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Leaves of Flame

Benjamin Tate

PART 1

Winter tree

1

Colin Patris Harten-known as Shaeveran by the Alvritshai, also called Shade-slid through the grasses of the plains, the world unnaturally still around him. He carried a cedar staff given to him by the heart of the forest, its power twining around and through him. A satchel hung from his shoulder, steadied by his other hand. He moved swiftly, head bent, time slowed around him but not halted. He was too exhausted to stop the flow completely, or to press beyond the barrier and into the past. He wanted to beat the Alvritshai stronghold of Caercaern before the end of night, and he’d already traveled far. He wasn’t certain how much longer he could slow the flow of time to make the journey quicker. He’d grown in power over the last forty years-gained in strength as he used the Lifeblood to battle the ever growing threat of the Wraiths and the Shadows, and immersing himself in the cleansing heart of the White Flame and the healing waters of the Confluence-but there were limits.

And prices paid.

He was reaching the extent of his strength. He could hear it in his own ragged breathing, could feel it in the pounding of his heart and the humming of the world around him. Time pushed at him, tried to force him back into his natural state. But he wanted to reach Caercaern before the Alvritshai lords called the Evant for the last time and the lords dispersed to theirown lands for the winter months. He needed to meet with them, to get them to accept the responsibility for what he carried in his satchel.

The survival of the Alvritshai-of all of the races of Wrath Suvane: Alvritshai, dwarren, and human-depended on it.

So he shoved the increasing pressure of time back with a grunt, felt it give beneath him even as a shudder of weariness passed through his chest. He ignored it, focused on the plains ahead, on the moonlit silver of the grasses and the brittle stars in the sky. Folds in the land appeared as shadows, and by the growing darkness he could tell that he was getting closer to Alvritshai lands. He walked upon dwarren lands now, on earth he’d traveled as a child over a hundred years ago, when his parents had abandoned Portstown for the unknown wilds of the grasses to the east.

Those unknown wilds had killed them-and everyone else in their ill-fated wagon train-except for Colin.

And Walter.

Colin frowned at himself and shrugged the disturbing memories away. It had happened a long time ago, in what felt like another world, another lifetime. Wrath Suvane had changed since then. The Accord he had helped establish between the three races had held, although tenuously, strained by the continued attacks of the Shadows and the work of the Wraiths to bring about the awakening of the Wells. The dwarren retained their claim to the plains, the Alvritshai the lands to the north and the mountain reaches of Hauttaeren, and the humans the coastal region.

The Shadows and the Wraiths maintained their hold on the forests of Ostraell.

But in the past forty years, all of the races had grown. The Alvritshai had branched out along the mountains, botheast and west, carving new strongholds into their depths even though the encroaching ice sheets to the north continued to build, their original homeland still locked away beneath the frigid cold. The dwarren continued to survive beneaththe plains in their extensive warrens, although they’d begun building stone and cloth citiesat the mouths of the most prominent entrances to facilitate trade. Colin had passed one such citya few hours before, a caravan of twenty wagons headed toward its vast towers along the main road from the human province of Corsair. The humans had expanded the most, populating the coast at first, but spreading south and then east, along the sheer cliffs of the Escarpment that provided a natural boundary between dwarren and human lands. They’d spread far, although they had not yet reached the edges of the desert to the east.

But they would. The lords of the Provinces craved land and the resources that came with it. They’d succeeded in breaking free from the Court of Andover and the chokehold of the Families during the Feud, now ended. They’d seized the coast of the new world and held it in a firm grip, pushing the Andovans back. But they needed to retain that hold, and that required a strong presence in the New World.

Colin grimaced and shook his head. The affairs of the Provinces were not his concern at the moment. The expansion of the humans to the south and east had strained the treaty and relations between the three races, but the treaty had survived. That was all that mattered. The real threats were the Wraiths and the Shadows.

He hefted the satchel against his shoulder, felt the weight of it, reassuring himself that the three forged cuttings were still there, wrapped in muslin cloth for protection. He’d left the fourth cutting under the Faelehgre’s protection, until he could determine what to do with it.

As he shifted under the satchel’s weight, a light caught his attention in the distance.

He slowed, squinted to the northeast. At first he saw nothing, the urgency of reaching Caercaern on time pressing down upon his shoulders, but then he caught the light again-a familiar white light, incredibly bright.

He cursed and began running toward the light, even though he knew he was already too late.

He slowed as he neared and saw the scattering of wagons and bodies, his heart thudding hard in his chest, his throat threatening to close off. He sucked in air, tried to convince himself that he was short of breath because of the run and his exhaustion, but he knew better. The images of his own family’s wagon train, trapped at the cusp of the Ostraell, sliced too keenly across his vision. He clutched at the front of his clothes with his free hand, found and gripped the crescent-shaped pendant that hung from his neck but lay hidden beneath the cloth, as all vows should be, even if those vows had remained unfulfilled. The edges of the crescent that cradled the empty blood vial bit into his palm and fingers and he focused on that pain, used it to push thoughts of Karen’s lifeless body to one side. She’d died over a hundred years ago, on these plains, cradled close to Colin’s chest. And she’d been killed the same way these people had.

Straightening, Colin moved into the shadows of the wagons, the cedar staff held out before him, even though he had not yet allowed time to resume. He paused at the body of a young girl, no more than twelve, crumpled to the ground next to the wheel of one of the wagons. Her face was tilted toward the moonlight, her eyes wide open, her skin unnaturally pale. No blood marred her body, but the Shadows killed without tearing skin or leaving gaping wounds. Their death was more subtle, and more horrific. Colin knew. He’d nearly experienced that death himself. If it hadn’t been for the Faelehgre …

He stood, shoved aside that memory as well, and moved on to the next body. A man this time, without a mark on himbut dead nonetheless. His sword was drawn, as if he’d tried to protect the girl, but it lay useless in the grass beside him. Colin hesitated over this man-so much like his father-then continued on, moving from body to body. Men, women, a few children-they were all dead, left as they had fallen. He circled from wagon to wagon toward the center, where the Faelehgre’s light burned hideously bright, his chest tightening the closer he came. Horses, dogs, goats-everything living had fallen. The wagon train had had time to react-the typically scattered wagons drawn close for defense-but the travelers had all died nonetheless. Caught out in the open, they had possessed nothing that could have stopped the Shadows. Only one thing could have helped this close to the forest, this far from Alvritshai lands: the Faelehgre. And the one Faelehgre that had arrived had come too late.

Colin halted in the center of the death, where the pure white light of the Faelehgre shone at the heart of the shimmering folds of darkness of a Shadow. The body of a woman lay beneath them, curled protectively around a young boy, maybe five years old. Her face was buried in the crook of her arm, her tears of terror still wet on her cheeks. The night was too cool for them to evaporate.

The Shadow had been rising upward from its feast, the life-force drained from both the woman and the child,

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