Marc Sehestedt



The Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR)

The woods north of the Lake of Mists in the lands of the Khassidi Dim dusklight bled from the boughs, and Amira ran through a cloud.

The mists grew thicker with each step, dampening her skin and hair. It could mean only one thing: They were nearing the lake. 'Run, Jalan!

Don't look back!' Amira ran behind her son, and she had to strain to keep up with him. Over their pounding feet and her heavy breathing, she could hear the men behind them, and they sounded as if they were getting closer. She didn't know if Walloch had brought the hounds. The slaver sliced the vocal cords of his hounds so that they could never bark above a hoarse whisper. Not that he'd really need the dogs. She had no idea where she was going. She and Jalan were running blind.

They didn't know this land, and their enemies did. Jalan stumbled, almost falling. Amira pulled him to his feet and urged him forward.

'Need… rest,' said Jalan. 'Not here. Move. Up!' Jalan pounded on, heedless of the noise he made, and Amira followed. If Walloch had brought the hounds, hiding would do no good. Their one hope was to reach the lake. If they could only make it there, they could hide themselves in the mists and lose their scent in the water. The trees and underbrush clustered thick before them. The ground became rocky and uneven, and they found themselves running downhill. Amira and Jalan stumbled over roots, branches, and thick ferns, but they kept going. 'Ut ish vet! Ut!' The voice came from behind them-much too close. During the years Amira spent fighting the Tuigan Horde, she picked up a bit of the speech-enough to understand the meaning behind the words. Ut ish vet. Ut. There she is! There! Amira didn't slow. She swore she could smell the heady scent of the lake, but the mists were growing thicker with the onset of evening, and she could see nothing but more trees and brush in every direction. She dared a look back.

Three figures, no more than blurry forms in the mist, ran on the trail behind them-and they were gaining. She could hear more not far away.

The ground fell away before Jalan's feet, and he slid down the slope.

Amira half-ran and half-fell behind him. She hit the brushy ground beside Jalan, the sudden stop rattling her teeth, but she pushed the pain away and got them both to their feet. She grabbed Jalan's shoulders, leaned in close, and said, 'Keep going! Make for the water.' Jalan turned to look at her, his eyes wide with fear. He looked far younger than his fourteen years. 'Mother, no! I-' She shoved him and said, 'Go!' as she choked back tears. 'Lose them in the water. I'll find you.' 'You promise?' The earnestness and fear in her son's gaze almost undid her resolve, but she clenched her jaw, took a deep breath, and pushed him onward. 'Go, Jalan!' She turned to fight, the words of an incantation already forming on her lips. Behind her, she heard Jalan sobbing, then the sound of the boy blundering off through the forest. Amira raked her sleeve over her eyes to clear the tears, then her hands began the intricate patterns to complete her last spell, the one she'd been saving, hoping she wouldn't have to use it. She was Jalan's last hope. Amira had never been much of a praying person, but as the sounds of Jalan fleeing faded behind her, she sent out a silent plea-Let Jalan get away. My life for his. One of Walloch's Tuigan mercenaries came to the slope and began his sliding descent. He saw Amira about halfway down. He hit the ground running, a wild light of triumph in his eyes, and his body slammed into hers full-force. Amira hit the ground. The full weight of the Tuigan came down on top of her, forcing the breath from her lungs. Bright orbs of light danced before her eyes, and she fought to stay conscious. The Tuigan grabbed her right forearm in a grip that she thought might crack stone, then seized her collar and hauled her back to her feet.

Two other men-another Tuigan with a naked blade in his hand and one whose short, muscular body and long horsetail of hair made him a Nar-descended the slope, laughing at the sight of Amira subdued. The Nar carried a coiled length of rope in one hand and a dagger in the other. Her captor shook her hard and held her up, displaying his prize. Amira's vision swam. She swallowed the pain, took a deep breath and uttered the last syllable of the spell, grabbing the man under the chin as she did so. She dug her nails into skin, and emerald flame burst from her hand. The man screamed and thrashed away, but too late-the green fire had taken root and blossomed in his greasy hair.

He slapped at it, and the flames caught in his sleeves. In moments, brilliant green fire wreathed his upper body, lighting the surrounding mists in eerie ghostlight. 'Down!' said the Nar. 'Get him down!' He made a feeble swipe at the burning man's legs with his rope, but he seemed hesitant to get too close. His efforts brought him a few paces closer to Amira. She lunged and planted her burning fist in his gut-not hard, just enough to get the flames into his shirt. He shoved Amira away. She hit the ground hard, biting her cheek. Emerald flames licked their way up his shirt, and the man screamed, but he had the good sense to drop and roll in the thick brush. Amira spat blood and planted her hands to push herself up. Her left came down on the thick shaft of an autumn-dry branch. She squeezed, and the green flames bit into the wood, caught, and flared to life. She grabbed the other end with her free hand, pushed herself to her feet, and turned. 'Enough of this!' Amira looked up. A man stood at the top of the slope. He was taller than the Tuigan and the Nar, but not nearly so thick. In the last of the day's light, Amira recognized him. Though she couldn't make out the details, his outline against the sky was all too familiar. He wore a knee-length Tuigan shirt called a kalat, but his ornate cloak and long hair held back by a scarf round his forehead betrayed an origin far to the west. He held a rapier in his hand. It was Walloch, the slave lord who'd held her captive for days. He aimed the tip at the burning man and said, 'Silo'at!' A funnel of frost hissed out of the blade, enveloping the man caught in the green flames and extinguishing them. The man fell only a few paces from Amira. Down in the hollow it was too dark to make out details, but she could smell the sickly sweet scent of scalded flesh and the sulfuric stench of burned hair. He was breathing in quick, shallow gasps. 'Stay right where you are, bukhla,' said Walloch. Amira didn't know what bukhla meant-it wasn't a Tuigan word-but the slaver's fondness for it said enough. He made his way down the slope, keeping the tip of his blade pointed at Amira. The other two men kept their distance, their gaze alternating between Amira and their boss. The Nar's shirt was still smoking, but he didn't seem injured. Walloch stomped to a halt at the bottom of the slope. 'Where is the boy?' Amira glared at him. The Nar spoke up. 'We saw only the woman. Chiet grabbed her, and she burned him. We never saw the boy.' The green flames in Amira's fist were growing smaller with each breath, though the fire on the end of the branch she held still crackled with life. 'Put the stick down,' said Walloch. Amira raised it over her head, ready to strike. 'You really think a torch is going to help you against me?' Amira glanced at the two mercenaries. They took a cautious step back and looked to their boss. 'Enough of this,' said Walloch. Amira crouched and prepared to spring, her eye fixed on Walloch's blade. The slaver took one step forward and brought his other hand around in an almost lazy pitch.

Something sharp struck Amira on the forehead, pain flared in her skull, and every shadow in the wood seemed to flood her vision. A roaring filled her ears, then she felt herself being hauled to her feet. The shadows fled, and she found herself looking into Walloch's furious gaze. Her limp hands were empty, and the last of the green flames were dying in the brush at her feet. 'Stupid bukhla. You go up against another wizard, all you think about is magic, and I take you down with a rock.' He spat in her face and threw her down. She fell on her side. Her head bounced against the carpet of sodden autumn leaves and mud, and pain lanced through her skull. Light flared in her eyes.

She had to fight the pain to stay conscious. Wet warmth pulsed from the point of the pain on her forehead, and when she tried to rise, a mat of leaves and dirt clung to her face. Blood, she thought. It's blood. That bastard hit me with a rock, and I'm bleeding like a hung pheasant. She cursed her own foolishness. She made it halfway to her feet, and Walloch's boot struck her in the side. Her breath left her body, and she heard ribs crack. 'Stay down! You get up when I tell you. Not before.' Amira tried to draw a breath into her lungs, but she felt as if her entire upper body were stiff and brittle as cracked wood. Something struck her in the back, hard. Darkness filled her visionShe was drowning. Water filled her nose, choking her, and she coughed and coughed until she found herself

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