nate.
Another mercenary moved to Nate’s other side. He had drawn his sword and now stepped forward, the heavy weapon raised to shoulder level, as he prepared to swing through Nate’s stomach where he lay on the ground.
Nate raised his hand, pulsing out power and throwing it toward the sword. The metal heated up in an instant, too fast for the mercenary to react. The smell of burning flesh became fused with the other camp aromas.
The man screamed and dropped his sword. The great weapon, now red with heat, spun around and down, piercing the top of his leg.
It slid through the skin, meat, and bone, and emerged on the other side. The hilt slammed into the man’s thigh and he fell to the ground, screaming. He clutched at his leg where it was now stuck like a piece of burning meat on a metal skewer.
Nate grasped the chains hanging around his neck. He pulsed a wave of heat out, and they cracked apart at his touch. He stood properly for the first time since he had been captured. The ghost mage was nearby, a satisfied expression on his shimmering face. The demon buzzed around his head, clearly agitated.
Turning, he strode over to where the fire burned. It called to him like a siren, drawing him into its depths. He shook his head. He needed to find the other mercenaries. That was his purpose, and he wouldn’t stray from it.
“Over there! A fire. We’ve found them,” Jena whispered.
They crouched in the darkness behind a small rise above the camp. The night was inky black, the stars obscured by clouds.
They’d been about to stop to make camp when they found Nate’s cave. Argus had recognized the signs of a struggle, and they had tracked Nate and his attackers.
Crouching low behind the only natural protection she could find, Jena peered around the scraggly branches of the tree. Her heart was pumping, and she was struggling to breathe. Ever since they’d discovered Nate had been captured, she’d had a heavy leaden feeling in the pit of her stomach. They had to get him back; everything hinged on him.
Surely, the Flames wouldn’t burn away from them so early in their journey?
Peering into the distance, she could tell something was wrong. There was no movement aside from the flickering of the flames at the campfire.
“What are we going to do? How do we rescue him?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at Argus.
“I’ll scout the campsite. I need to see how many men, and what weapons they have. You stay here.”
He held up his hand when both women opened their mouths to argue. “This is my specialty.”
Jena quirked the corner of her lip to one side. He was right. Despite the fact that he looked like death warmed up, they needed to let him to do what he did best. She squatted down behind her tree and nodded at him that he should go ahead.
Bree hesitated, then crouched down beside her.
They had left their horses a short way back, trying to keep a low profile as they approached the camp. They couldn’t risk being captured. The men who had Nate were probably professional mercenaries like Argus. There would be no mercy if they found the three of them hiding outside their camp.
Especially if they were working for Lothar.
She wondered briefly if she should go back and get the horses, so they could go storming into the campsite. But the idea of her horse being hacked by a sword, or of something happening to Bree, made her hesitate. She shivered and peered into the darkness, trying to spot Argus.
“Bree, Jena. Come here.” Argus’s voice floated over from the campsite.
Jena blinked, shifting her eyes to the direction of his voice. At first, it seemed like it must be a trap, so she stayed where she was, holding onto Bree’s arm when her sister would have stood.
It was strange that Argus was in the campsite, and even stranger that he was calling to them. Where were the mercenaries? She didn’t think Argus would participate in a trick, but they couldn’t be too careful.
Narrowing her eyes, she focused on what she could see of Argus. He was standing by the fire. Next to him, she could see a seated figure staring into the flames.
There were no other people in the campsite. Everything was eerily still.
She hesitated and then stood and walked cautiously down the hill, Bree following closely behind her.
As they came closer to Argus and Nate, raw energy flared around them, a sizzle in the air that said something powerful had happened at this place, and not long since.
The first stirrings of the fire spell flickered in her palm. All her senses were buzzing, and Jena slowed her pace even further. The campsite was a mess. She couldn’t see the mercenaries that Argus had sworn were with Nate, but a huge amount of blood and gore was splattered around the camp. Piles of ash lay on the ground, bits floating through the air. Just like when Thornal had died.
She closed her palm around the fire spell, and it flickered out.
Nate was gazing into the fire, his hands tight around his knees and a blank expression on his face. He didn’t glance up as they arrived next to him. The fire made shadows flicker on his face in the darkness.
“He’s not changed position since I got here. Not even looked at me. Won’t acknowledge me at all. There’s no one else here.” Argus looked around, indicating the blood stains on the sleeping mat at the edge of the fire. “But I don’t think we have to worry about them.”
“What happened?” Jena stared around her. She had an idea what the piles of ash were, if nothing else. She’d seen it before.
“I don’t know.” He glanced down at Nate. “We’ll make camp here, and in the morning, we can figure out what’s wrong with him.”
Jena looked around the destroyed campsite. “We need to clear this stuff. I’m not going to be able to sleep with all this blood.” She picked up a bloodstained bedroll, and dragged it out of range of the fire.
“I’ll go get the horses,” said Bree, her voice muffled by the hand she was holding over her mouth. She turned abruptly and ran back the way they had come.
“She hasn’t seen anything like this before,” said Jena.
“Not many people have,” said Argus.
Jena shrugged and started clearing away camp items with pieces of flesh and blood splattered over them. She hadn’t led the same life as Bree.
Once the area was clean, she finally turned to Nate. She couldn’t do much about the blood on his shirt and trousers. Jena wrapped a relatively clean blanket around his shoulders. Given the amount of blood splatted over the campsite, he was fairly clean. He’d somehow been protected from the worst of it.
“Do you think he did this?” Argus gazed around at the destruction, his eyes hooded.
Jena held up a sacking hood she’d found nearby. “They put this over his head to disorientate him, to stop him doing any spells.” She took another sniff. “It’s got baneberry root on it.”
Argus looked at her with a carefully blank expression.
She sighed. Nate had told her about Argus using the herb against him. “Baneberry root inhibits a mage’s abilities. It’s not well known to anyone but the mages, but someone told these men.”
Argus nodded. “Lothar is desperate to get him, even if it means giving away mage secrets.”
A horse whinnied in the darkness, and they both turned to watch Bree enter the campsite. Bree’s horse, a black mare with white markings, nuzzled into her side, while Jena and Argus’s horses followed on either side. They were nervous of the blood and the fire, stepping and stomping when they came closer. Bree put a hand up to calm her mare, rubbing her hand down her nose.
“We’ll tie them up over here, Bree, out of the camp area. They’ll be within earshot, but won’t be frightened of... all this.”
“Where are the mercenaries’ horses?” asked Bree.
“They must have been set free,” Jena said. They hadn’t seen any horses; it seemed a possible explanation. Unless they had suffered the same fate as the mercenaries. She glanced at Nate. She hoped not.
“I’ll help, Bree,” said Argus, heading off toward the horses.
Jena sat next to Nate, putting her hands up toward the fire. Its heat warmed her fingers, but she still felt chilled. She glanced at Nate’s face, trying to see a reaction or even the knowledge that she was there.
She touched his shoulder, hesitantly, unsure how he would take the contact. He simply continued to stare into the flames, his body a statue.
“Nate?” she said. Nothing.
She searched the Book of Spells, trying to find something that would explain what was happening. She was almost certain Nate had done this. The why seemed obvious; they’d captured him.
But the how was a puzzle she was struggling to unravel. He’d had a hood over his head covered in baneberry root. He shouldn’t have been able to cast the tiniest spell, let alone cause the total annihilation of the camp. Not even the raven on her stomach was helping. It kept showing her pictures of Thornal as a young mage with his tattooed face.
When Argus and Bree walked back into the circle of light created by the fire, Jena gestured at the fire. “Should we put it out?”
“No. Whatever happened here will have scared off anything in the surrounding area for the night,” said Argus, looking out into the darkness. “But we leave early, and we take watches through the night.”
“Can you help him?” Jena turned to Bree. There was nothing in the Book, but maybe a healer would know more.
“He looks like he’s not really here, like his mind is wandering. It’s common in patients who’ve seen or done something terrible.” Bree looked around at the torn and broken items lying scattered around them. “I think this qualifies.”
Argus nodded in agreement. “I’ve seen the same thing in men after a battle.”
A shiver went through Jena. “Will his mind come back?”
“Mostly they do. We have to be patient,” said Bree.
“I don’t think we have time to be patient,” said Jena, glancing at Argus. She went over to the horses to collect a blanket from her travel pack. One her way back, she looked around for Nate’s horse, but the pretty chestnut mare was nowhere to be seen. Wrapping the blanket tight around her shoulders, she returned to the fire.
With only a small amount of resistance, Jena managed to get Nate to lie next to the campfire. His body was warm, but he was shaking, so she pulled her blanket from around her shoulders and put it over him as well. He didn’t close his eyes, and Jena didn’t think he would any time soon.
But at least he might rest if he was lying down.
Jena walked around, trying to find something else to keep her warm that wasn’t covered in blood. There was a travel bag lying nearby, miraculously out of the range of splatter. After pulling out bits of dried meat, a knife, and a spare coat, Jena found a blanket. It smelled and was stained with things Jena preferred not to think about, but it was warm.
But she had slept in worse. A few years of living the good life with a mage and she was suddenly all fussy about what kept her warm. Hauling it out of the bag, she wrapped it around her shoulders. Heading back to the fire, Jena curled into a ball and lay down near Bree, who was already wrapped up warm in her own blanket.
“So what do we do now?” Bree asked Argus, who was sitting the first watch at the edge of the fire.
“You sleep. In the morning, we ride to Remus. No backing out now, Bree, just because you’ve realized what you’ve gotten yourself into.” His hard words cut through the night.
“Don’t you dare put words in my mouth,” said Bree, just as sharp. She turned her body away from Argus and lay looking into the fire. “Goodnight, Jena,” she said pointedly.
Argus watched Bree with a frown on his face, his eyes disturbingly intense.
“Wake me for the next watch, Argus,” said Jena. “You need your rest as well.”
Jena groaned, trying to ignore the voice. Something grabbed her arm and shook her. She swatted her hand in the general direction.
“Wake up. It’s your shift.”
She opened her eyes. It was Argus.
She struggled to pull herself up into a sitting position. The blanket had proved to be scratchy and smelly, but warm. She’d been in a deep sleep.
Argus moved away to curl up on the other side of the fire. He’d been keeping it stoked; the embers were still flaring bright against the dark sky.
She sat on the overturned log that had been Argus’s watch station, pulling her blanket around her to ward off the worst of the cold. She couldn’t see much aside from the fire and the bodies of her three companions. But she could hear animals snuffling, and the wind wandering through the low plains trees. Nate’s eyes were closed now, but he didn’t look to be at rest. If anything, his body looked more stiff and tense than it had when they had first found him.
How could he possibly have done all this? Jena rolled ideas around in her head. She didn’t see how he could have cast a spell, unless they’d stupidly taken the hood off for some reason. Even then, she was fairly sure the effects would last long enough to keep him confused.
Could he be the sole survivor of something totally unrelated? That seemed even more far-fetched. Jena stared at his face in the firelight. Dark brown hair and eyes, a mouth that seemed to smile more in self-mockery than in genuine humour. A mage tattoo that slashed across his face, creating a sense of mystery. He didn’t let much of his true self show. She knew it because she was the same.
So what had happened? She couldn’t explain it, but she was sure the carnage was a direct result of something Nate had done. How could it be otherwise? The raven moved on her stomach, and she felt the fluttering of inky feathers against her skin. Images appeared in her mind. Thornal in his younger years, a demon floating around his head.
He looked strange to her; his mage tattoo was still on his face, and he was smiling in pride at the demon before him. It wasn’t easy to summon a demon; in fact, only the best could do it. The ability to force creatures from the Edges was a skill the mages valued above most others. The ability to weave fire and work with demons had allowed the Great Mage to create the Royal Flames.
But the Great Mage hadn’t been able to protect against everything. According to Argus, Lothar had found a way to control the Flames. The king-in-waiting was also after the Book of Spells and wasn’t above using creatures such as the Riders and wolvans to assist.
Lothar was a powerful enemy.
She looked at Nate again. Was he strong enough to survive a confrontation with Lothar? He twitched in his sleep, jerking his arm up over his face. Jena sighed. She didn’t know if he was, but she wanted him to live long enough to have a chance.
A screech in the night made her jump. A birdcall, she told herself, and pulled her blanket closer around her shoulders. When the screech sounded again, this time closer, she stared into the night sky to the west. There was nothing but darkness. But all her instincts said trouble was coming their way.
She stood and went over to Argus, shaking him awake. “Something’s coming,” she said. Then she did the same to Bree. She hesitated beside Nate, but touched his arm as well. His eyes opened immediately, and he looked directly up at her. There were flames in his eyes, a reflection of the embers in the fire. But Jena had a feeling those fires would have been there anyway.
“What is it?” he croaked.
“You’re back,” she said stupidly.
“What is it, Jena?” asked Argus from behind her.
She turned around. “There was a noise. A creature in the sky, nothing I’ve ever heard before.” Just as she was explaining, another screech slashed through the night.
Argus looked sharply into the sky in the direction of the noise. A small glowing light emerged in the distance, growing larger as they watched.
“Lavaen,” whispered Nate. “I recognize the call.”
Argus nodded, not wasting words. He grabbed his blanket, reaching to pull Bree up and away from the fire. “Move away from the fire. It’ll be attracted to that first.”
Jena helped Nate to stand. He was wobbly getting to his feet but managed to walk on his own once he was standing. Argus and Bree fetched their horses, and as a group, they moved quickly away from the fire. Jena glanced back and saw the great creature outlined against the night.
It was unexpectedly beautiful. She could see a faint red glowing outline around the edges of the beast’s large scales, providing a muted radiance against the night. She could hear rather than see the large wings as they beat their way through the sky, and its eyes smoldered in a way that warmed her simply by watching.
“It’s amazing,” she said. She’d stopped walking, and it was only when Nate took a grip on her arm and pulled her along that she remembered the lavaen was probably another of Lothar’s beasts.
“Amazingly deadly,” said Argus.
The effects of his new abilities still coursed through his limbs, the blood flowing hot in his veins, making him itch with need. For what, he didn’t know, but it was a terrible feeling of unfulfilled desire.
The whirling fires inside him had finally died down, and he vowed he wasn’t going to allow them to rise up ever again. It had been like standing in the middle of a blazing bushfire that ravaged everything in its path. A bushfire fueled on blind, unreasoning anger.
For now, it was all he could do to keep pace with Jena and the others as they ran from the lavaen.
“There’s no point running,” said a now-familiar voice. The old mage ghost glowed in the night. His expression could only be described as satisfied.
Nate didn’t stop. “Why?” he asked the ghost, out of the side of his mouth.
“You know why. You’re not stupid. Save your energy for what you will need to do,” the ghost mage said quietly.
“No!” Nate forgot to whisper and halted to make his point.
Beside him, Jena stopped. She gestured at him to hurry. “Come on, Nate,” she said, glancing at the others who were racing ahead. “Run.”
“She’ll catch you all in a wing-beat. Tell them to stop. You can handle this.”
He resisted for a heartbeat and then let out a breath. “We have to stop here,” he said to Jena, knowing the ghost was right. “There’s no point running any further. We’re out in the open.”
“We have to try,” said Argus from a little way ahead, his voice urgent.
“Tell him you have a plan. I know how to beat her.” The ghost drifted in front of Nate, floating disconcertingly close to Jena.
Nate ran a hand through his hair, his breathing agitated. He still hadn’t recovered from the last time he’d listened to the ghost. He’d only just finished vowing never to go there again.
The lavaen screeched. He looked up to where the glowing body of the beast cruised toward them, covering a massive distance with each beat of its great wings.
“I have a plan,” he said, almost a whisper. He had no choice.
“What is it?” Jena walked back to him, her body moving through the old ghost as she did so. She shivered, but otherwise didn’t seem to notice.
“I can’t tell you.” Inwardly he winced. He hoped the ghost mage knew what he was doing.
“Because you don’t have a plan,” said Argus. The mercenary strode back to where Jena and Nate were standing. “We both know what that creature is capable of, Nate. We have to keep moving.” He leaned in close to Nate, his face a mask of anger.
“You know as well as I do that we can’t outrun a lavaen. Not here, not ever.”
The ghost mage floated close to his side. “Tell them you’re going to call a demon,” he whispered. “Then send the demon to talk to the lavaen. They’re both creatures of fire. It is your only chance.” Cold air floated across the nape of his neck. But relief flowed through Nate. He didn’t need to go back to the terrifying fiery crater at his center just to call a demon.
“I’ll call a demon. It’ll help.” He didn’t wait for them to reply. He reached for his usual source of power and spoke the words of the spell. Raising his hands high, he tried to gather the usual elements from the Edges. But nothing came. He was an empty shell.
The lavaen screeched. This time it was very close.
A cold breeze brushed across his neck. “Your power has pooled inside the fire at your core. Your old mage ways will not work now,” the mage ghost whispered.
His heart beating fast in his chest, Nate ignored the ghost mage and tried again. Nothing. It was gone; he’d lost the small amount of mage ability he’d had. The ghost mage had tricked him, leaving him with only one possibility to save them all; a possibility that he couldn’t control. He could just as easily kill the others as the lavaen. “I can’t,” he whispered.
Aching need flowed through his body at the thought of going back to that other place. But he hadn’t been in control of his actions; he’d been relegated to observer as the fires raging inside had taken over. They’d easily overcome his captors. Not just overcome. Decimated. Destroyed.
“Do it, Nate! In time, you will learn control. For now, you have no choice.” This time the ghost mage’s voice thundered in the night’s silence.
Nate looked up to discover his three companions staring at him. Argus and Jena’s faces had a fair approximation of impassiveness, but Bree’s eyes were wide and terrified. She glanced up at the sky and then at him.
He had no choice.
Nate closed his eyes, and held his hands in front. He knew exactly where to go this time. A small spark emerged, growing larger and larger until it exploded in the air above Nate’s head. It wasn’t huge, no bigger than Nate’s head, but it was bright and vibrant, an impressive shape that glowed like a million stars crowded together into one space. The demon was brighter than any he had called before.
“Master, how may I help?”
“I have a task for you.”
“Yes, master. What is your wish?”
“The lavaen. I believe you may be able to convince it not to attack us?”
“Ah.” The demon gave an approximation of a nod and streaked in a direct line to the descending fire creature. Nate held his breath.
The four of them stood like statues, waiting. Nate couldn’t take his eyes off the bright spark he’d called forth. The demon approached the beast, flying around its head. The huge animal took a swipe at the fire demon, ducking its head and flying past where the demon hovered.
The demon continued to fly around the lavaen’s head, ducking and diving whenever the bigger beast swiped its paw. The two fire creatures glowed in the sky; it would have been beautiful if it weren’t so frightening.
The lavaen screeched.
Bree jumped. Next to her, the black mare shook her head, pulling back on the rope Bree was holding. The rope dragged out of Bree’s hand and the mare reared up. The lavaen screeched again, and that was all it took. The mare reared again and turned to race across the plains in the dark.
“No!” said Bree. “Chamomile!” She would have raced after the horse, but Argus held her back, his arms secure around her middle.
“She’s gone. She’ll find us again, if she wants to eat,” Argus said calmly.
“You’ll never catch her.”
Above them, the lavaen screeched again. It was almost directly overhead now, and the demon still buzzed around its head. Nate gazed up at the overwhelming creature.
The shiny black scales were almost invisible in the darkness; the red glow emanating from beneath the scales made it mesmerizing. The inner radiance created a map of glowing cracks across its body, scattered randomly, but somehow making sense. Its wings were covered in thick black skin, and shimmering fiery veins were visible underneath the thin membrane. It was as if liquid fire ran through the creature’s body.
The wind from the circling creature’s wings threw up dust and pulled at their clothes. Nate put his hands up, not sure if it was to stop whatever it might do to him, or to try another spell. Both seemed pointless.
Molten black claws came down directly at Nate. A hot breeze poured across his cheek as the beast swiped her arm close to his head. He didn’t move, didn’t even flinch, just tensed for the moment when the deadly claws would pierce his skin.
He couldn’t even make his legs run. He was frozen, despite the heat raging inside him. Even the mage ghost had nothing to say. Still the demon raced around the lavaen’s head, a small light buzzing against a mountain of power.
This close, the next screech from the creature was deafening. It unlocked his body, and Nate crouched down and put his hands over his ears. Looking up he saw the lavaen’s glowing eyes directly overhead. The creature hung in the air, wild and angry, its eyes burning dangerously.
“Come on then, creature. Do it,” he yelled into its face, as the fire inside him began to glow. He stood up. If it came to a fight, he could use his new power to injure the creature, and give the others time. Perhaps they needn’t all die.
The demon swooped in one more time, a blur next to the lavaen’s head, then away again. He heard a growl emerging from deep in the lavaen’s throat. He felt rather than saw the hesitation, and then the immense creature beat its wings upward. This time its screech was angry, a hunter that had lost its prey.
In silence, Nate watched the lavaen spiral up and away on its powerful wings.
“Why did it leave?” whispered Bree.
“I don’t know. The demon I think.” Nate didn’t take his eyes from the lavaen. He didn’t understand what had just happened. How had they survived?
In the distance, they heard the frightened whinny of a horse, and Nate became aware of hooves thundering over the dry earth. The screech of the lavaen echoed across the night sky. It sounded triumphant, and Nate’s heart missed a beat.
Bree gasped, “Chamomile!” She made to move, then halted as Argus placed his hand on her arm.
Nate closed his eyes. The horse didn’t stand a chance, any more than they would have without a fire demon.
He opened his eyes and pulled at the fire in his core. Maybe he could do something, perhaps some part of his new power could help the horse. He drew it out and felt the fires swirling around him. He paused, suddenly unsure what to do. Fire spilled out of his hands, so he raised them up, and pulsed the fire into the air. It lit up a line of fire in the sky directly above them, great strings of flame, streaking toward the stars.
In the distance, they heard Chamomile’s frightened shriek. In the light created by his string of flames, they saw the lavaen dive straight for the mare.
“Do something,” screamed Bree, tears running down her cheeks.
Nate cut off the flames coming from his hands, darkening the landscape again, just as the mare’s screams abruptly stopped.
Now it was Bree who sat still and silent, wrapped in a blanket taken from the mercenaries’ campsite.
It had been a rough night. Afraid to stay too close to the campfire where they’d made such easy targets for the lavaen, they’d kept moving for most of the darkest hours. Because they now had only two horses—they hadn’t been able to find Nate’s horse at the campsite—they’d had to double up. Bree rode with Argus on his great grey stallion and Nate with Jena on her smaller mare. Sometime early in the morning they’d stopped, exhausted, and curled up together under an old tree. They’d woken to an overcast day.
“What do we do?” asked Jena softly. She was sitting next to Nate, a short distance from where Bree was steadfastly ignoring them all. She had yet to speak more than two words.
“I don’t know. We should probably keep moving. We weren’t safe at that campfire, and we’re not safe here.” Nate was watching Bree with a haunted expression.
“It wasn’t your fault. You managed to save us, and you tried to save the horse.”
“I should have been able to stop it from getting her horse.”
Jena hesitated. “What is this power you have? It’s not a usual mage skill.”
“I don’t know what it is,” said Nate leaning his head in one hand. “It’s saved my life twice now, but I find it hard to be grateful. I don’t have control over what happens when I use it.”
“Power comes in many shapes. Thornal taught me that.”
Nate’s eyes darkened, and his eyebrows descended. “What good is an ability like this if I can’t control it?”
“It’s better than no power at all,” said Jena, although she wasn’t convinced. She thought of her own abilities and wondered what would happen if she had no power at all. Perhaps she would be sitting in a home somewhere, nice and safe beside a warm fire eating a bowl of rabbit stew. No more worries than the vegetables in her garden and cooking for her table.
“I’d not wager on it,” answered Nate. “Power comes at a price, and I’m not sure I want to pay it.” He didn’t take his eyes off Bree.
Jena nodded. She understood. Her particular abilities would probably get her killed. “Do you know this area? We need horses,” she said.
“I’ve traveled through it,” he said. “There are several villages along the main road. We might have to split up to search for more horses.”
Jena looked at Nate suspiciously. He had no horse, and it was easy to see why he was sticking with them for the moment, but he’d already shown that he’d rather run than go to Argus’s master. Separating didn’t seem like a good idea.
“You’re not leaving us alone out here,” she said.
Nate looked at her in surprise. “I was thinking perhaps Argus and you could ride to the nearest village and buy horses. I’ll stay here and look after Bree. I’d not want to ride that beast of Argus’s.”
“You’re coming with us, then? To Argus’s master?” Jena watched him closely, and didn’t miss the tiny twitch on his face.
Nate opened his mouth to answer, then closed it as Argus stomped back into their small camp circle, a scowl in his face, his travel pack in his hand. He’d been with his stallion, making sure the animal was fed and watered.
Stopping next to Jena, Argus seemed to be about to make some kind of declaration. Before he could say a word, his expression abruptly twisted into one of extreme agony. He grasped with one hand at his recently healed shoulder and fell to his knees. A groan escaped through clenched teeth, and he fell face-forward onto the dusty ground.
Bree gasped and raced over to him, her hands going to his shoulder. Nate crouched down and helped Bree turn Argus onto his back and pull the big man’s shirt back. The flesh on his shoulder was churning, visible lumps moving underneath purple mottled skin. Jena took a step back.
Bree’s eyes widened. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked. “We fixed it. It shouldn’t have come back.”
Jena looked around, trying to gather inspiration from the sparse scenery around them. She held her breath, listening into the silence. Then she heard it. The insistent buzzing that made the hairs on her arms rise.
Somehow, Argus was sensitive to the creatures. It was a terrible thing, but at least it had given them some warning.
“They’re back on our trail.” The raven fluttered on her stomach, and Jena stood. The bird wanted to fly free so it could assess the danger. But with Nate right next to her, she daren’t let it go. Perhaps she could sneak off behind the tree they’d slept under.
“I thought Miara said we’d be safe from Lothar’s creatures?” said Bree. “Because of you?” She looked up at Jena with wide eyes. Her tone bordered on accusatory.
Jena shook her head, knowing her sister was just worried, but wishing she hadn’t spoken in front of Nate. “She thought Lothar’s view of Nate through the Flames would be blocked because of me. But there are other ways the Riders could have found us.” She glanced down at Argus’s still body. “Maybe Argus is somehow connected to them now. Or perhaps they just got lucky.”
Bree smoothed her hand over Argus’s forehead, but the big man didn’t move.
“We can’t run. Not with Argus like this, and only two horses,” Nate said.
“Argus barely has a heartbeat, Jena,” said Bree urgently, her hand over his heart. “I think he’s dying, right here in front of us.”
Jena glanced up into the sky, trying to get a feel for the direction the buzzing was coming from. They needed to know how much time they had. She had to let her raven fly free. “You do what you need to do to save Argus. Keep him alive, Bree. I... uh... need to change my shirt.” She grabbed her bag, and scampered off before they could ask too many questions. Behind the tree, she pulled off her stained shirt, and the raven tore itself from her body. It was gone into the sky before she had her new shirt in place. She watched it go for a few moments and then returned to the other side of the tree.
Nate was pacing next to Bree and Argus. Her sister was leaning close to his chest, her eyes shut, murmuring a healing chant.
Nate strode over to Jena as soon as she emerged. “Do you think we can beat them? What affects them?” he said.
She thought it through, trying to stay calm. “They’re made up of millions of flies and maggots. They’re almost impossible to kill. They separate and reform, almost at will.” The pages of the Book of Spells were very explicit. “They use poison arrows to kill people,” she added. “Their power comes while they’re a whole creature, so each individual fly holds less of a threat.”
“What about fire? It seems to be my ability. Surely fire could kill them.” Nate ran his hand through his hair, leaving it spiking up around his face.
“If you can catch them. I think they’d just separate out wide or up high. Losing a few of the group doesn’t affect the whole. And don’t forget their arrows. You might get some fire away, but they’d soon get an arrow into you.”
“So we need them to be still, somehow, while they’re just flies?” asked Bree. “You think they’d die from Nate’s flames if we could get them to stay still?” Bree looked up from her patient.
Jena thought about it a moment. “Yes, I do. But how do we get them to stay in one place? They’re flies. They fly.”
“Honey.” Bree’s expression was grim.
“Honey?” Jena wondered if her sister had actually gone crazy.
“We use it in the middle of summer when the flies get bad. We make little honey traps and then kill them.”
“Where do we get honey from?” Nate gestured around them at the barren rocky landscape.
“We create it,” said Jena, warming to Bree’s idea. “We just need water, or something like it, and we can create a sticky puddle of mud, and we turn it into honey. There must be a spell.” Jena tried to keep her expression neutral. Of course there was a spell. She knew the exact one, and if they didn’t get it sorted soon, they’d be too late.
Nate shook his head. “I’m not sure I can do mage spells anymore. I’d be more likely to incinerate us all.”
Trying to keep her impatience in check, Jena tried again. “We can’t run from them. And Argus isn’t going to be any help at all. We have to face them here. We have no choice.”
“We need another plan. I think I should just try to burn them, while you three take one of the horses and make a run for it. I’ll follow you once they’ve been destroyed.”
It took a great strength of will for Jena to stop herself snorting in disbelief. “Are we really so bad that you try to get rid of us at every turn?”
“I’m not trying to get rid of you. I’m trying to be heroic.”
Nate sounded sincere, but Jena didn’t have time to work out if he really meant it. “How is it heroic if you die, and they come after us and destroy us as well?”
“They won’t. According to Argus they’re after me.”
“I think they will, especially given Argus’s connection to them. They’re mindless hunters, and they’ve had our scent along with yours for a while now.”
Nate paced back and forth, his expression fierce. “Then where are we going to get enough water from?”
Jena looked around them. Everything was dry as a bone, even the scraggly tree they’d slept under. “I don’t—”
The raven cawed overhead, swirling through the air currents. The bird drifted off in one direction, its flight straight as an arrow. Then it drifted back around and came back to their campsite. It cawed again.
“I think we go that way,” said Jena, pointing in the direction the bird had flown.
Nate narrowed his eyes up at the raven. “Where did that bird come from?” he asked suspiciously.
“It’s a sign,” said Jena. “We should go that way.”
“We can’t just follow the flight of a bird, Jena,” said Nate. “I didn’t realize you were so superstitious.”
Jena narrowed her eyes and tried to see into the distance in the direction the raven had flown. There was a dark clump on the horizon. She pointed. “See, over there. It has to be an underground spring.” She hoped she was right. Surely, the raven wouldn’t lead them wrong.
“How do you know?” asked Nate.
“Birds need water too. I’m positive it’s a spring.” She covered her eyes with one hand to shade herself from the glare as she stared hard at the spot in the distance. “It’s close enough to the trail that we can carry the water to the trail, make it into mud, then turn the mud into honey.”
Nate stopped abruptly. “We’ll need bait. Something to make sure they come to us.”
Bree looked up at them again. “I think we are the bait. Even Argus. We just have to make sure nothing happens to him.” She brushed a soothing hand across Argus’s forehead. His color looked slightly better.
Nate grimaced. “We’re the bait. I make a pool of honey out of mud that they run into without noticing, and then I flame them while they’re stuck. What could go wrong?”
Jena grinned, then turned sober as the buzzing noise in the distance rose a pitch, becoming even louder. “Come on, let’s go,” she said.
Between the three of them, they managed to push Argus’s still-limp body up onto his horse, lying face down over the saddle. The stallion wasn’t happy about it, but Bree calmed the animal, and she led him, while Jena and Nate rode on ahead. Jena held her breath until they were close enough to see that the dark patch on the horizon was indeed a small patch of shrubs and undergrowth that indicated water.
She leaped off the horse as soon as they arrived. “This flat patch of earth is close enough to the spring,” she said.
Nate nodded, and strode over to the patch of undergrowth. Jena followed him, and they both stared down at the trickle of water coming out of the earth, hidden inside a rock formation.
“Is it enough, do you think?” whispered Jena.
Nate gazed back in the direction they’d just come from. “It has to be.”
They pulled out their water bags and started filling them as fast as they could.
“I’m still not certain I can do it,” said Nate, as he carried a water bag full of water to their chosen bait trap. He splashed the liquid out onto the ground, where it immediately soaked into the dust. “We’re going to need a lot of water,” he said, watching it disappear.
“Then we’d better hurry,” replied Jena, dumping hers next to the water he’d just splashed out.
When Bree arrived with Argus, they settled the big man on the ground, and began working at a frantic pace to create a patch of mud big enough to capture the Riders. A system soon developed, with Bree filling the bags, while Jena and Nate ran between the portion of the trail they had chosen for their trap and poured out the water.
Soon they had a muddy mess where the dusty ground had once been.
Jena stood back, her hands on her hips, her feet and face muddy. The puddle stretched out in front of her, creating a massive barrier the Riders would have to cross. The raven flew overhead in wide, lazy circles.
They could see their pursuers now, not just hear their ominous buzzing. In the distance, a cloud of dust and stones sprayed in their wake, like some kind of strange fast-moving dust storm. Aside from the buzzing, which had increased to a high-pitched scream, it was eerily still and silent around them.
Nature wanted nothing to do with the Riders.
Jena ran back to where Nate had tied the horses just past the spring. Argus was on the ground, a blanket under his head. Bree was already with him, kneeling beside him, and holding his hand.
“He’s still not awake. But he’s breathing. He’s still alive.” Bree’s voice was shaky. “I don’t know how to help him.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t use him as bait,” said Jena softly, looking over at Nate. “Perhaps we should leave him here, behind the spring.”
Bree shook her head determinedly. “No, he’d want to be part of it.” She paused. “If we don’t succeed, he’s dead anyway.”