Warrior Mage Excerpt — A New Epic Fantasy Adventure
Whether you’ve been waiting for more stories set in The Emperor’s Edge world, or you’ve never read my work before, I hope you’ll check out Warrior Mage, the first book in the new Chains of Honor epic fantasy series. I’m including a nice meaty excerpt of the first couple of chapters here for you to try. Thanks for stopping by!
Yanko stifled a groan, trying to blink away the sand in his eyes and spit out the dirt plastering his tongue. Pain shot from his hands to his neck as his arms were nearly twisted from their sockets. He tried to ignore the titters whispering from the rows of young men and women watching him, but embarrassment flushed his cheeks. He couldn’t see them—he couldn’t see much more than people’s shoes at the moment—but he knew his father and uncle were watching too. Probably with their faces buried in their hands.
“How’s that taste, kid?” the behemoth grinding his knee into Yanko’s back asked.
Kid? Yanko was eighteen now, the same age as most of the other Stargrind applicants. Just because this hulking thug had been in prison or chained to the oars in a longship for long enough to grow a beard down to his chest didn’t mean Yanko was the anomaly here. He shifted his hips, trying to buck the big man off him, but with his arms pinned behind his back, he couldn’t find the necessary leverage. His opponent only shoved him deeper into the dirt of the training arena.
“Tastes fine,” Yanko rasped around the dust in his throat. “A little nutrient depleted perhaps, but nothing some enhanced compost wouldn’t help.”
“What?” The thug jostled Yanko, as if he had been speaking in a foreign language.
“Doesn’t anyone study the earth sciences these days?”
“Earth magic is for old women and simpering slugs.” The brute’s head lowered, so he could growl, “Which one are you?” in Yanko’s ear.
Before Yanko could come up with a witty reply, not that one had been poised on the tip of his tongue, the proctor’s red and black boots came into view.
“Do you yield, White Fox?”
Yanko swallowed. He wanted nothing more than to stretch down into the earth with his senses and create a quake that would hurl his tormentor into the harbor for the sharks to munch on. But magic was forbidden in the dueling portion of the exam, and he couldn’t have summoned the necessary concentration, anyway, not with dirt caking the insides of his eyelids. There was a reason even experienced warrior mages had bodyguards.
“Yes,” he whispered. He had no other choice.
“What?” his tormentor asked, twisting Yanko’s arms more painfully behind his back. “I don’t think anyone heard you.”
That drew more titters from the crowd, but thankfully the proctor said, “Enough, Sly Wolf. Let him up.”
Sly Wolf. What a clan name for that thug. He was about as sly and cunning as a lizard of burden. If not for his strength and superior reach…
His opponent stood up, and blood rushed back into Yanko’s fingertips, the sensation almost as painful as being pinned. He shook out his arms and told himself not to make excuses for his performance. He had done well in the earlier rounds—far better than he expected. There was no shame in second place.
Or so he thought. When he risked a glance toward the logs where the applicants’ family members and tutors stood, he spotted his father shaking his head and muttering something to his uncle. Yanko bit his lip and looked away. What had he expected?
“The winner of the combat stage of the test is Sly Wolf,” the proctor announced to the crowd.
The champion grinned through his beard and thrust his muscled arms upward in victory. The other applicants chanted a hasty chorus of the appreciation song, but it sounded forced. Understandable. Sly Wolf had pummeled many of them too.
“The next stage of the test is the obstacle course.” The proctor extended a hand toward the harbor where an ancient lizard skeleton the size of a great whale rose out of the shallows, its bones long ago preserved and strengthened so they would stand up to people clambering over them. Floating platforms, swinging ropes, and stationary whirlwinds of air waited to challenge the applicants. “You are allowed to use the mental sciences during this portion of the test. It is a physical event, but it’s unlikely you’ll pass without calling upon them. You’ll have ten minutes to finish, but remember, only the top ten applicants will be accepted into Stargrind this year.”
Sly Wolf stalked toward the beach, and the crowd skittered aside to let him pass. Most of the students were leaner, like Yanko, with little hope of reaching six feet in height. There had been speculation that Sly Wolf had Turgonian ancestors, but only pure bloods were supposed to be allowed into the elite warrior mage academy, so Yanko doubted that was true. The man was just a freak.
Yanko picked up his practice blades from where they lay in the dust of the arena, a saber and a kyzar, the short stabbing sword used for finishing an opponent. Alas, it hadn’t found the opportunity to finish anything against Sly Wolf. Belatedly, he wondered if he should have simply used the saber and tried the one-bladed, side-forward attack style the Turgonian prisoner in the salt mine had shown him. It came more naturally to him, but he hadn’t dared stray from the two-bladed Nurian style, not in front of the proctors.
After dusting off his weapons and putting them away, Yanko hunted around for his hair tie. At some point during the fight, his topknot had tumbled free. He probably looked like a woman shambling around with his shoulder-length black hair dangling about his face.
He spotted the red silk band and as he bent to pick it up, someone jostled him from behind. Hard.
“Better not dawdle, White Fox,” a female applicant said, holding up a sheet of paper. “You’re in the first round.”
Yanko grimaced at that revelation. Since he had advanced so far in the combat rounds, his arms were weary, and he had hoped the proctors would put him at the end, so he would have more time to rest.
“Maybe he expects his mother to show up to help him pass,” a man who looked like the woman’s brother said, glowering at Yanko as he spoke. “Or is she too busy sinking Nurian ships and thieving from good people?”
Yanko wanted to snarl that he had no idea where she was—she had left when he had been less than a year old, and he had no memory of her—but he forced himself to keep his mouth shut. He turned his back on the pair and tried to tie his hair up as he strode toward the beach, but the brother was not done talking. He trotted after and shoved Yanko in the shoulder, keeping him from putting up his hair.
“Only honored families wear their hair up,” the brother said, snatching at the silk tie.
Yanko kept him from getting it but did not dare retaliate. There had to be proctors watching, and any fighting with other applicants, outside of the dueling event, would get him kicked out before the exam even ended. “My family is still moksu,” he said and started walking again, though he watched the troublemaker out of the corner of his eye.
“Some bureaucrat made a mistake then,” the brother said. “You’re delusional if you think they’re going to let the son of some pirate bitch into Stargrind.”
Yanko kept walking, though his cheeks were flaming for the second time in ten minutes. He was almost running by the time he reached the beach, but that wasn’t a bad thing because the proctor standing on an observation platform out in the water was already calling the first three names, including Yanko’s. Fortunately, Sly Wolf wasn’t in his heat. Not that he thought the big man could keep up with him—Yanko had always been one of the fastest runners in his village, and he thought he had the mental and physical agility for this—but the brute might shove his opponents into the water, just to be difficult. A fast time was everything in this event, and falling into the harbor would mean a delay.
Yanko removed his dusty tunic, tossed it on a log, and waded toward the starting platform, which hovered a foot above the water at the back end of the giant lizard’s tail. One of the other applicants who had been called floated across the choppy waves, a breeze whipping at the layers of his elegant green and gold clan robe. There was no reason to wear so much clothing for this, but the dress was a reminder that Yanko had never had wizard’s robes in his life. Such garments, often with magical protections woven into the fabric, were expensive, and Yanko’s family might have been prosperous once, but that had gone the way of their status.
“Wasting his energy,” Yanko told himself as the student passed over his head and alighted on the platform, not a droplet of water spattering his robe.
“He’s got it to spare,” said the short, wiry man wading out alongside Yanko. “That’s Temaris Gold Hawk. They say he’s been making fireballs since he was two. And making a stoat’s prick of himself almost as long.” The man flashed a quick smile at Yanko. “I’m Tam Tam.”
“Yanko.” It was the first time anyone had smiled at him that day, and he nodded back in appreciation. “Ferret god’s luck to you.”
“Thanks. I need it. Crowds make me nervous.” The wiry man waved toward the dozens of vibrantly painted war, fishing, and merchant ships tied to the docks and the dozens more sailing in and out of the harbor. Whether the craft were at rest or not, the wooden decks were full of observers. The city of Red Sky stretched along the beach, and people were out on the flat roofs of the white stucco buildings, as well.
Yanko wasn’t worried about them, but he understood the feeling of being nervous. He could sense his father’s and uncle’s eyes boring into the back of his head as he waded into deeper water, his family’s expectations almost palpable in the humid sea air.
With the water chest deep, they reached the platform. Yanko stretched to grab the edge and pulled himself up. The wooden square wobbled when he stood up, and Gold Hawk, a tall, lanky young man who didn’t appear old enough to grow chin hair, gave Yanko a disdainful frown.
Yanko ignored him and focused on the white vertebrae stretching across the harbor in front of him, sloping up to the massive hipbones and rib cage. Even with the feet anchored in the sand a few feet below the surface, the skeleton rose nearly thirty feet over their heads. Only one of them could run up the bone tail at a time, and he intended to be first. Three women in clan robes stood out on platforms underneath the rib cage, final-year students at Stargrind, Yanko had been told. Each of them had been assigned one of the applicants, with the instructions to make the course difficult. Yanko hoped to get to them quickly, before they could craft too many obstacles to hurl at him.
“I suppose you’re quite proud of your swordsmanship,” Gold Hawk said, still sneering down his nose.
Yanko glanced at the proctor, hoping the man would start the test soon. He didn’t want to chat; he just wanted to get this over with. Maybe if he was accepted, his father would finally be proud of him, finally have faith that Yanko could do the one thing the entire clan had been wanting him to do since he had shown magical aptitude at three years old: become a warrior mage, distinguish himself in battle, and redeem his family’s honor.
“They’re not going to let you into Stargrind even if you pass, you know,” Gold Hawk said.
Tam Tam had also pulled himself onto the platform, and his brow furrowed in confusion at this. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“He’s a White Fox,” Gold Hawk said.
That didn’t smooth the other man’s brow. Yanko hoped the test would start before Gold Hawk explained it. In truth, he hadn’t expected anyone here to know who he was or about his family’s disgrace, except perhaps for the proctors. Applicants came from hundreds of miles away, all over the Thousand Fjords region, and Yanko hadn’t thought his family was that well known.
“The son of Captain Snake Heart Pey Lu White Fox,” Gold Hawk explained further.
“Oh,” Tam Tam said with sudden understanding. Yes, here on the coast, there wouldn’t be many people who hadn’t heard of the more infamous pirates. And Snake Heart, commander of the Midnight Fleet, certainly qualified as that. Tam Tam’s smile vanished, and he regarded Yanko with new wariness.
“Applicants,” the proctor called, his voice magically amplified. “Ready yourselves.”
Yanko and Tam Tam crept to the edge, making the floating platform wobble. Gold Hawk rose into the air. He might be able to levitate up the tail, but the rest of the course involved ducking and climbing through bones and supports, as well as dodging attacks.
“Begin,” the proctor announced at the same time as he flung a firecracker into the air. It exploded in fiery blue and red sparkles, drawing cheers from the nearby ships.
Yanko barely noticed it. He had leaped for the tail as soon as the proctor spoke. Tam Tam jumped immediately after him and landed just behind him on the bone bridge, jostling him as they nearly dropped onto the same vertebra. Yanko didn’t know if it was accidental or intentional, but he did not let it slow him. He charged up the ancient bone knobs, hoping to make it to the top before his competitors caught up with him.
One of the wind vortexes that had been hovering at the surface of the water rose, and wind battered Yanko, nearly blasting him from his perch. Then one of the bones grew so slippery, his cloth shoe slid off it. His leg pitched over the side, and he almost followed, but he contorted his body and flailed his arms, catching the tail before he fell. Tam Tam leaped over him, taking the lead.
Growling, Yanko raced the rest of the way to the top, then slid down a rope that bucked and swayed, as if it, too, was the victim of a nearby whirlwind. He struggled to use his body weight to make it swing out the way he needed to in order to reach a platform hovering under the skeleton’s hipbones. But it was too far.
Though he hated to pause, he slowed down enough to summon his concentration. He corralled some of the wind gusting across the harbor, trying to keep it away from the temperamental vortexes that someone was controlling, then gave himself a great push in the back even as he leaped from the rope. As he flew through the air, wondering if he would reach the platform, he glimpsed a black fin protruding from the water underneath him. A shark? He had been joking earlier; they shouldn’t truly be in the shallow water of the harbor.
Fortunately, he made it to the platform, landing on all fours. That was a good thing, since it tipped precariously, almost hurling him into the water. He scrambled for the center, expecting it to stabilize, but it tipped in the opposite direction. Suspicious, he checked the students responsible for making this difficult. Not surprisingly, one with her raven hair in long braids was focused on him. Yanko had to steady himself enough to leap for another rope, this one dangling more than ten feet away, but with the platform rocking and bucking, he would be lucky not to end up hurled out to the deck of one of those ships.
He wished he were on land, so he could call up a swarm of bees to harry her, but the air was devoid of insects. Even the seagulls had left the area. Shooed away by one of the proctors? Yanko was doubtlessly one of the few who had studied the earth sciences and could commune with animals, but maybe they knew that. Or maybe he was wasting time thinking about this. Indeed, Tam Tam had alighted on his platform.
A gust of wind slammed into him, knocking him into the water. At least Yanko wasn’t the only one being picked on. Gripping the edge of his rocking perch with both hands, he focused on the platform underneath the braided woman. Hers was, alas, attached to the sea floor with bamboo poles. He ran his senses down them, searching for a weakness. If he could distract her, she would not be able to harass him until she recovered.
The bamboo appeared secure, sunken into concrete anchors at the bottom, but myriad sea life touched his awareness. Having grown up in a village in the mountains, he hadn’t been to the coast often, and he had only tried to communicate with a fish once. It had been an alien experience, more akin to dealing with reptiles than mammals, but he reached out to some of the bigger ones near the platform supports and tried to implant the idea that it would be delightfully fun to leap out of the water and fly over that platform…
Most of the fish ignored him—or he was simply ineffective at conveying the idea of fun to them—but two small silver ones flew out of the water, one smacking the woman in the face. It wasn’t a great attack, but it was enough. It startled her, and she squealed. Yanko’s platform stopped rocking.
He didn’t hesitate. He took a running start and flung himself toward the rope. Tam Tam had already dealt with his obstacle and was on an adjacent rope.
As Yanko scrambled up, he glimpsed a blaze of light behind him. Gold Hawk had also reached the platform, and he had chosen a more direct way of dealing with his tormentor. A swirling ball of fire flew through the air toward the handsome woman opposing him. It splashed on an invisible barrier several feet away from her, the flames dispersing and disappearing, but the applicants watching from the beach and the crowds of spectators on the docks and ships burst into an enthusiastic rendition of the appreciation song.
Yanko would have rolled his eyes at the overemphasis people put on the thermal sciences, but he had reached the bottom of the rib cage and was too busy climbing. He scampered through, leaping from bone to bone, until the hair on the back of his neck stood up. An attack was coming. He tried to face it and raise his own defenses—not certain if they would be nearly enough against a fifth-year student—but his heel slipped as he pivoted. He might have recovered, but a ball of fire was hurtling through the air toward him. There was no time to regather the concentration needed, not when he was busy flailing for balance. Yanko let himself slip off the bone, dropping and catching it with his hands on the way down. The flames poured through the rib cage, not stopping as they roared toward him, the heat of the fire scorching the air. This was not an illusion.
Since he had fallen, he wasn’t in the fireball’s path, but it seared his fingers as it blasted through the skeleton, and he gasped in pain. Tears sprang to his eyes, and he wanted nothing more than to let go, to fall into the water and cool his hands. But he would lose a minute, if not more, swimming to the platform and repeating the climb. Even though his skin blistered, he managed to pull himself back up. A good choice, since he glimpsed that black shark fin gliding through the water underneath him.
Back in the race, Yanko leaped from rib to rib, but he knew the braided woman must be readying another attack for him. Apparently, his fish-to-the-cheek tactic had not impressed her.
His hands burned so much that he didn’t know if he could concentrate on forming a barrier to deflect whatever she threw at him next. Better to distract her again. He doubted a fish would catch her by surprise twice, but as he reached the top of the rib cage and struggled to climb one of the bones up to the shoulder blades, he caught sight of that fin again. He also caught sight of the woman with her hand outstretched toward him.
Food! he cried into the shark’s mind at the same time as he flung an image of the woman on the platform at it. This time, Yanko didn’t try to cajole; he tried to command. He wouldn’t know if it had worked until the shark reached the platform, and he felt uncomfortable trying to convince an animal to kill another person, but that fireball could have burned him into cinders. Everything seemed fair and acceptable in this portion of the contest.
Ignoring the pain in his fingers, Yanko pulled himself up atop the shoulder. His instincts cried out at him again, those instincts honed over years of study to feel the telltale crackle of power in the air, the promise that someone had him targeted with the sciences. He stopped, focused his mind, and called forth the air around him, compacting it into a barrier.
He was almost too slow. The second fireball blasted fully into him, its heat scorching his cheeks. But enough of a barrier had formed to deflect the attack. Flames sizzled around him, and his clothes might have caught fire had they not been so wet, but this time, he did not receive any burns. Before the flames had fully dissipated, he resumed his sprint, aiming for the top of the spine and the skull. The finish platform with flags waving at the corners floated in the water beyond it.
A startled cry came from below and behind him. The shark leaped from the water, arcing straight at the woman. She flung herself to the side to avoid it, but there wasn’t enough platform to catch her. Her hip struck the edge, and she bounced into the water.
At the base of the skull, Yanko hesitated. The shark had plunged back into the water on the other side, and it could turn in an instant to attack her. But Gold Hawk and Tam Tam were both on the shoulder blades, running toward him.
Praying to the badger goddess to protect the woman, Yanko sprinted up the skull. In a few seconds, he would finish, and he could help her if the test proctors did not handle it. Though he worried he was making the wrong decision, that she would be horribly maimed or worse, he ran across the flat lizard head and leaped off the edge, calling the wind again to push him out to the platform so he wouldn’t have to swim. He had not checked, but he would be shocked if there was only one shark down there.
Even with the help of the wind, he barely made it to the edge of the platform. At the last instant, as he realized how far he had dropped and how fast he was going, he wished he had aimed for the water after all. He hit the bamboo platform hard. He turned the landing into a roll, trying to spread out the impact as he had been taught when falling in combat, but gravity was a hard master to thwart. He was hurtled across the bamboo, battered as badly as sugar cane going through a press, and his breath flew out of his lungs. He came to a stop, his entire body hurting, inches shy of falling off the far end of the platform. He couldn’t manage to breathe, but he saw the flags overhead and knew he had finished the course.
“Eight minutes and forty-seven seconds,” the timekeeper stationed on the corner of the platform said blandly, as if he watched such spectacles every day.
Remembering the braided woman, Yanko forced himself into a sitting position. Gold Hawk landed lightly on the center of the platform, glared balefully at him, then looked to the timekeeper.
“Eight minutes and fifty-five seconds,” the man announced.
Yanko took some satisfaction from the fact that Gold Hawk’s fine robes were soaking and torn, but he didn’t spare the other man more than a glance, looking instead back out to the course. Under the rib cage, the braided woman was still alive. Either through her own power or another mage’s, she levitated in the air, her hair and robe dripping. No less than three shark fins circled in the water below her. As she floated back to her spot on the platform, she glared over at Yanko.
He sighed and wiped the water off his face. Another person who would never want to be friends with him.
Tam Tam came down a moment later, his landing as awkward as Yanko’s, maybe more so. If Yanko hadn’t reached out to catch him, Tam Tam would have rolled off the platform and into the water. The entire side of his face was burned, with blisters scorching his chin.
“Nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds,” the timekeeper announced. “You may return to the beach. You’ll find out later if you made it through this round, based on the times the others earn.”
Yanko could have swum to the beach, but he was glad an oarsman came out to pick them up in a dinghy. After seeing all those sharks, he was not eager to dangle his body in the water. He had known these tests would be difficult, but he hadn’t realized they would be life-threatening.
His father and Uncle Mishnal were waiting on the beach when Yanko came ashore. He walked toward them, trying to judge the expressions on their faces. His time had not been as good as he had thought it might be when he first saw the course, but it had been well under the cut-off. And he didn’t think he had embarrassed himself too badly, given the circumstances.
When he came face-to-face with them, Yanko pressed his palms together in front of his chest, ignoring the pain that came from touching his fingers, and bowed his head. “Honored Uncle, Father.”
Neither brother was known for his smile, but Mishnal clasped him on the shoulder and gave him a nod of approval. Yanko allowed a ribbon of relief to flutter through him. He hadn’t known his uncle well until he had come to work in the mines six months earlier, for “hardening,” as his father had called it, but Mishnal had proven to be an honorable and fair man, despite his perpetual scowl. He had even praised Yanko on occasion, something his father had not done for a long time.
Now, his father was tugging at his black mustachios as he looked back and forth from the timekeeper to the nearest proctor. “Eight forty-seven, was it? I hope that’ll be good enough. They were harder on you than the others, don’t you think so, Mish?”
Yanko lowered his hands—he wanted nothing more than to run and find the healer who had attended the wounds some had received during the combat round—but he hadn’t been dismissed yet. Even though his father seemed more interested in talking to his brother than his son.
“They were hard on him,” Mishnal said. “We didn’t expect anything different.”
“No, I know. The journey is such a difficult one. I don’t know if he…” Finally his father looked directly at Yanko, but it was only to survey him and shake his head doubtfully. “It is a great challenge. Too much for him maybe. I wish Falcon…” He shook his head again, not saying the words.
He didn’t have to. Yanko looked away, blinking so moisture wouldn’t form in his eyes. His older brother had always been Father’s favorite, the one most like him, the one he understood. But like Father and Uncle Mishnal, Falcon had never shown an aptitude for the mental sciences. Yanko was the one who had inherited their mother’s talent, whether he wanted anything from her or not.
“I will find the healer, Yanko,” his father said. “Prepare yourself for the last test. The others will find this the easiest part of the exam, but I never could convince you to spend enough time studying the thermal sciences. You always wanted to be out in the woods, playing in the dirt. And those poems—” He cleared his throat and spat. “A warrior mage doesn’t write poems. A warrior mage is the one poems are written about, great ballads that become legend.” Father groaned and walked away.
“They were for Arayevo,” Yanko whispered, and he had only written poetry one time, that was it. He’d had too many outdoor hobbies as a boy to spend time inside with quill to paper. Too bad. If he had actually finished any of those poems and handed them to Arayevo, she might have realized how he felt about her and stayed.
Yanko slumped, feeling the weariness in his limbs now that his muscles had cooled and the obstacle course was past. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or not that the next test would be purely mental.
Mishnal surprised him by patting his shoulder. “I know you’ve been studying fire these last months. You’ll do well.”
“Thank you, Honored Uncle.” Yanko stood straighter, afraid he must look like a pouting child.
Mishnal gave him another pat, then headed to the log benches near the arena, an arena that would be used for something besides fighting this time.
* * *
Yanko sat cross-legged in the center of the arena, his hair and clothing dry, his fingers raw and tender but, thanks to the healer, no longer as tender as they had been. The rest of the applicants had finished—or hadn’t finished—the obstacle course and the results had come in. With his time, Yanko had come in eighth place. It was not as good as he had hoped, but he had done better in the swordplay than he had expected, so he was sitting in a comfortable place for this last challenge. All he needed to do was finish in the three-minute time limit to ensure himself a place at Stargrind. His father’s dream might finally come true.
But not your dream, eh?
Yanko shook away the voice in the back of his head. He had accepted years ago that what he dreamed of doing with his life and what the world—or at least his family—demanded he do with his life were not the same. Thanks to his mother’s choice, this was his destiny, the only one to which he could honorably aspire.
“A simple task for a future Stargrind student,” the proctor, a woman this time, announced as she strolled around the circular arena, her hands clasped behind her back.
Yanko would find out just how simple it was in a minute. He had been chosen to go first again. Even though the test hadn’t begun, his shoulders were tight, his muscles tense. He could feel the other applicants, the twenty-one that remained of the original thirty-two, staring at him from the side of the arena. Between the averages of the two events, he had one of the highest scores, and the whispers floating out of the crowd implied that nobody was happy about it.
“…can’t let some pirate’s spawn into the most elite academy in the Great Land.”
“…heard he didn’t even have a tutor or formal schooling. …can’t be qualified.”
Yanko did his best to pay attention to the proctor and ignore the commentary from the crowd.
A bald man in gray robes strolled out, whistling, an intricate wooden candelabra balanced upon his shoulder. He walked into the arena and placed it on the packed dirt, about five feet in front of Yanko. He withdrew six stubby beeswax candles from an inside pocket and placed them in holders at different levels on the candelabra, some that would be easy to reach with a match and others that were in the middle of the structure and barred by wood on three sides. A strange choice of materials for something that held flaming candles.
Or… not. The realization of what the test must involve came over Yanko. The precision that would be required daunted him, but he had practiced creating flame and lighting candles countless times in the last six months. This was doable.
“There are six candles,” the proctor announced as the man walked away. “You will light each of them before the three minutes is up.” She waved toward the bored-looking timekeeper from the platform. “If you do not finish in three minutes, you fail. If you char the wood, you fail. Stargrind prides itself on its fire mages, so if you cannot demonstrate the ability to handle this simple task, you will not be allowed to go forward with the training.” She had been addressing all of the applicants thus far, but her gaze fell upon Yanko as she spoke that last sentence.
He was trying not to feel like the entire world was against him, but it was hard. He hoped that this would be a fair test and that nobody would attempt to throw obstacles in his path.
“Are you ready, White Fox?” the proctor asked.
Yanko wiped hands damp with sweat on his trousers, took a deep breath, and nodded. “Yes, Honored Teacher.”
A click sounded, the timekeeper’s watch starting.
Yanko let his eyelids lower to slits. First, the flame.
With his mind, he gathered the water vapor in the air, a task made simpler than it was back home, thanks to the humidity. He cleaved the molecules and ignited the flammable hydrogen left from the process. All thermal science manipulation was based on this process, and even though he would have been more comfortable manipulating the earth, the plants, and the trees, he had learned to deal with fire years ago. Before long, a small ball of flame burned in the air next to the candelabra.
“Thought you said he only knew the earth sciences,” someone whispered behind him.
“Just said he’s a slimy slug that would rather wallow in the dirt,” another applicant responded. That was Sly Wolf.
Yanko’s flame faltered, and he growled at himself to concentrate. He moved it toward the first candle, choosing one of the easier targets first, one that did not have wood all around it. His fiery ball whispered across the wick, and it burst into flame.
One down, five to go.
“Bet he gets tired before he makes it halfway through,” Sly Wolf said, not bothering to keep his voice to a whisper.
“He looks shaky.”
He did not. As much as he wanted to ignore the words, they kept seeping into his mind, irritating him and making him want to prove that he was just as capable as they were, even if he hadn’t gone to a preparatory school or had a long-term tutor when he had been growing up.
He squinted at his flame, manipulating the shape until it shifted from a ball to a skull, hollowing the eyes just so and making an opening for the mouth. A couple of surprised murmurs came from behind him. Good. He moved it toward the second wick, rotating it as he went, so the other applicants could see that he was a capable fire mage, damn it. Or he at least had the potential to become one.
As he lit the second wick, the timekeeper spoke.
“One minute left.”
Alarm flooded Yanko, and the outline of the skull wavered and morphed back into a lumpy ball. He couldn’t worry about looks now. He had to finish lighting the candles. What had he been thinking? And why hadn’t the cursed timekeeper made an announcement at two minutes, as well?
He licked his lips and veered the flame toward the third candle. The wick caught, but in his haste, he almost scorched the slender wooden support behind it. A bead of sweat dripped down the side of his face as he moved the flame toward the next candle. Unfortunately, he had lit all of the easier outside ones already. He had to dip between the wooden supports. He made his flame as tiny as he could, slipping it into the center of the candelabra, toward a stumpy wick practically lying on the wax, the candle cupped from above by six slender boughs of wood.
Yanko clenched his fists. A few bets and snickers ran through the crowd, but this time, he didn’t lose focus. He lit the wick, carefully extricated his flame, and moved to the next candle. It was just as challenging, but he slid in from the side, lit it, and exited through a gap on the other side. He was veering toward the last one and hadn’t yet brushed the wood with his flame when the timekeeper spoke again.
An instant later, the sixth wick brightened with flame. Yanko looked at the proctor, hoping he had been close enough. Surely he had demonstrated his aptitude? Some stupidity, too, but he could learn to do less of that. If he had a chance.
“The challenge was not completed in the time allotted,” the proctor announced, scribbling on her clipboard without looking at him.
Yanko sat and stared. Did that mean he had failed? Because of one second? Truly?
A snicker came from behind him. “Told you,” Sly Wolf said.
Yanko jumped to his feet, spinning toward the crowd, wanting nothing more than to sprint over there and plant his fist in the man’s face. But someone stirred on the logs. His father. Yanko glimpsed a stricken expression on his face before he turned and walked away from the arena, his shoulders slumped.
All of the fight drained out of Yanko. He had failed his family, his entire clan. Not because he lacked the skill, but because of hubris. No, he had said it correctly before. Stupidity.
“Next,” the proctor called, not a hint of empathy in her voice.
Yanko walked out of the arena, his chin to his chest. He didn’t want to see his father and his uncle, not now, but he had nowhere else to go. And they were waiting for him. Actually, they were standing near the street, arguing with each other as lizards pulling carts trundled past, the rest of the world continuing on, not caring whether a man qualified for Stargrind or not.
Father spun as Yanko approached, his mustachios quivering. Fury burned in his dark eyes. “What was that? That was inexcusable. You were so close, but you dithered around, trying to show off.”
“No, I just… wanted them to know I was good enough, better than they thought.”
“They? The other boys? They matter nothing.” Father chopped the air with his hand. “The proctors were all that mattered, the timekeeper. I thought you were smarter than that, boy.”
Yanko wished Uncle Mishnal would come to his defense, but he merely stood in silence, saying nothing. What could he say? What defense was there? Yanko had been a fool, and he knew it.
“Don’t bother coming home until you’ve mastered your pride, boy.” Father flung up his arms, turned on his heel, and stalked away.
Yanko’s mouth drooped open as he stared after him. He wouldn’t even be allowed to return home? To see his cousins? His aunt? His great uncle? His friends in the village? His hounds? His bees and worms and garden?
Where would he go? What else could he do? This was everything he had studied for since childhood, unless one counted tending the gardens and the forest. But whose gardens would he tend if he couldn’t work on the family’s property? He wasn’t qualified to do anything else that people would pay him to do. Even if he came down to the city, would he be able to find a job when everyone seemed to know exactly whose son he was?
Uncle Mishnal sighed, clearly as disappointed as Father, even if he did not storm off in a huff. “You’re always welcome back in the mines, Yanko.”
Back in the mines. Hundreds of meters below the surface of the earth, below the trees and plants and everything he loved. It had been one thing to spend time down there to train for these exams, but to go back? To spend the rest of his life as a miner in the lightless depths of the earth?
When Uncle Mishnal walked away, Yanko had never felt so alone and so lost in his life.
Yanko stared at the wooden bar between his hands as he walked in a circle with four other men, leaning his weight into it, providing the power that turned the screw and raised carts of salt from the lower depths of the mine to this upper level for processing and packing. His uncle had given him this job on his first day, more than six months ago, to help him build the muscle a warrior was expected to have. It had worked, but unfortunately it hadn’t helped his brain muscles at all. Now, as he huffed and grunted in time with the other bare-chested men, sweat dripping down his arms and back, he saw it as a penance. His punishment for his failure.
“Well, well, well,” came a woman’s voice from behind him. “Look who’s back in the mines. They didn’t want your pretty face at Stargrind, after all?”
Yanko ground his teeth as a second punishment walked into view carrying a box full of carving tools. Lakeo stopped to look at him, a fist on her hip. She wore a shaggy sheepskin vest that left her muscular arms bare, aside from a pair of leather arm guards. Her short, black hair stuck out in all directions, as if she had been struck by lightning recently.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Yanko said. He did not stop pushing or leave the screw, even though he could have at any time. He might have failed his entrance exams, but he was still moksu, and his family still oversaw the mine. Most of the people here were criminals, prisoners of war, or serfs, so he outranked them. Not exactly a great boon.
“Enh, Stargrind is for prissy know-it-alls, anyway,” Lakeo said. “You would have hated it.”
As usual, Lakeo acted as if she was so much more knowledgeable and worldly than he, even though she had grown up in some dusty village not ten miles from here and, by her own admission, had never been over the mountains and to the sea, or to anywhere more than a day’s walk away. She was only a couple of years older than Yanko, but she always seemed to think she was far more mature than he.
“Is this what you’re going to do with the rest of your life?” Lakeo pursed her lips and eyed the screw and the muscled slaves, men too tired and beleaguered to care about their conversation. An overseer stood on a platform overhead, tapping out a drumbeat to keep the men working—and to make sure that nobody started any trouble. Those known for it, or known to be dangerous criminals, wore glowing control collars around their necks.
“I haven’t decided yet. I’ve only been back for a day.”
“Don’t you think you’re kind of a burden on them?” She waved at the workers. “You’re awfully short and scrawny in comparison.”
“I am not scrawny.”
Yanko caught himself flexing his muscles and puffing out his chest, despite the fact that he did not care one iota what Lakeo thought of his physique. If he had been scrawny, he might have simply accepted her ribbing, but he had gained ten pounds of muscle in the months he had been working here. Sure, at five-foot-nine, he might be shorter than a lot of the hulks in the mines, but that was because most were half-breeds or even full-blooded Turgonians, and those people were commonly over six feet. For a Nurian man, he was perfectly normal in size.
“You’re just overgrown.” Yanko bit back an urge to comment on her dubious heritage, having figured out some time ago that she had at least some foreign blood flowing through her veins. In Nuria, that wasn’t considered a good thing.
“If that’s what you need to tell yourself to feel better, go ahead.” Lakeo ruffled his hair. Yanko hoped that was a parting insult, but she added, “I need you down on Level Eight. You know those murals I’m carving by the lift in my oh-so-copious downtime?” She lifted her eyes toward the gray-white salt ceiling and scoffed. “Your art-loving uncle wants a…” She fished in a vest pocket. “A yellow fen tree. Because there’s one in the Hound and the Ferret fable, and I’m doing a scene from it. As if I know what a yellow fen tree looks like. All we have on this side of the mountains are cactus and sagebrush. Maybe a stumpy juniper.”
Yanko stepped away from the screw, waving up to the overseer to find a replacement. This wasn’t the first time Lakeo had come to him for advice on the nature-themed statues and friezes she had been hired to carve in the mine. “Uncle Mishnal isn’t that art-loving. That was the regional chief’s idea, I think. Some notion of turning this into a tourist destination.”
“Right. Because that wedding last spring went so well.”
Yanko grabbed his shirt and headed for the lift. He couldn’t say he was glad to return to Lakeo’s company, not when he had been so looking forward to going home for the two-week visit he would have been due before heading off to Stargrind, but he admitted it wasn’t entirely horrible to have someone familiar to talk to. Uncle Mishnal… hadn’t been chatty on the three-day ride back across the mountains. Father hadn’t even come with them. Yanko hadn’t seen him since he had stalked away after the test, and a heavy stone of guilt weighed upon his soul. He may not have appreciated the burden of becoming a warrior mage, but he had been willing to take it on, because to do anything else could mean that their clan, once known for working closely with the great chiefs, might disappear from the history books altogether.
“This may be your last tree for me,” Lakeo announced as they stepped into the bamboo lift. “Eight,” she added, and the Made artifact that raised and lowered the cage hummed to life up above. They rattled down the dark shaft, past tunnels, some lit, some dark. The clang of pickaxes arose in the distance.
“This is the last carving your uncle wants, and I’m not staying here to hack mindlessly at the walls.” The cage rattled to a stop, and Lakeo led the way out, stopping in the open circular area outside the lift. Whale oil lamps flickered on the walls, and cart tracks led down six different tunnels. “The pay’s been decent, or at least better than I was making mashing cactus for tequila out on the ranch, and I’ve saved up a little money.” Lakeo patted the flat wall by the lift. She had already carved a forest floor scattered with leaves and flowers.
“Where will you go?” Yanko tried to decide if he would miss Lakeo or not. She did like to torment him, but so few other people in the mine even talked to him, because they were workers and he was the boss’s nephew. He might miss her sarcasm.
“The coast, I think. Maybe to sea. You think your Arayevo ever got on a ship and found your mother?”
Yanko winced. Arayevo had been his babysitter when he had been growing up, his babysitter that he had been madly in love with since age eight or so. When she had come to visit him in the mines, he’d thought it might be because she missed him, because she realized he had become a man and that she might be interested in his… manly attributes. But all she had wanted was a lead on how to find his mother, because she had some notion of escaping an arranged marriage by going to sea and having adventures. Pirate adventures. He couldn’t explain the betrayal he had felt, both because of her willingness to pursue a criminal lifestyle and because she hadn’t been interested in any of his attributes, manly or otherwise.
“She’s not my Arayevo,” Yanko muttered. He had never explained it all to Lakeo and did not want to now.
“Whatever. You ever hear from her?”
“No.” A thought dawned in his mind. “Why? You’re not planning to become a pirate, too, are you?” It wasn’t that he couldn’t imagine Lakeo and her muscular arms stalking around the deck of a pirate ship, but… by the gods, what were these crazy women all thinking? Pirates were shot on sight in any respectable Nurian port, and their ships were chased down and sunk by the Great Fleet.
“Nah, not unless I can be in charge of the pirates. I doubt I’d make a good pirate peon. But I’d like to get out of Nuria, go somewhere where they don’t care about… things. A place where you can openly study… things.”
Yanko did not have any trouble inserting “your heritage” for the first instance of things and “the mental sciences” for the second, but he simply said, “Where will you find this paradise of things?”
“From what I’ve read, the Kyatt Islands.”
“I don’t think many Nurians go there anymore. Since we tried to take over those islands during the war and failed, we’re not that welcome. Hardly fair when you consider that they let the infamous Turgonian war criminal, Admiral Starcrest, live there for twenty years. After all, he tried to take over their islands too. I guess he’s not there anymore, what with being the new Turgonian president. Still, I don’t know that Nurians get the song of welcoming.”
Yanko stopped talking when he realized Lakeo was staring at him as if he had moths flying out of his nostrils.
“What are you babbling about?” she asked.
“The current political situation. Don’t you know anything about what’s been going on in the empire-turned-republic?”
“No.” Lakeo set down her toolbox and plucked out a hammer and chisel. “Why do you? What does it matter down here?”
“Uncle Mishnal has the weekly newspapers from the capital and from Red Sky delivered, and I usually read them and discuss world events with him.”
“Does he make you?”
Yanko was starting to feel like he was a mutant. True, what was going on in Turgonia or on the Kyatt Islands or in any other country didn’t matter much to those working in these remote mines, but he had been taught from an early age that honored families should stay educated and informed, because they could be called into service for the Great Chief at any time. “He encourages it,” Yanko said neutrally.
Lakeo hammered at her chisel, sheering off a chunk of salt. In its natural state, it was as hard as marble, which was probably why her arm muscles rivaled his own. He wondered if she would find a man on the Kyatt Islands who found such a look attractive. Or if she even sought a man. He had never seen her make overtures to any of the miners. Perhaps she preferred other women.
“Is my tree coming soon, or are you just going to stand there and stare at my arms?” Lakeo asked.
“Uh, right.” Yanko stepped back and closed his eyes, summoning the image of a yellow fen tree to his mind, its massive trunk with vines snaking down it and broad yellowish-green canopy.
“In case you’re wondering, women would rather have their breasts stared at.”
Yanko had been in the process of creating an illusion of the tree in the air, but this blunt statement shattered his concentration. “Er, what? I mean, I was given the impression that you weren’t supposed to stare. That downward drifting eyes could get you smacked.”
Lakeo grunted. “Don’t worry, Yanko. You’re too virtuous for anyone to find you lecherous. Now where’s my cursed tree?”
While he was trying to decide if he had been insulted, Yanko re-formed the illusion. This time, he succeeded in projecting it beyond his mind, and it floated in the air between them.
“Thanks. Hold that for a few minutes, will you?”
“As long as you need.” It wasn’t as if he had to do something, or go anywhere… Yanko kept his sigh inward. Even if he was in the mood to whine out loud, Lakeo would not be the kind of person to empathize with him.
“Good boy. Listen, Yanko. I was thinking.” Lakeo stared intently at her work as she spoke. Though she paused before going on.
He thought about responding sarcastically to her comment, but as usual, he never did. His father had drilled into him from a young age the idea that women, elders, and family members were to be treated with respect. That was probably why Lakeo found him virtuous. Did Arayevo find him virtuous too? Was that why she hadn’t considered him as anything other than the boy she used to babysit?
The leaves in the tree were wavering, and he forced himself to focus on the task again. Having virtue was a good thing, he told himself.
“Since you’re not going to Stargrind,” Lakeo finally said, not commenting on the wavering tree, “maybe you could come with me.”
Yanko gaped at her. “To the Kyatt Islands?”
“Why not? They’ve got a big university there, and you could study the earthy stuff there if you wanted to.” She waved a dismissive hand at the tree.
“How is it that you know about the educational opportunities there, but nothing of the political climate?”
“I’m interested in what I’m interested in and that’s it, all right?”
“I can’t leave my family,” Yanko said, but he paused and considered the words. Was that still true? If he could not become the warrior mage everyone had hoped he could, then was there any reason to stay? Would the Great Chief ever call upon a moksu as lowly as he to serve?
“Yeah, you can,” Lakeo said. “The people in your family that I’ve met are pricks. Just think about—”
A shudder ran through the floor, and salt trickled down from the ceiling. Yanko dropped his illusion and grabbed the wall. A deep bonging reverberated through the mines. The alarm.
“All right, what craziness is going on now?” Lakeo stepped back. She sounded brave, but her gaze darted toward the ceiling as another tremor ran through their level, and more salt sifted down.
“The only other times the alarm has gone off since I’ve been here were when we discovered those insect creatures on the bottom level and we had explosions of methane in the tunnels.”
A faint boom came from somewhere above them. It reminded Yanko of the firecracker the proctor at the test had hurled into the air.
“Does methane set off explosives?” Lakeo asked. “Do insects?”
Explosives. Is that what they were hearing? Maybe someone was blasting new tunnels. Since Yanko had been gone for over a week, he didn’t know what was on the schedule. But that shouldn’t have caused the alarm to go off. Unless someone had miscalculated and started a cave-in.
Yanko called for the lift. A few of the overseers had a modicum of magical aptitude, but Yanko was the only one here who’d had more assiduous training. If there was a cave-in or trouble somewhere, the workers might need his help. The way the alarm continued, those gongs deep and urgent, made him certain this was no accidental triggering of the system.
But the lift never came. Several workers from their level jogged into the open area in front of it, their pickaxes on their shoulders, and soon, a crowd of men had gathered.
“What’s going on?” one asked.
“No idea,” Lakeo said.
“There must be other people calling on the lift.” Yanko imagined everyone racing to it to escape some horrible fate—tunnels filling with methane or some other gas toxic to humans. A chain of cave-ins, each more devastating than the last.
Stop it. Use your senses to check, fool.
Right. He could do that.
“Give me a second,” he murmured, mostly to Lakeo, so she knew to watch his back in case one of the workers decided the confusion would be a good time to club the controller’s nephew in the head and escape.
They were hundreds of feet beneath the surface, and he struggled to stretch up through the layers of salt and tunnels with his mind. He encountered knots of confused and frightened men on each level. The lift must be stuck somewhere near the top.
“That’s the only way out?” Lakeo asked.
Yanko did not know if she was talking to him or the men shifting and muttering behind them, but he didn’t answer. He needed his focus to push his senses farther, higher. Was that the first level? People were running in every direction. He could not tell if the lift was there. The vertical shaft had a feeling of openness that it should not have, not in the mines. Confusion laced his thoughts as what he sensed and what should be failed to match. So many people, so many afraid, but some were angry, some determined, some—
His eyes flew open, realization coming to him.
“Pray to the war gods,” he whispered. “We’re under attack.”
“Attack?” Lakeo asked skeptically. “Attack by who? We’re three days from the coast, and there’s nothing out here. And I do mean nothing.”
“Not nothing,” Yanko said, touching the salt wall. “This is as valuable as silver and a resource. There’s a reason an honored family oversees it.” He switched his focus to his mind’s eye again. “Let me see if I can find the lift, force it to come down. We need to help.”
“We do?” Lakeo asked, glancing at the workers behind them. “What’s it to us if the mine gets sacked?”
Irritation tensed Yanko’s shoulders, and he snapped, “Your room is up there. They’ll sack your savings, too, and then how will you get to Kyatt?”
She cursed. “You’re right. Get that lift down here.”
“I’m trying. But I’m not finding it.” He ground his teeth. They were right under the lift. How hard could it be to send his senses up the shaft? True, finding the life forces of others was easier than identifying inanimate objects, but still. He could feel all the way up to the guard shack with his mind. Or where the guard shack had been. People were jogging about, descending into the shaft and down to the first level, and he realized… “Damn.”
Yanko tried the obvious thing that he hadn’t before. He leaned into the lift shaft and looked up. Night had fallen outside, and it was a long way to the top, but yes, he could pick out the sky up there, a tiny dot of dark blue at the end of the black tunnel.
“The lift is gone. I think they blew it up, and maybe a little more.”
“Is there another way up?” Lakeo asked. “There better be. There’s no way we can climb up that shaft.”
Gold Hawk could have levitated himself up. Shame wrapped around Yanko. He was too afraid of falling to even try. He had called upon the wind and manipulated air before, but to use it to push himself up hundreds of meters? He couldn’t imagine it, nor did he want to imagine the fall that would await him if he made it part way and his powers failed him.
“In the back,” one of the miners said, waving his pickaxe. He had a thick accent. A Turgonian? His skin was a darker bronze than the typical Nurian yellow-brown, and he had the shoulders of an ox. “The carts go that way. You can get as far as the screw before you have to start climbing some walls.” He raised his bushy eyebrows at Yanko. “I’ll show you if you look the other way when I disappear in the mess.”
Yanko was on the verge of saying he could find the route himself, but what did the prisoners matter at this point? He needed to find his uncle, make sure he was safe, and then help in whatever way he could to drive these invaders away, whoever they were. Could it be the Turgonians? It was hard to imagine any of Nuria’s other enemies being so brazen as to attack this far inland, but the new republic had been talking of making peace of late, not war. Not that such words couldn’t be a ruse. Or a distraction.
“Let’s go,” Yanko said, waving for the man to lead.
* * *
The explosions continued on the levels above them, each one causing the tunnels to shudder and the wooden support posts to groan and creak. Yanko and Lakeo followed the big miner until he recognized the area. They had climbed up long switchbacks in the bowels of the earth, following those cart tracks, and even at a jog, it had taken nearly a half hour to rise from the eighth level to the second. With every passing moment, Yanko had worried he was too late to help, too late to be any good to his family and the property they were charged to protect. He thought of the miners, too—men who had no swords, no firearms, no true means of defending themselves.
When they reached the bottom of the screw, they came across the first body. Yanko stared down at the overseer, the man who usually beat the drum from atop the platform overhead. His neck was broken. It looked like he had fallen from the landing above—or been shoved.
Whatever had happened up there, the platform appeared to be empty now. From fifty feet below it, he could not be certain. He tried reaching up with his mind to check, but a sharp stab of pain behind his eyes warned him that he had been doing much more of that than he was accustomed to—he had been using his senses to search the tunnels ahead for enemies at every turn.
“We climbing up?” Lakeo grabbed the thick rope attached to the cart lift.
The men who had been accompanying them—eight miners of various nationalities—grumbled amongst themselves as they eyed the body. They had to be thinking of hiding somewhere and waiting out the attack, rather than barreling into sword-wielding strangers. Yanko could not do that.
He jumped and caught the rope above Lakeo’s hand. “Yes. I’ll go first.”
Despite the burgeoning headache, he made himself inspect the platform above them as he climbed. He didn’t sense any more living beings in the area, though he could hear clangs and shouts in the distance. It made him uneasy that the offices, storage rooms, and living quarters were in that direction.
Even though he trusted his senses, he paused when he reached the bottom of the platform and poked his eyes over the top before committing himself. Three more bodies lay near the screw, two bare-chested miners and a third man in leather and black silks with a scimitar and kyzar that had dropped from his hands when he fell. Those were traveling clothes, not mining clothes, and the man’s hair was in a topknot.
Yanko pulled himself up, waved that it was safe for the others, and walked over to the body. He had assumed their attackers would be foreigners, invaders from across the sea, but this man had the clothing and skin color of a Nurian. More, the hair implied he was from a moksu family. Of course, the man could have chosen the style in an attempt to disguise himself, but the penalty for feigning a position in a class above oneself was steep in Nuria. Few people dared to try. So who was this then? Internal strife on a large scale was rare these days. The Great Chief squashed out rebellions, and thieves and bandits were dealt with before they could form into groups substantial enough to harry towns and clans. Even when groups did crop up, they usually targeted banks and bank-owned transports, rather than something as large as a mine. An invading army would be more likely to want to take over resources useful in supporting their troops.
“Friend of yours?” Lakeo asked, coming up behind him. She nudged the body with her boot.
“Good.” She stuck her hammer and chisel in her belt and grabbed the fallen scimitar and kyzar.
The miners had reached the platform, as well. They eyed the bodies, but seemed more interested in finding a way out than in figuring out who was attacking.
Yanko took the lead again, wondering if he should have been the one to grab the swords. If they encountered the enemy in the tunnels, he might not have time to summon a magical defense. The passages on this first level had been hollowed out hundreds of years earlier and were wider than the ones below. That should give him more space and more time to react, but it would also allow a number of people to attack them at once. He held the makings of a barrier in his mind as they advanced, following the cart tracks toward the lift and the way out.
More bodies scattered the passages, the white-gray floors stained with fresh blood. A few of the leather-and-silk-wearing enemies had fallen, but far more miners had been killed, men who probably hadn’t even wanted to fight. Or who might have been willing to turn on their captors. Indeed, at one point, they passed an overseer who had been brutally mauled, his face unrecognizable, and Yanko suspected only someone seeking revenge would have lingered to do so much damage. It chilled him to think of the miners at his back deciding to turn on him if he blocked their way, or simply because they thought they could get away with it.
He glanced at Lakeo, glad she was with him. She wasn’t moksu, and even if she voluntarily worked here, the miners would likely see her as one of them. But she should stand beside Yanko in a fight—after all, he had made countless tree and plant illusions for her over the last few months. Maybe that would make them less likely to attack him.
As they drew closer to the offices, living quarters, and kitchen, the air stank more and more of smoke. They turned a corner and nearly smacked into a rockfall blocking the passage.
“Guess that’s what we heard down below,” Lakeo said.
“Sh,” Yanko whispered, sensing people up ahead.
The explosions and shouts from earlier had faded. He hoped that meant his people had driven out the attackers, but he couldn’t assume that was the case, especially when the invaders had all been armed. The guards in the shack at the top of the lift must have been caught by surprise.
Yanko crawled up the broken slabs of salt. They didn’t completely block the tunnel, and he could squeeze through at the top, but he paused before doing so. Two men had walked out of a storage room, each carrying bags of salt over their shoulders. These also wore the traveling garments, but their hair was cut short in the military style favored by the common man, and swords swayed at their hips.
Yanko took too long debating if he should try to capture and question them, and they disappeared around a bend ahead. He crawled the rest of the way over the fallen salt slabs, crouched and used his mind to probe the other nearby storage rooms. A draft of fresh desert air whispered across his cheeks. Odd. One didn’t usually feel that until one was rising out of the mines on the lift.
A scream of pain traveled down the tunnel from ahead, halting his investigation. That scream had sounded familiar.
“Uncle?” Yanko whispered.
Lakeo slid down the rock pile and landed beside him.
“Watch my back,” he said, barely aware that he was giving her an order. He sprinted up the passage without waiting for an answer. It made sense that the enemy would interrogate Uncle Mishnal if they had captured him. After all, he ran the mine. If there were any government secrets to be known about the salt and where it was distributed, he would know them.
Yanko almost crashed into a man walking out of a side room carrying ropes of sausages. Not wanting to slow down, Yanko slammed an elbow into his sternum and tore the intruder’s kyzar from his belt before the man had done more than drop the food. Yanko took advantage of his surprise, smashing a palm into his foe’s face at the same time as he stepped in close, driving the blade into his chest.
He had never killed before, and remorse caught up with what had been instinctive reactions. He stared as the man fell back, landing on the floor, death in his eyes as he gasped for his final breaths of air.
The clang of steel near him told him Lakeo had passed him and also found an opponent. There was no time to linger. He pulled out the dying man’s second weapon, a two-edged longsword, then raced up the tunnel to help Lakeo. She had stumbled across two men who had been carrying a trunk of cheeses out of a supply room. They had flung their load down and were pressing her, both attacking at the same time. Predictably, the miners accompanying Yanko and Lakeo hung back. They had pickaxes, but did not rush to engage in the battle.
Yanko charged up, catching one of her attackers in the side before he could break away to face him. Relentless, Yanko smashed the man’s sword hand, knocking the weapon away. He slammed the kyzar into the man’s chest, the blade scraping and grinding against ribs. The reality of the noise made Yanko wince, but the fact that Lakeo was in trouble ensured he did not hesitate. He would have turned to help her with her opponent, but two more invaders were racing down the hall toward them. He had to trust that Lakeo could take care of herself. Even though he usually bested her when they sparred, she had a scrappy unpredictable style that he hoped would serve her well.
One of the approaching men carried a bow and paused to nock an arrow. Since he had a couple of seconds, Yanko did his best to block out the chaos of the fight, the rasping of men’s heavy breaths, the clank of swords, the grunts of pain and frustration. He called upon that draft creeping through the tunnels, channeled it, and threw a blast of air at the archer. The man toppled backward, his shoulder slamming into the wall, and his arrow falling away.
“Mage!” the man started to scream.
Using the same force of wind, Yanko shoved it down his throat, battering his tonsils and forcing the warning cry back into his mouth. The man’s head hammered against the wall, and he slumped to the ground, groaning.
That would have to be enough for the moment, because the second invader had reached Yanko, a bare-armed man with two longswords. He leaped, both weapons swinging for Yanko’s head. There wasn’t time to come up with a magical defense—and he certainly couldn’t concentrate on one with those sharp blades angling for his eyes. He skittered to the side to avoid one of the swings and blocked the other with his purloined sword. The power of the blow radiated up his arm to his elbow, and he almost dropped the weapon. Cursing himself, he jumped back, giving himself room to recover. This was no duel in a practice arena for show. This man wanted to kill him.
His elbow brushed against something. Lakeo. She was still fighting her own opponent.
Knowing he could not back up farther without impeding her, Yanko stood his ground under the next barrage that the man launched at him. Each blow numbed Yanko’s arms with its power, but he blocked them nonetheless and tried to find an opening in the blur of metal dancing in front of him. The man wielded the two blades effectively, but Yanko noticed that the swipes from his right hand weren’t quite as quick and deadly. He must favor his left hand. If Yanko could take that out of action, he might gain the advantage. He wished he could hurl some mental attack at the same time as he fought, but blocking the rain of blows took all of his concentration.
The man’s foot bumped the arm of one of his fallen comrades, and he glanced down. He was only distracted for a split second, but Yanko turned the attack on him. Instead of defending, he launched his own series of blows, first a slash toward the man’s head with the long blade, and then he lunged in, aiming for the vulnerable inner thigh. Getting so close on someone tall and with two swords was a risk—the man’s reach was far greater than his own—but Yanko was fast and believed he could skitter back out again if he needed to. Fortunately, his rapid barrage of blows, half more feints than true attacks, made the bigger man step back. Finally, Yanko found his opening, and he whipped his shorter blade across, the edge cutting into the invader’s dominant hand. The blade bit deep, and the man dropped the weapon.
Yanko ducked, anticipating the frenzied, defensive attack from the other hand. It came, and the longsword sailed over his head, so close that it almost relieved him of his topknot, but in his moment of slight panic, the man swung too hard. The sword struck the wall, biting into the salt.
Before his foe could recover from the wild blow, Yanko leaped in close and plunged his kyzar into the man’s kidney.
The intruder gasped, his back going as rigid as a tree. He dropped his sword, clutched at Yanko’s arm, and stared him in the eyes, horror and pain contorting his features. Yanko jumped back, in case the invader had one more attack in him before he passed on, but not before the impression of that face imprinted itself in his mind forever. His stomach churned, and his mouth was drier than desert sand, but he couldn’t stop to dwell on this now, on the fact that he was taking the lives of other human beings.
He turned toward the archer he had attacked earlier, expecting that the man would have recovered by now. But there was a knife buried in his chest.
He turned to check on Lakeo. Blood dripped from a cut at her temple, but she had defeated her opponent, and she must have been the one to throw the knife, as well. She gave him a quick nod and waved her sword to signal she could go on. Her face was pale, and Yanko wondered if she, too, despite all her bravado, had never had to kill a man before.
The miners that had been following them had climbed over the rubble pile and still had their pickaxes, but they hadn’t made any move to join in with the fight. A twinge of frustration ran through Yanko, and he had to remind himself that they had no reason to feel loyal to the mines or to him. Yelling at them wouldn’t do anything.
Apparently, Lakeo didn’t feel the same way. She pulled her knife out of the archer’s chest and used it to point at the leader. “You ox brains help us with the fighting, and maybe Yanko will be more inclined to look the other way when you skulk off.”
Remembering the cry that had come from the living quarters, Yanko headed off, not worrying about the conversation.
“That what happened with those Turgonians?” the miner asked.
“That’s right,” Lakeo said and ran to catch up with Yanko. “What Turgonians is he talking about?” she whispered.
“A handful of them escaped before you came to work here. Prince Zirabo and I were… knocked out and beaten up during their escape.”
“Prince Zirabo? The Great Chief’s son? The one who’s a diplomat?”
“Yes. He came for a visit.” They rounded a curve, and the doors to the living quarters came into view, so he did not expound on the details.
“At the same time as some prisoners escaped?”
“Yes. I looked the other way for it because one had been a sword tutor to me, if an unwilling one.”
Yanko glanced through an open doorway, wincing when he spotted another dead overseer. This one had died in his bed, a pile of rock half-burying him.
They had to scramble across more rock debris in the corridor, and the draft had turned into a full-fledged breeze. In one spot, the tunnel was nearly impassable with more than ten feet of ceiling collapsed, leaving a hole open to a starry sky above. If they had wanted to simply escape, that could be a way out, but he had to reach Mishnal. They were close.
“That doesn’t seem like you,” Lakeo said, apparently not ready to drop the topic. “Was that the honorable thing to do?” She had mocked him more than once about his determination to help his family, to become an honorable member of Nurian society, and he didn’t miss the emphasis she put on the word.
“At the time, I thought it was. And if I ever run into that Turgonian again, he said he owes me a favor.”
“Great, next time you’re in the empire, I’m sure that’ll come in handy.”
“It’s a republic now.”
Lakeo gave him a scathing who-cares look. He did not respond. He sensed more people in the corridor ahead, and he slowed down, holding up a hand. Voices chattered. They didn’t sound alarmed; they sounded like they knew they had already won and that there was nothing to worry about.
Yanko’s fists tightened on the hilts of his swords. He would give them something to worry about.
The corridor curved again, and he paused to peer around the bend. At the far end, the lift shaft was visible, as was an enormous hole in the ceiling, at least twenty feet across. Ladders had been placed on either side of the entry chamber, and men were carrying loot out on their shoulders. Other men, heavily armed men, stood in a group, talking and pointing downward, toward the lower levels of the mine. Wondering if it was worth trying to go down there and loot further? Quiet fury filled Yanko at the thought of these people casually contemplating killing and looting this place. Even if the mines weren’t exactly a home to him, they were his family’s responsibility. For the first time, he felt that meant they were his responsibility too.
And they were Mishnal’s responsibility. The door to his quarters and office stood open ten feet ahead of Yanko. Unfortunately, it was in full view of those men. This portion of the tunnel lay clear, with no rubble piles to hide behind, so he could not advance without being spotted.
“We lost our posse,” Lakeo whispered in his ear.
The miners had disappeared. Probably up that hole. Yanko shrugged. He couldn’t have depended on them, anyway. He would have to sneak up to his uncle’s room on his own. He concentrated on the chamber around the invaders, trying to sense more than his eyes showed him, such as the way some of the crumbled earth around the edges above hung precariously. A tall cactus leaned toward the hole, its root system half destroyed.
Yanko pointed at his uncle’s door and made a get-ready gesture. Lakeo nodded.
With a silent apology to the cactus, he used his power to sever a few more of its roots. It toppled twenty feet, crashing to the ground a couple of meters from the men. They all spun toward it, several jumping in surprise. Knowing they would recover quickly, Yanko ran for his uncle’s door, careful not to make a noise.
He slipped inside before the men turned back around—and almost tripped over the supine figure on the floor. Uncle Mishnal. A pool of blood spread out from beneath his torso.
The emotions that Yanko had been holding back boiled over, and tears of outrage and loss sprang to his eyes. He dropped to his knees, his weapons falling from his hands. He almost forgot about the men, that they were close enough to hear a conversation—or the clink of weapons hitting the hard ground. But Lakeo had made it inside, too, and she eased the door shut.
Yanko knew he was too late, but he touched his uncle’s shoulder, hoping he might be wrong, that the injury was not fatal.
Mishnal’s eyelids fluttered, then opened. Such utter pain twisted his face that Yanko wished he hadn’t bothered his uncle, that he had simply let him die peacefully. But maybe this would be better, for Mishnal to know that someone was here for him in the end.
“Can you do anything?” Lakeo whispered.
Yanko shook his head. He was no healer. There wasn’t time for any man to learn every branch of the mental sciences, and warrior mages were encouraged to master destruction, not healing. Healing was considered a woman’s art. Much like the earth sciences. Yanko bitterly admitted that he could have healed a dying tree. But he didn’t know how to help a human being. Maybe he had failed in choosing his passions.
“Uncle,” he whispered.
“Yanko,” Mishnal rasped. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. Yanko wiped it away. “Tell… tell your father.”
“I will. Do you know who these people are?”
“The prince… was right.” Mishnal drew in a shuddering breath, then coughed, blood spattering the ground next to his face.
Yanko did not try to stop the hot tears tracing his cheeks. “About what, Uncle? What should I tell my father?”
“Protect… the village. There… this is only… the beginning.”
“Of what? Who are these people? How can I help?”
“It’s dark,” Mishnal whispered. “Yanko? …still there?”
Yanko glanced at the lamp still burning on his uncle’s desk and struggled to talk around the lump in his throat. He squeezed Mishnal’s shoulder. “I’m still here.”
“Be careful… out there.” Mishnal opened his mouth, but another round of coughs came out. Yanko wanted to tell him not to talk any more, not to stress himself further, but if there was any more information he could give, anything that could help… “Your father.”
“He cares. But… he’s afraid.”
“Cares for what? Afraid of who?” This wasn’t the information Yanko needed, but how could he interrupt a dying man?
“You. Afraid you’ll… be like mother… leave him, leave family. She was… there was a reason he loved her. You have… her power. Power… changes people. Don’t let it… change you.”
Yanko wiped his palm across his eyes. “I won’t.”
Mishnal managed one more breath, but it was his last. His eyes froze in place, staring at the floor, empty of his spirit. His hand shaking, Yanko reached out and closed his lids.
He had thought himself alone after failing his test, but this was far worse.