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THE FIRE KING AND THE BATTLE MAGE

Title: The Fire King and the Battle Mage

Series: The Draca Wards Saga, 7

Author: B. Pine

ISBN: 978-1-60975-257-6

Product Code: BK0169

Format: Trade Paperback

Pages: 346

Release Date: March 2020

Cover Price: $21.95

Our Price: $21.95

 

 

 

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Book Jacket

 

Age Island is free of Eastern occupation. The elusive Coven begins to emerge. The necare grow stronger. The war against the East begins to take a turn. And yet the world is more dangerous than ever.

 

Age Island’s situation has caught the attention of a powerful country and it’s enigmatic leader. Referred to as the Fire King by his subjects, King Thane has kept Canas out of the Eastern conflict, but now seems concerned with recent events. A popular king and experienced warrior, his motives are unknown. But it soon becomes clear that he will not ignore the changes going on at Arcanum and Age.

 

Meanwhile, an old friend returns. Hedi is now a Battle Mage, and more powerful than ever. But will she help Jamu keep Age Island safe, or will she follow her heart and search for Rohen instead?

 


 

Book Excerpt

 

1

Tidings

 

 

 

 

Jamu jogged to the stables, grateful and more than a bit surprised he was not stopped. He knew that leading a country was hard work with long hours, but everyone around him seemed so…needy. He made his way to Pride’s stall. His sorrel poked her head out as he approached and whinnied happily. Jamu pulled an apple out of his pocket and handed it to her as he entered her stall.

“Sorry I have not dropped by,” Jamu said as he handed her the apple. “They really keep me busy. How about a ride?”

Pride looked at him with her warm eyes as she munched on her treat. Jamu scratched her ear. The mare was the sweetest horse Jamu had ever known. She would suffer just about anything for him. Jamu fed her a second apple before pulling her out of her paddock. He fetched her saddle and bridle and quickly geared her up.

“And we are ready,” Jamu said as he jumped on her back. “Let us go and have some fun, just the two of us.”

Pride trotted out of the stable. Once outside, she gave out a happy snort and cantered off toward the front gates of the unfinished manor. Jamu had taken advantage of the early morning, while most people were breaking their fast, to venture out. There was less of a chance he would be drawn back to the fort to deal with whatever the day had in store for him. As they left the manor behind, Jamu gave Pride her head. The restless mare galloped down the road leading to the new shrine. Jamu had a feeling Pride would head that way. Enjoying the warm morning air, he relaxed and enjoyed the run. It did not take them long to reach the shrine. Pride veered off the main road as if she had memorized the path and slowed to a trot, approaching the area with an almost reverent air.

It was not complete, but Jamu was impressed by the progress that Healer Ishe had made. The grassy swell and valley where Jamu had first sensed the strong spiritual energies was now a lovely network of gardens, with a pond in its midst and man-made streams circling the area. Sections of carved fence panels were up in several spots, and an ornate iron fence was already erected at the base of the swell, encircling three structures that would soon become the shrine’s temples. All three forms of worship were represented in the shrine, and Jamu had already made it clear to everyone that no one religion would ever take precedence over the others at Age. Pride wandered the grounds unchecked, seeming to enjoy the stroll as Jamu allowed her to go wherever she wished.

But as he let his mind wander along with his horse, his peacefulness vanished. His chest tightened, and as the urge to have a little time all to himself began to fade, he suddenly felt very lonely.

One benefit of being so busy with rebuilding this newly liberated country was that it kept his mind away from the girl with the honey-brown eyes and ebony hair. Thinking about her seared his heart. At times he welcomed the pain, but when his guard was down and his spirits low, it would become unbearable. He wanted nothing other than to be with her once more.

A scaffold lay on the ground near the entrance area. Freshly cut timber was strapped to part of the scaffold. The builders were about to erect some sort of structure that would serve as an entrance. Hoping that they had remembered his suggestion that no gate should bar anyone from entering, he stopped Pride and dismounted to inspect the structure in progress. But his scrutiny did not keep his lovesick thoughts at bay. “Do you miss Galen too?” he couldn’t help asking Pride. The sorrel turned her head, but her look was the same serene gaze she always gave him.

“I am sure you do.” He gave Pride’s nose a scratch and hopped back in his saddle. His brother Tohe had questioned his manhood the last time they saw each other. Jamu was used to his taunts, but Tohe had a point when he accused Galen of gelding him. His unenthusiastic attempt to socialize with the opposite gender turned out disastrous. He had angered a princess and ended up in a dungeon. But the incident triggered a coup and liberation of an island nation, so he supposed something good came out of that misadventure.

Pride’s ears flicked an instant before Jamu heard the hoofbeats. He turned Pride to see who approached. Disappointment filled him as he spotted a woman riding his way. The disadvantage to his current situation was that he seemed to have captured the attention of every unmarried maiden within ten leagues of the fort. And after his recent experience with the Princess of Massea, Jamu had no intention of pursuing any kind of romantic relationship, no matter what his brother said about him.

But as the woman came closer, Jamu recognized her. Relieved, he dismounted once more and waited for her to ride up. The Duchess of Greshian had the potential to be a dangerous adversary to Jamu, but on a personal level she was less threatening than most. He had spoken to her only once, when Deris introduced her to him as his wife. The woman pulled her horse to a stop right beside Trust.

“Lady Saire,” Jamu said, bowing. “It is nice to see you. May I ask what brings you here so early in the morning?”

A pretty freckled face smiled down at him. Lady Saire smoothed back her curly brown locks, blown askew from her ride. “I would ask the same of you, Commander General.” She looped her reins around the pommel of her saddle. Jamu offered his hand to help her down.

“I thought that a few hours of fresh morning air and solitude would be a refreshing treat,” Jamu said.

The woman held his hand for support as she swung her leg over and dropped gracefully to the ground. “We think alike, Commander.”

“I would prefer if you called me Jamu, my lady.”

“Then you must call me Saire.”

“I fear your husband would take great offense to that.”

Saire scoffed. “As closely as you have worked with Deris, I find your words insincere. You know how he feels about the Agean nobility.”

Her response was unexpected. “Actually, I do not. The governor has never spoken ill about Agean highbloods.”

“I am surprised,” Saire said. “He blames the nobles for the loss of this side of the island to the Easterners.”

“And yet he married the Duchess of Greshian.”

“Yes, he married me,” Saire said proudly.

Jamu had wanted to converse with Lady Saire for some time. She had an insight into the country that he could get from no one else. He needed her as an ally. Deris had mentioned more than once how pleased she was with Jamu when he decided to abolish Massean control and liberate part of the island, but Jamu was a foreigner, and she was the descendant of one of the great Agean families. If she were to believe that she was better suited to lead the country and decided to oppose his rule, she could easily derail all his plans.

“Do you have time for a brief stroll?” he asked, holding out his arm.

“I do,” Saire said, taking his arm. “It’s about time we had a talk.”

“I agree.” Jamu reached for both horse’s reins with his free hand. They began to walk. The shrine was still deserted. Pride followed them.

“I appreciate your deference towards my title,” Saire said. “Are you looking to abolish the highblood status here the way the Northern Islands and Canas have done?”

Jamu shook his head. “No. I am Surian highblood myself. I understand the importance of the heritage of the great families. But Canas has shown the world how a country can prosper by eliminating the power of an elite class and ensuring equal rights and freedoms among all its citizens, and I hope to establish a similar society here. That does not mean I want the noble families to fade into irrelevance. In fact, the opposite is true.”

“You are such an unusual young man,” Saire said. “A Surian boy who has taken leadership of a foreign country and wishes to follow the example of yet another. You don’t even look Surian. Your hair is almost golden, and your eyes are so very blue.”

Jamu tried his best not to seem uncomfortable. Being called a boy was peeving, and he never enjoyed people commenting on his eyes, except for Galen. But then it suddenly hit him that after their last encounter in the astral plane, she may not find his eyes pleasing anymore.

“Did I offend you, Commander?” Saire asked, slowing their pace.

Jamu was an Espies Scout, so he couldn’t lie. But there were ways to avoid answers. “A sudden unpleasant thought just came to me, that is all. Let us continue. I would like to forget about it, and you can help me with that. Tell me, how is it that a powerful Duchess ends up married to the man who wishes to abolish her entire way of life?”

“The answer is as romantic as the wording of your question,” Saire said, her freckles fading a bit as her face flushed deeply. “I married Deris because I am in love with him.”

Her expression spoke volumes. “I understand,” Jamu said.

“Do you?” Saire turned to him. “Have you ever fallen in love?”

Jamu had to look away. He knew she would see his pain. “I have. And I understand.”

Saire waited, but he said nothing more. He wanted to. Having the blushing duchess open up to him made him want to confide in her. He wanted a fresh ear to hear his story. He wanted to talk about Galen and how lovely she was. He wanted to rant about how they were forced to part ways, and how it was too dangerous to try and find her. He wanted Saire to reassure him that love really did conquer all, and that Galen still loved him, despite her emotional rebuff once she discovered his darkest secret. She only needed time, and she would open her arms and hold him tightly once they were finally reunited.

But he couldn’t tell Saire any of those things. Galen was supposed to be dead. And although he felt at ease in her presence, Saire was all but a stranger to him still. The only way he could still help Galen remain safe was not to tell anyone about her, or how he felt about her. So he kept his mouth shut, and his heart closed.

“We tried,” Saire said. “My family, I mean. We tried to fight off the Easterners. My father and brothers, they all stood up to the invaders. They all died, along with many Ageans. Deris does not take their sacrifice lightly, but he believes that my family was ill-prepared. Still, he protected me when I was in danger, and he supported me through my grief. He saved my life in so many ways.”

“What happened to the other families?” Jamu asked, grateful for Saire’s deft change of subject.

“As you would expect from such a tiny nation, the noble families quickly shrank. Their holdings merged with marriages, and there was little that could be done. Nobles married commoners, and succession rules became very strict. So, despite the scarcity of highblood nobles here, over half of Ageans have some trace to one of the original noble families. In any case, there are three duchies left, and two are held by one woman. Lady Torea became demoralized by the defeat of House Greshian and used her authority to turn the island over to Syntrea for protection. When Syntrea started losing ground to the East, she fled to the Syntrean controlled side.” Saire raised her head. “That was about ten years ago. Look up, Commander.”

 He tossed his head back and glanced at the clear sky. A small group of pigeons flew overhead. Jamu followed their flight, hoping they were not what he feared they were. Messenger pigeons did not fly in groups unless there was much news to deliver. The pigeons soared away, headed to the fort. Jamu watched until they circled around and disappeared into the small watchtower of the fort. With a sigh, he released Lady Saire’s arm.

“I cannot ignore half a dozen pigeons,” he said to her. “I must get back to work. But I would like very much to speak with you again.”

“Your time is very valuable, but I would be honored to ride with you to the fort. We can talk some more,” Saire offered.

“The honor would be mine,” Jamu said, helping her mount. “But if you call me Commander one more time, I will rush ahead and leave you behind.”

Saire looked amused by his threat. “Beware that charm of yours, Jamu. I can see how you got into so much trouble up in Massea.”

 

v  v  v

 

Shiko handed Jamu a bowl of porridge as he took his seat in the office on the second level of the fort. He had converted Schlar’s old quarters into a smart looking study. Most of Jamu’s items from his room at the Academy Tower decorated the office. The walls were covered with Surian wood panels. Deris was seated beside him, but the third seat was empty. General Kuten had not yet arrived. Jamu waved at Shiko to take Kuten’s comfortable chair. Shiko held a handful of finger-length scrolls in her hand.

“Those look official,” Jamu said to Shiko. The seals on some of them were unrecognizable to him.

Shiko nodded and opened a scroll with a familiar seal. She read it. “An invitation to your brother’s wedding, this is,” she announced as she handed the page to Jamu.

“A wedding ceremony in Sur late this winter,” Jamu said, scanning the invitation. “And a second ceremony in Massea in the spring. The first son of Aoiyama and the Princess of Massea, joined in marriage. How nice. I will need to find a date.”

“You have your pick here, you know that,” Deris laughed.

Jamu smiled, but said nothing. He waited for Shiko to open the next message.

“A pronouncement from the Emir,” she said, a wry little smile on her face. “Decommissioned you have been, my lord. A Massean general you are no longer.”

“I am heartbroken,” Jamu said. “Is that all?”

“No,” Shiko said with a grimace. “Treason they have charged you with. A death sentence it will be, for you to step foot on Massean lands.”

“That might make things awkward at the wedding,” Jamu said. “Next.”

Shiko tossed the Massean message on the desk and opened the third. “A formal protest from the Northern Islands. Your coup of Age Island they condemn.”

That made Jamu a bit uncomfortable. But he was quite aware that the Northerners were unlikely to do anything about it other than voice their displeasure. “Are they asking for anything?”

“No, my lord. An announcement only, this is.”

“We will have to consider extending a friendly gesture to the Northerners,” Jamu said. “Deris, as a native Agean, you should take the lead in that.”

Deris and Shiko nodded in agreement. Shiko opened the next scroll.

“A request from the Casters, this is,” Shiko said. “A base or outpost they are interested in building here. An invitation to meet with them, they are offering.”

Jamu grimaced. “I already have to make room for Syntrea and my King. I have no wish to make Age a hodgepodge of outposts.”

“Having the Casters here will give us defensive powers we sorely need,” Deris pointed out.

“Were you not the one who wanted Age to be free of foreigners?” Jamu asked Deris lightly.

“I’m dealing with you, aren’t I?” Deris shot back. “Besides, we would set the terms. I have no objections to a Caster base here.”

Jamu nodded, but he did not share the same welcoming feeling. “We can consider it.” He glanced at the last two scrolls. “Keep going.”

Shiko opened the next one. “Another rebuke. From the Canasian foreign minister. A strong condemnation, this is. A report to the King, the minister has sent.” She handed Jamu the scroll, clearly bothered.

Jamu took it and read it quickly. He was bothered as well. Canas could do much harm to his tiny island. “An alert and warning has been sent to the King of Canas. It looks like he needs to decide how Canas is going to react to me ruling Age. We can do nothing but wait on this.”

Shiko shook her head and opened the last scroll. Her olive face paled as she read it. “No need to wait,” she said, handing Jamu the scroll. “The King of Canas, this letter is from him. Action he has taken.”

Jamu took the scroll and read through it. “Well, it could be worse. Shiko, please send for Shogan. We must visit Princess Jania.” He smiled at Shiko and Deris. “Do not worry. I have been thinking about taking a vacation for some time. It looks like I will have that chance.”

 

v  v  v

 

Jania waited eagerly in her father’s reception hall as Jamu stepped through Shogan’s portal with Shiko. He waved his thanks to Shogan, and the mage closed the portal from the other side. Jania ran over to him and gave him a hug and kiss.

“Why did you leave your mage behind?” she asked.

“My ship is in route,” Jamu replied. “I just really wanted to see you.”

“I missed you, too,” Jania said, greeting Shiko with a hug. “I am glad you are here. Megan’s ordainment ceremony is tomorrow. I did not send you notice because Bilin wishes to keep it a secret.”

“I understand,” Jamu said. “But you could have sent some kind of sign.”

“I’m sorry, but it doesn’t matter now, does it? You are here.” Jania pulled him by the hand. “Let’s talk about why you are here. I received a letter from the King of Canas, and I believe you have as well.”

“I have,” Jamu said as he followed her out of the hall. “He wishes to meet me.”

“That is a good sign,” Jania said.

“The Emir wanted to meet me, too. We all know how that turned out.”

“Last I’ve heard, the King of Canas doesn’t have any daughters for you to kiss.”

“A blessing, that is. What else do you know about him?”

“Not much else, to be honest. He wants me to go with you. And he also extended an invitation to Ben, if you can believe that.”

“Really?” Jamu took Jania’s arm and strolled alongside her down the long corridor. “Is he upset about Ben leading Arcanum, too?”

“Ben said his letter was friendly and cordial. The letter I received I would call cordial, but not at all friendly. How was yours?”

“Neither. But it was not hostile. He expressed concern, and felt compelled to investigate whether my actions were in the best interest of all countries involved, including his.”

Jania frowned thoughtfully as they walked. “I arranged a meeting with Animis this afternoon,” she finally said. “He can give us valuable information about the king and his country. Ben will be there, too. Are you hungry?”

“Always, he is hungry,” Shiko quipped.

“I would be hungry less often if you fed me more,” Jamu retorted. “I can wait, Princess.”

“No need. Father is lunching out back. We can join him. I am sure he would be delighted to talk to you.”

“Sure,” Jamu agreed. “I suppose I should let him know what is going on at Age.”

 

v  v  v

 

Megan pinned the shroud securely to her side to keep the white silk from sliding off her body. She ran her hands through her unkept loose hair one last time and kicked off her sandals. She was ready. If only Rohen and Galen could be with her today.

She stepped outside, and tears sprang into her eyes. Her friends waited, all dressed and ready. Jania, Widow June, Druid Sila and Druid Rigan were there, as was Taya, there as a favor for Keran. Her father, Ewen, Ben and Rus were also there. And Jamu was with them, standing between Ben and her father, wearing only white loose trousers along with the other bare-chested males there to witness her ordainment. Shiko stood next to Jania. They were both dressed in the white linen gown and shawl that Druid Rigan and Druid Sila wore. Megan ran to Jamu, hugging him tightly.

“Thank you for being here,” she said, pressing her face against his chest.

“It is an honor to witness this,” Jamu said, hugging her back. “I am so glad I am here.”

 “Come, Megan,” Druid Rigan said, holding out her hand. Megan took it and allowed the druid to lead her away. The others followed.

As they walked, Druid Rigan began to talk. “All of us here know of the drui. We do not know if they will approve of this ceremony, but what we all must take of this ceremony is that the title of Druid is not endowed by the drui, nor is it bestowed by us. Only the spirits can grant Megan with this honor. So it matters not how the Drui feel. If the watching spirits approve of Megan and symbolize their approval, then no living being can dispute her status.”

“We pray for our sister Megan and her meeting with the spirit world,” Ewen chanted.

“What if we are interrupted?” Megan asked nervously.

“Shiko and I will deal with that, should it arise,” Jamu said. “Focus on what you need to do.”

“We are here for you, Meggie,” Ben said.

Megan nodded, noticing Jamu’s saber and Shiko’s double-edged sword. She followed Druid Rigan down the path to the river. She released the druid’s hand as she reached the water’s edge and waded in by herself.

“The ceremony is simple and quick,” Druid Rigan said. “The essence of life is formed by the combination of the male and female energies. These energies are constantly intermingling. So men and women must stand apart here, to keep the spiritual vibes clear.”

Megan watched the men line up to her left and the women to her right. Ewen stood before her, and Druid Rigan and Druid Sila stood behind, forming a triangle with her in the center.

“Are ya ready, Megan?” Ewen asked her. For once, he did not so much as peek at her chest.

Megan smiled at him and nodded. Ewen smiled back and closed his eyes. From behind, Sila and Rigan began to sing.

It was a wordless, keening tune. Megan pushed down the sudden nervousness she felt and watched Ewen raise his cupped hands. She held her hands over his and made a silent prayer.

A red flame sprouted, followed by a blue one. The flames danced in Ewen’s hands, as if happy to be summoned. Ewen joined the other two druids in song, his low male voice giving the tune a sweet resonance. That was Megan’s cue.

“My mind, body and soul I present to you,” Megan chanted. “If you deem me worthy, I beg you to make me one of you, to honor and protect nature and those that make this world their home.”

The flames jumped and grew. Megan felt spiritual energy flood through her. Willing it all into her hands, she reached for the flames and plucked them out of Ewen’s hands and into her own.

The three druids continued to sing. Megan held the warm flames up. The two flames combined into one, and Megan suddenly held a tiny violet bonfire in her hands. The fire became hot, but not enough to burn her. Megan held still, waiting to see what would happen next.

She did not have to wait long. A sudden breeze appeared, a breeze she had nothing to do with, for once. The breeze blew at the violet fire, shaping it into what looked like the face of a man. The face scowled at Megan with slitted black eyes. The breeze died.

“You ask us if you are worthy,” a voiceless hiss said to her. “We should ask that of you.”

Everyone jumped at the sudden splash made by hundreds of tiny fish jumping out of the water all around the small group. The fish glowed white for an instant before exploding into puffs of smoke that wisped their way to Megan, surrounding her from the waist up. The tendrils glowed green, then yellow, then orange.

 The three druids stopped singing. Megan knew right away by looking at them that this was not part of the ceremony. The orange tendrils circled her arms and waist. Megan could feel the spirits around her, pressing close, as if they wanted something from her. But she had no idea what to do.

“You are finally here,” the flamed face before her breathed. “We pray to the Creator you are not too late.”

With that, the face melted into a giant blaze of blue-hot light. Megan cried out and covered her face with her arms. She felt the heat of the fire envelop her head, arms and back. Her skin burned for a moment, then the heat seeped inside her. A flash of heat coursed through her, settling in her middle before fading out. Megan lowered her arms and looked around.

Everyone stared at her. Megan smiled. “I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

“Megan, look at yourself,” Jamu said.

She glanced down. Orange light surrounded her, and her white shroud was crimson. Megan touched the shroud. The silk above the water was dry.

“It’s not blood. At least, it’s not my blood.” She assured everyone. “So does this mean I was accepted?”

“Come out of the river, and we shall see,” Ewen said.

Megan waded to shore. She examined her now red shroud as everyone else left the water to join her. “Why did my shroud turn red?”

“It is a rare occurrence. It is a signal from the spirits that the newly ordained druid is an especially powerful one,” Ewen said.

“Well, obviously I am powerful,” Megan said. “They didn’t need to give me a sign for that.”

“The sign is not for you,” Druid Sila said. “Your sign is on the bottom of your foot. Sit down.”

Megan dropped to the ground and peered at her foot. On the pad right beneath her big toe she noticed a red mark. Her foot suddenly flared with pain as she recognized the mark as a burn.

“What is this?” she asked.

“Your druid’s mark,” her father said. “All druids carry it. I told you you would have a mark to show for it.”

“You didn’t say it would be on the bottom of my foot!” Megan studied the mark closely. It looked like a strange creature with eight legs and a long tail that curled up in the air. She stuck her foot up for everyone to see. “I have no idea what that is supposed to be.”

“It is supposed t’ be ya’ar spirit animal,” Ewen said. “And the mark is different for everyone. The reason Sila knew it was on ya’ar foot is because we can all feel it.”

“All us druids, anyway,” Rigan added. She stood in front of Megan and held her hand up. Her fingers glowed white briefly, and she flicked her hand closed into a fist. “All of the Penta members will dream of you tonight, Megan. By morning, the world will know about the newest, crimson-robed druid. Congratulations.”

Megan pulled her foot close to her face. “Thank you, Druid Rigan. Now, what is this thing on my foot?”

Everyone gathered close to see. “That looks like a scorpion,” Jamu said.

“What is a scorpion?” Megan asked.

It is a poisonous creature that eats insects,” Jamu explained. “It stings with its tail.”

“Are those supposed to be claws?” Ben asked.

“Yes, but the tail is what you must beware,” Taya said.

“I’ve never seen a scorpion,” Megan said, wiggling her toes.

“They are everywhere in Sevi,” Taya said.

“And Sur as well,” Jamu added.

“So what does this mean exactly?” Megan asked as she put her foot down. Jamu helped her stand.

“It means that your powers share the main qualities of the animal that your mark resembles,” a familiar voice said.

Megan turned around. Caeles stood nearby, a glowing white shroud wrapped around him. His white tunic and trousers also gave off a faint light. White eyes gazed at her, crinkling in a kind smile.

“I am proud of you, Megan. The spirits were quite impressed with you,” Caeles said.

“Thank you, Caeles,” Megan said. She noticed everyone else standing still and wide-eyed. She nudged Jamu’s hand away from his sword hilt. “I am so happy you decided to be here for this.”

“He is not here for you, he is here for me,” a different voice, much ruder than Caeles, said. Obitus appeared beside Caeles, also wearing a white shroud, with identical tunic and trousers. “He wants to make sure I don’t spoil your party.”

“True, but I am glad I am here to witness this,” Caeles said.

Obitus ignored Caeles. Strangely, he seemed much more interested in Jamu. “You seem to have your snout meddled in just about everything, hibrida,” he said.

Megan held on to Jamu’s hand. Jamu squeezed it briefly, knowing why Megan was holding him. “My snout only meddles where I am needed. Megan is my friend, and I am here to support her. No meddling here. However, if you give me reason to meddle, then…” he left the rest of his statement unfinished.

“Threats, monster?” Obitus asked. His question sounded like a challenge.

“Obitus, leave!” Megan said.

Obitus blew angrily through his nostrils. Caeles took Obitus by the elbow.

“Come with me. No trouble today, Obitus.” Caeles began to lead the other white-haired man into the trees.

“Very well, but don’t expect me to leave you in peace, Megan,” Obitus said. He followed Caeles into the trees.

“Let me make sure they are gone,” Jamu said. He followed the dragon’s trail. Shiko followed close behind.

“Were those dragons?” Taya whispered, awestruck.

“They were,” Megan said. “The red shroud doesn’t seem so great anymore.”

 

v  v  v

 

Keran folded the last of his clean clothes and put them away in his chest. He pushed the cedar trunk underneath his bed. His room was spotless. He could thank his Espies training for that. Scouts owned very little while training at the college, and there was a place for everything. Grumpy Autis was merciless in his inspections. Keran had noticed how untidy some of the Acolytes here were, but although Father Cin was quick to reprimand, punishments rarely progressed farther than an embarrassing scolding. But now Keran wished he had something to tidy up. There was now nothing left for him to do except dwell on the fact that Megan was being ordained, and he could not be with her.

A tiny glow of light bloomed before his face. Keran felt a little whisper in his ear.

It is done. She is finally here.

Keran did not understand the spirit’s words. Who is here?

The fated druid. Deliverance is nigh.

Keran watched the glow flutter to and fro, a bit puzzled by the message. “Megan? Are you talking about Megan?” he asked out loud.

Would you like to see?

Keran smiled. The glow stopped directly over his head. Keran closed his eyes.

Megan sat near the edge of the river by her cottage, holding her foot up. Her scarlet shroud and strong orange aura gave her pretty hair an unusual russet color. A strange purple mark was on her foot, but Keran did not pay much attention to it. He focused on her face. She looked nothing like the excitable Somatica student he had grown to love. She looked much more serene now. And something else. He could not think of a proper term for how she seemed, other than humbled.

His heart ached. He wanted so much to be there with her, to touch and hold her and let her know how proud he was. Father Cin said often that he was blessed, but he did not feel that way at all.

You love her much. How wonderful!

It’s far from wonderful. She is destined for greatness. She will move on, and I will stay here. She will never be mine.

But she will. Your destinies are intertwined.

Keran shook his head and opened his eyes. No matter what fate has in store for us, she will always be out of my reach.

Or so you think. Worry not, brother. Your time will come.

The glow faded out. Keran blinked, not daring to hope that the spirit knew something that Keran did not.

 

 

 

 

2

Learning to Fly

 

 

 

 

Galen pounded on her drumskin as Rohen belted out a lively tune on his flute. It was the perfect summer day, with nothing to do except enjoy the lazy afternoon until it was time for their evening exercises. A soft, cooling breeze carried the sweet scent of honeysuckle.

Rohen ended his melody with a flourishing high note before setting his flute on his lap. He breathed in deeply, relaxing. Galen gave her skins a few more thumps, then stretched. She wished every day could be like this.

“I wonder,” Rohen said as he watched a bird glide about overhead.

“What?” Galen asked, crawling over to the edge of the mesa. She looked at the pool of water far below, filled by the waterfall. The drop was at least six rods. She loved jumping from the mesa into the cool water, but this late in the summer, the water was a little too low to be safe for jumping, especially with the sparse rain that year.

“I wonder what it feels like to fly,” he finished. He got up and went to stand beside her.

Galen looked up at him from her crouched position. He had that pondering look on his face, which usually meant he was up to something. And when Rohen was up to something, it was either dangerous, unpleasant, or more hard work for her. “Rowy, what are you…”

“Go take the instruments back home, and come back. But when you come back, go to the base of the waterfall.”

She frowned at him. She was beginning to have an idea of what he was planning. He looked down at her and waved her off.

“Go,” he ordered.

Galen stood, grabbed the flute, folded down the drumskin, and took off. As she jogged back to the cottage, she prayed that he would not do anything stupid, at least not before she got back.

When she returned, walking towards the waterfall instead of climbing back up to the mesa, she spotted Rohen still standing exactly where she left him. Something she couldn’t quite make out shimmered behind him. It looked like the energy force he could make with his mind; it had the same transparent iridescence, almost invisible unless you looked closely.

She studied the energy he had conjured, and her heart skipped a beat. “Oh, no,” she groaned. He had shaped the energy into a pair of large wings. She reached out and linked with him.

Rowy, you are insane! Don’t try this.

Don’t worry, Firefly. The water will break my fall.

The water is too low.

It will be fine for this.

Why don’t you just try the energy ball like I do? That’s so much safer.

That’s not really flying. Besides, I cannot do that very well.

Rowy, please. I need you. We’re not done with my training. You can’t kill yourself just yet.

I am not going to kill myself. I am in no danger. Watch.

Galen chewed on her lip as he jumped off. His wings flexed, flapped once, and he plummeted into the water. Galen ran to the edge and helped him out.

“See, it’s the perfect net. Don’t try to hold me up or anything. That will defeat the purpose.”

She wondered how it was he always knew what she was thinking even when their minds weren’t linked. “You can’t do what you are trying to do. If our Creator wanted us to fly…”

“I know, I know,” Rohen said dismissively. “Watch, and tell me what I’m doing wrong.” He phased back up to the mesa before Galen could say anything else.

His wings flashed into view again, and he jumped off once more. He floated in the air for a moment before careening into the water. Galen struggled to keep her lunch down.

“Well?” he asked as he climbed out of the water.

“The wind, I guess you need to catch it just so. Otherwise, it will push you out of control.” She reached for his hand, but he phased away before she could grab it. She watched worriedly as he jumped, hovered, and fell, hitting the water flat on his back. Galen cringed. He had clothes on, but that had to sting.

“Are you all right?” she cried out as he got back out of the water.

“Sure,” he replied. “How was that?”

She couldn’t take any more. Without bothering to reply, she turned and walked away.

“Where are you going?” Rohen called after her.

“To start digging your grave,” she yelled back.

 

v  v  v

 

Galen pulled the pot of cherries off the stove and set it on the trivet to cool. She counted the empty jars she had left. There were just enough to finish the cherries. She had her apples, peaches and strawberries done; as soon as she got the cherries jarred, she would be done with the fruit preserves. They had more than enough to last them throughout the winter.

She was not sure how she felt about getting all the fruit done so early. She never liked doing it, but this gave her the perfect excuse to stay away from Rohen and his crazy practice flights. He wouldn’t even let her try to catch him; he yelled at her once for stopping his fall when she saw he was going to miss the water. Since then, she did her best to stay away when he did his jumps. She had to admit, though, after catching a glimpse of him the day before, he was definitely improving. Now that the fruit was done, she would have to find something else to keep her busy. The beans and corn should be almost ready for gathering.

A sudden painful shock made her stagger. She grabbed the edge of the counter to keep herself from falling on her face. The shock disappeared as soon as it came, except for a tiny feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Rowy!” She ran out of the cottage.

Halfway towards the waterfall, she spotted him. She stopped, relieved. She waited for him to come closer, shaking her head as he approached. “You did it. You just had to go and do it.”

He limped up to her, his arms, legs and forehead scraped and bloody. He held his left arm close to his body. His gray eyes were filled with pain. “The wind blew me straight into the waterfall. I crashed head first, and the water dragged me down.”

Galen draped his good arm around her shoulders and put her arm around his waist. He leaned against her heavily. They slowly made their way back to the cottage.

“I need to learn how to compensate for sudden wind changes. I know how to lift myself into the air and how to propel forward. I need to learn how to adjust my speed.” Rohen lay face down on a mat before the fireplace as Galen rubbed liniment into his numerous scrapes and bruises.

“You need to stop this nonsense!” she snapped back.

“It can be done, Galen.”

“It is too risky. You need someone to teach you; you can’t learn on your own. Maybe Vitalia can teach you.”

“I cannot rely on her.”

She flipped him roughly onto his back, ignoring his painful grunt. “If it were me jumping off that mesa over there, how would you feel?”

“Oh, you’ll be jumping off that mesa,” Rohen promised. “As soon as I’ve mastered this flight thing myself.”

Galen examined his arm. It was badly bruised, and his wrist was sprained, but he had not broken any bones. She reached into a nearby bowl and pulled out a thick paste. “I don’t want you to get hurt,” she said, spreading the paste onto his arm. She grabbed a long piece of cotton and held it tightly, concentrating. “I’ll die if anything happens to you.” The cotton began to steam, and she wrapped the hot bandage around his arm, covering the paste. “I mean it, Rowy. My training is not complete. I need to master my psychic powers, and I need to improve my fighting skills. And we haven’t made any progress with our necare powers. If you die before I am fully trained, I will never be able to defeat Humo. He will kill me.”

“Please stop the dramatics, Firefly. This is the worst that will happen to me,” Rohen said, reaching out with his other arm and brushing a tear away from her face. “I’m only a bit scraped up. I don’t even need Mother Tean. Stop being such a crybaby.”

“I am not a crybaby, and you do need Druid Tean. You are just too afraid to let her know what happened,” she replied, scrubbing her eyes with her forearm. She pulled out some large wet leaves from another bowl and plastered them onto his head, covering the large bump just above his forehead. “I’m just tired of being worried and afraid for you. If you would at least let me spot you, I would feel better about watching you jump off a cliff and try to do the impossible. Did I miss anything?”

“Try to use your psychic powers to heal this,” he replied, pointing to a cut on his lip.

She made a face. Rohen had taught her so much about using her psychic powers, but healing was the one area where she just could not make much progress. She placed two of her fingers very gently on his split lip and focused. She pictured the cut closing without a scab or scar. When her head began to ache she pulled away and examined her handiwork. The cut had closed, but a soft scab still lingered on his lip. She sighed in disappointment.

“How did you do?” Rohen asked. It doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“It’s scabbed over, but the scab is young, so be careful not to split it open again.” Galen gave the cut a get-better kiss, then jumped to her feet.

Rohen smiled up at her. “All right. I’ll let you cover me, but you have to let me keep trying. And no more whining.”

Galen smiled back. It wasn’t exactly what she wanted, but it was more than she expected to get. At least she could keep him from head-butting the waterfall again. “It’s a deal. But you can’t go back until your arm is better. That will take at least a week if you don’t have Druid Tean take care of it.” She picked up the bowls and bottles scattered around the floor.

“Firefly, there’s no need for that. It’s only sprained.”

“I didn’t get to finish all the cherries. Would you like some cherry cobbler tonight?” Galen asked sweetly.

Rohen licked his lips. “That would be heavenly.”

“Then you’ll stay away from the swimming hole until your arm is better.” She carried her things into the kitchen, a tiny smile on her face.

“That’s not fair!”

 


 

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