In Ruxalia, solitude was death. But Firu, who was no gambler, walked alone and did not fear. She was unarmed, her burden light, her step steady and untroubled despite the bitter wind.
And when the shadows of the trees bent toward her in the dimming light and quiet enveloped her in an icy cloak, she bared her teeth in a smile.
“Come,” she murmured.
No response materialized, save for the whisper of her own breath escaping her lips in a puff of white. Above her, bare branches leaned down in a half-formed embrace. She stretched her arms out as if to welcome them. Closed her eyes.
She spoke again, louder this time. “I know you’re there.”
They had followed her across the frozen rivers and through the tangled dark forests of the eastern hills. Common bandits, she had thought at first, but bandits would not have been so persistent, and the border watch would not have been so obvious or inefficient. In the end she’d taken pity on them, if only out of curiosity, and slowed her pace.
Only idiots would have kept following her after that.
Idiots with purpose.
Sure enough, this time they took the bait. Footsteps crunched against the snow, stopping a careful distance away.
A woman’s voice rang out, marked with a regional accent Firu could not place.
“We know why you’ve come north, outlander!”
Firu bit back a snort. “Do tell. I hardly know myself.”
She’d not questioned her summons, nor had she bothered to figure out the reasons for it. Quicker to find out in person. So she’d dropped everything and come running north at once like some obedient dog, though it had been years since she last stepped foot in Ruxalia, and she hadn’t planned on amending that for another few years yet.
“Don’t play the fool!”
She was familiar enough with northern humor to have to stop and consider if this was their idea of a joke.
“What do you want?”
This time, it was a man who spoke. “Give us the Seal!”
Despite herself, Firu’s heart skipped a beat. All her senses drew into focus.
But even with her back turned, she refused to let her surprise show.
“The Seal?” she repeated.
The wind rose and fell in response to her voice.
“We know you’ve found it! Now hand it over!”
“Hmm. And if I don’t?”
“You’re alone,” growled the woman, as if that were reason enough.
Firu had heard enough.
She unstrapped the pack from her back. Dropped it. Raised her gloved hands, took a deep breath, and turned. The air around her grew cold and still, but she barely noticed it over the flush of her own skin. One woman brandishing an Imperial blade. A bowman, arrow notched and pointed. And a third man with a five-armed cross inked on his cheek.
“Good,” said the man with the cross mark, stepping forward. Same one who had spoken before. The leader? “Now —”
Firu launched herself forward. The other man crumpled to the ground with a smoking hole in his chest, bow and arrow burning to ash beside him.
The woman howled, brought her sword swinging down before crumpling as well.
Leaving the marked man, who stood gaping as Firu skidded to a stop. Bright flame leaped and danced along her outstretched arms. She grinned and took a step toward him.
“Oh great merciful Satos, who has seen into the Void,” the man muttered, eyes wide with fear and bewilderment. “My lord, lend me your strength…”
He raised his own arms and a slushy wave of water slid from his fingertips and arced through the air to bind her.
Firu frowned. Batted away the slush. The flames surrounding her arms hissed, but did not expire.
She took another step forward.
He backed away, but she took yet another step, and the distance between them closed entirely.
“So. Who’s Satos?”
“None of your business, outlander!”
“I’m afraid you’ve made it my business.” She pointed two fingers at his heart.
Strange that they hadn’t ambushed her until now. Incompetent as they were, they must have been confident in their numbers, and Firu had dangled openings at them even a cannier merc would have taken advantage of.
Beads of sweat ran down the man’s face as he eyed her flaming fingers, but he remained silent.
There was something wrong with his elemental signature. Weak as he was, she should have sensed his affinity long ago.
But she had not identified any of her stalkers as casters. And even now, her reading of him was of one who had never manifested.
“Too bad,” said Firu. “I don’t have this Seal of yours. Whatever it is.”
That, at least, got a reaction from him.
“You lie! They told us! She said the Keepers —”
Firu tensed again. The man’s protest turned into a strangled yelp as one of her flames licked too close and singed his cloak.
“Keepers?” she murmured, the corner of her mouth twisting into a wry smile. “Never heard of them.” Then, rifling through his clothes with her free hand, she said, “So who sent you? The League? The Empire? The IMA? Or this Satos fellow?”
“Lord Satos is all-knowing… all-powerful…” babbled the man. “I do not fear you! I do not fear death. For we are the chosen. We shall be reborn…”
Foreign backing was unlikely. Ruxalians were, all in all, an insular people.
Which also meant it was unusual for unorthodox cults to take root.
Not that Firu believed for one moment that this was just some simple cult.
“Is Satos the one who told you about the Seal?”
“It is the key to everything! The end, and the beginning —”
Waste of time. She clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere with this one. Might’ve been easier to intimidate one of the other two, but just as likely they knew nothing at all either.
If it weren’t for the summons, she’d spare him, track him back to whomever he reported to. No time for that now, though. And she wasn’t about to take the risk of leaving behind loose ends.
Firu focused fire to the tips of her fingers, preparing to thrust.
Only for pain to explode through her entire body.
She screamed, but no sound came from her throat. A suffocating white light swept over the clearing, wiping all else from sight.
She floated away from herself, feeling neither hot nor cold, neither hollow nor substantive. Dancing through a shimmering kaleidoscope of color, an unrelenting storm of light that stretched on forever and into nothing.
It was so beautiful.
So beautiful, and yet so utterly terrifying.
Everything hurt. Hurt so much.
Tears streamed down her face, flying and whirling into the vastness. She wanted to die. She could not die.
Through the haze she made out a tall figure through the haze standing at the center of the storm, eyes glowing even brighter than everything else, hair whipping out in strands of pure power.
In the figure’s hands was a single bright sword, blinding to look upon, and yet drawing the gaze nonetheless.
“Celise?” she moaned, barely conscious of what she spoke or screamed. “Please…”
But the figure did not turn, did not respond.
“Celise,” she whispered again, pushing against the light, and lost the last of her grip on herself.
Everything was color.
Firu blinked. Lowered her arms in the sudden stillness.
Realized she’d slumped to the ground and had been trying to claw out her own eyes.
Her skin still prickled, and when she tried to rise, her limbs refused to hold her weight and she felt as if her flesh would slide right off her bones.
Instead she turned her head, surveying the scene. Her pack was intact, but the bodies of the woman and the archer had disappeared, as had the tattooed caster, and the smell of seared flesh no longer clung to the air. The snow on the ground remained pristine, untouched, save for the footprints she and her accosters had left.
The only evidence they had ever been there.
Her surroundings were cast in an eerie deep blue. The gibbous moon glimmered hazily above the treeline. The meager fire element she had drawn on had long swirled away to rejoin the powerstreams, yet even so it seemed terribly cold.
Firu took a deep breath. Then another. Forced herself to stand. Brushed herself off and gingerly picked up her pack. Regathered her hair with a spare tie she found in her pockets and drew her hood back up. Almost laughed out loud when she realized there was no grime on her gloves either.
A quick probe of the area revealed no other signatures.
But that was only to be expected. She’d gone to a fair bit of trouble just to make sure no other casters were in the vicinity when she confronted those goons.
“Dammit Celise,” she said, just barely keeping her voice steady. “Whatever the hell you’re up to, it’s not funny.”
There was no response.
Dread welled in her chest, but she shoved it back down.
She closed her eyes. Released more of her power, letting it drain away so that her own signature would remain camouflaged as well. Reoriented herself.
She’d taken only a few steps before she realized how ridiculous she was being. Even under normal circumstances, Ruxalian winters were not kind to those of her affinity. With the amount of energy and control she had to exert to keep herself in balance with her surroundings, she’d be dead long before she reached the safehouse if she continued on like this.
No matter what, her first priority was to meet up with the others.
But the moment she relaxed her control, a woman’s scream pierced through the night.
* * *