Michael J. Sullivan
Miranda had been certain that the end of the world would begin like this-without warning, but with fire. Behind them, the sky glowed red as flames and plumes of sparks rose into the night sky. The university at Sheridan was burning.
Holding Mercy’s little hand, Miranda was terrified she might lose the girl in the dark. They had been running for hours, dashing blindly through the pine forest, pushing their way past unseen branches. Beneath the laden boughs, the snow was deep. Miranda fought through drifts higher than her knees, breaking a path for the little girl and the old professor.
Struggling somewhere behind, Arcadius called out, “Go on, go on, don’t wait for me.”
Hauling the heavy pack and dragging the little girl, Miranda was moving as fast as she could. Every time she heard a sound or thought a shadow moved, Miranda fought back a scream. Panic hovered just below the surface, threatening to break free. Death was on their heels and her feet were anchors.
Miranda felt sorry for the child and worried that hauling her forward was hurting her arm. Once, Miranda had pulled too hard and dragged Mercy across the surface of the snow. The girl had cried when her face skimmed the powder, but her whimpering was short-lived. Mercy had stopped asking questions, stopped complaining about being tired. She had given up talking altogether and trudged behind Miranda as best she could. She was a brave girl.
They reached the road and Miranda knelt down to inspect the child. Her nose ran. Snowflakes clung to her eyelashes. Her cheeks were red, and her black hair lay matted with sweat to her forehead. Miranda took a moment to brush several loose strands behind her ears while Mr. Rings kept a close eye on her. As if he were a fur stole, the raccoon curled around the girl’s neck. Mercy had insisted on freeing the animals from their cages before leaving. Once released, the raccoon had run up Mercy’s arm and held tight. Apparently, Mr. Rings also sensed something bad was coming.
“How are you doing?” Miranda asked, pulling the girl’s hood up and tightening the broach holding her cloak.
“My feet are cold,” she said. The child’s voice was little more than a whisper as she stared down at the snow.
“So are mine,” Miranda replied in the brightest tone she could muster.
“Ah, well, that was fun, wasn’t it?” the old professor said while climbing the slope to join them. He puffed large clouds and shifted the satchel over his shoulder, his beard and eyebrows thick with snow and ice.
“And how are you doing?” Miranda asked.
“Oh, I’m fine, fine. An old man needs a bit of exercise now and again, but we need to keep moving.”
“Where are we going?” Mercy asked.
“Aquesta,” Arcadius replied. “You know what Aquesta is, don’t you, dear? That’s where the empress rules from a big palace. You’d like to meet her, wouldn’t you?”
“Will she be able to stop them?”
Miranda noticed the little girl’s gaze had shifted over the old man’s shoulder to the burning university. Miranda looked as well, watching the brilliant glow rising above the treetops. They were many miles away now, and yet the light still filled the horizon. Dark shadows flew above the fire’s light. They swooped and circled over the burning university, and from their mouths spewed torrents of flame.
“We can hope, my dear. We can hope,” Arcadius said. “Now let’s keep moving. I know you’re tired. I know you’re cold. So am I, but we have to go as fast as we can. We have to get farther away.”
Mercy nodded or shivered. It was difficult to discern which.
Miranda dusted the snow from the child’s back and legs in an attempt to keep her from getting wetter than she already was. This drew a cautious glare from Mr. Rings.
“Do you think the other animals got away?” Mercy asked.
“I’m certain they did,” Arcadius assured her. “They are smart, aren’t they? Maybe not as smart as Mr. Rings here-after all, he managed to get a ride.”
Mercy nodded again and added in a hopeful voice, “I’m sure Teacup got away. She can fly.”
Miranda checked the girl’s pack and then her own to ensure they were still closed and cinched tight. She looked down the dark road before them.
“This will take us through Colnora and right into Aquesta,” the old wizard explained.
“How long will it take to get there?” Mercy asked.
“Several days-a week, perhaps. Longer if the weather stays bad.”
Miranda saw the disappointment in Mercy’s eyes. “Don’t worry, once we are farther away, we will stop, rest, and eat. I’ll make something hot and then we’ll sleep for a bit. But for now, we have to keep going. Now that we are on the road, it will be easier.”
Miranda took the little girl’s hand and they set off again. She was pleased to discover that what she had told the child turned out to be true. Trenches left by wagons made for easy going, even more so due to the downhill slope. They kept a brisk pace, and soon the forest rose to blot out the fiery glow behind them. The world became dark and quiet, with only the sound of the cold wind to keep them company.
Miranda glanced at the old professor as he trudged along, holding his cloak tight to his neck. The skin of his face was red and blotchy, and he labored to breathe. “Are you sure you are all right?”
Arcadius did not respond at first. He drew near, forced a smile, and whispered softly in Miranda’s ear, “I fear you may need to finish this journey without me.”
“What?” Miranda said too loudly, and glanced down at the little girl. Mercy did not look up. “We’ll stop soon. We’ll rest and take our time tomorrow. We’ve gone a good distance today. Here, let me take your satchel.” She reached out.
“No. I’ll hang on to it. It’s very fragile, as you know-and dangerous. If anyone dies carrying it, I want it to be me. As for resting, I don’t think it will make a difference. I’m not strong enough for this sort of travel. We both know that.”
“You can’t give up.”
“I’m not. I’m handing off the charge to you. You’ll manage.”
“But I don’t know what to do. You’ve never told me the plan.”
Arcadius chuckled. “That’s because it changes frequently. I had hoped the regents would have accepted Mercy as Modina’s heir, but they refused.”
“So now what?”
“Modina is on the throne now, so we have a second chance. The best you can do is get to Aquesta and seek an audience with her.”
“But I don’t know how-”
“You’ll figure it out. Introduce Mercy to the empress. That will be a start in the right direction. Soon you will be the only one who knows the truth. I hate placing this burden on you, but I have no choice.”
Miranda shook her head. “No, it was my mother who placed the burden on me. Not you.”
“A deathbed confession is a weighty thing.” The old man nodded. “But doing so allowed her to die in peace.”
“Do you think so? Or is her spirit still lingering? Sometimes I feel as if she is watching-haunting me. I’m paying the price for her weakness, her cowardice.”
“Your mother was young, poor, and ignorant. She witnessed the death of dozens of men, the butchery of a mother and child, and narrowly escaped. She lived in constant fear that someday, someone would discover there were twins and she rescued one of them.”