Authors: Maya Michaels
Copyright 2015 by Maya Michaels. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information retrieval or storage system, without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
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Cha, Republic of Lawan, 10 years ago
A blond child floated erratically inside a fiery orb. Iduna wished she could do as Sensei Angko asked. It was blistering hot inside the whirling fireball. The fire around her pulsed in and out, fast and fickle, as if Iduna were trapped in the chambers of her own frantic heart.
Through the flames she could see her classmates gathered in the rock garden studying her with detachment. They looked like smaller versions of the calm adults she’d seen throughout Lawan.
But she saw more.
She felt more.
Beneath the thin veil of her classmates’ serenity, she could feel their jealousy, fear, and worry.
The situation must look pretty bad.
She was here at the Institute to become a wizard. At least that had been the idea. Wizards didn’t have emotions. She’d have to leave the Institute, her only home.
A sudden doubling in the size of the fireball made her gasp and wobble in the air. If it could expand that quickly, it could contract back in on her just as fast.
Her pulse raced, and the fire grew hotter.
Sweat ran down her face and pearled together at her chin, hanging there in the long stretched-out seconds of her panic. When the drop fell, it evaporated in a small poof of steam as it hit the flames below her. The air inside the sphere of fire smelled of singed hair and sweat.
She could feel her fear growing ever larger, ever stronger.
She couldn’t stop it.
She looked around in panic at her classmates and teacher.
“Run away!” she yelled, but her screams were muffled by flames, and nobody moved. She couldn’t control it. She was going to kill all these people. She kept yelling, hoping they would get to safety. It was her worst nightmare.
A small rock hurled through the air, penetrating her fire bubble, and hammered into her right temple.
Everything went black.
Sensei Angko, the Head Spellcrafter of Lawan, scooped up Iduna and carried her in his arms across the rock garden, his orange robe billowing behind him. He looked like a frail old man with closely cropped gray hair and a tall, lean build, but he carried her easily and surely over the pebbles, rocks, and shifting sands.
Tinh, a young boy and one of Iduna’s classmates, trailed along after Angko, peppering the teacher with questions.
“Will she be okay? Where are you taking her?”
Angko wished it had not been necessary to hurt the Iduna, but she had failed to dominate the flames, leaving him few options. He was not going to watch her die. He would most likely spend hours in conversation with his fellow council members, discussing his actions as they considered what else he could have done, but it was worth it. She would live.
“I am taking her to our healers where they will make sure she is okay. Iduna will get a little rest.”
They left the rock garden and were now in the main part of the Institute. The golden spires contained the wizards of Lawan and was their center of magic and learning.
Angko knew these corridors and halls well enough to walk them in darkness or in sleep. He looked down at Iduna’s face as he kept moving. The child’s white hair was drenched with sweat from the heat of the fire combined with her own emotional excesses. Long ears with the characteristic point of her parents’ people, the Snow Elves of Ull, peeked out at him from her matted mane. A small trail of blood flowed from the surface gash left by the rock.
“When will she come back to class? Why did her spell have fire? Can she stay an Elementalist?” Tinh asked.
Angko had almost hoped she would be an Elementalist, as were the majority of wizards at the Institute. Her path would be hard, but they needed her.
“No, Tinh. She will be a Spellcrafter.”
Gaelen, present day
The people of Castle Gaelen would hide no longer.
The castle lay in a wide verdant valley surrounded by mist-covered mountains. The drawbridge was down, and a small group of mounted men in armor crossed over, leaving the protective walls behind. They were going out to meet the Ull warriors who surrounded their castle.
Aengus of Gerik, King of Gaelen, was dressed in fine plate gilded with silver and gold and was accompanied by his greatest knights. The family banner, a green field with an eagle flying, proclaimed their proud heritage.
The king's steward, Seamus of Kerister, stood tall in his saddle by the king’s side. Seamus was an impressive figure; his flaming red beard, authoritative stance, and strong high-boned nose made him stand out among the armored men. He had served Castle Gaelen since being placed with the Gerik family for training when he was just a boy. Now he was a feared man, but a fair one. He'd overseen battles and the estates—he was a force to be reckoned with.
Despite himself, his left hand shook lightly, causing his stallion to lift a hoof out of time with their advancing contingent. The opposing line of warriors were the nightmare he'd been having for the last month, as the inevitable moved ever closer. The Ull force was enormous, with warriors surrounding the castle and winding up the road leading southward out of the valley.
All of Gaelen had known of the horde's relentless sweep through the country to the north of them and feared the day when evidence of the first burning pyre had reported the horde's turn toward Gaelen. No mountain, no matter how tall; no glacier, no matter how wide; had stopped their progression.
Seamus thought of his wife and daughter in the stone tower behind him to the left, imagined them watching him with hope and hunger. Watching his family starve had been like being pummeled endlessly. He would have preferred physical torment. One he could fight. He stiffened, rising taller. They were doing the right thing.
One by one, villages had fallen to the horde as the Ull moved southward through the chain of valleys. Battles had been fought, but all in vain. Hunger was the slow killer of everyone else. Seamus hoped that the souls of his fallen brethren lay peaceful in the halls of Yorin. They deserved honor, not this slow, withering death. If they were successful here today, came to terms with Vilir of Ull, leader of this horde, then, at the least, the people of Gaelen would have their lives.
Seamus looked over his left shoulder. His wife had discovered they were with child again the same day the first pyre had been lit. She hoped for another girl. He hoped the child would be born and perhaps even live long enough to see Gaelen return to the land Seamus loved.
He pulled his horse to a halt as the king and his men reached the middle of the field between the castle and the front line of the horde. The king's men stretched ten men deep and ten men wide. It was more a show of pageantry and honor rather than a force of men who could actually affect any outcome if the horde decided to attack. Without any visible communication between the two men, the king and steward nudged their horses forward and took the last few steps so that they were out in front, ready to meet Vilir.
Surely Seamus was imagining it, but, standing closer to the Ull warriors, the air felt heavy and thick. It made no sense. There was a stealthy wind moving across the plain, pulling the fog from the mountains and sweeping it through the field. The silence was only broken by creaking stirrups, jangling horse bits, and flapping banners. Seamus felt bits of dew settle on his beard, the moist air gathering around them. As the morning went on, the sun would eventually fight to break through the clouds, though, this time of year, that particular battle would wage until sunset.
There was nothing to do but wait.
An hour later, Seamus lifted slightly in his saddle. Seemingly in response, the close ranks of the horde opened to show a man on a horse who could only be Vilir. He was a blond bear of a man, grizzled and hardened by countless fights in his youth. His height and width made him seem double the size of an ordinary man. His hair blew wild around his bearded face. Blue eyes, so light they were practically white, shone with ferocity and the desire to dominate.
Vilir advanced and his entire army moved in step behind him.
Seamus watched them and had the unsettling feeling that the earth was shifting. To his side, the king remained stalwart and apparently unaffected. Aengus had always impressed Seamus, from the days when they had trained together as boys and through his years as a ruler. This day was no different.
“You are defeated,” Vilir said.
“I am here to discuss terms of surrender,” Aengus replied.
“I want to meet your priest,” Vilir demanded.
Horses shuffled and brows rose. Perhaps they would get out of this easier than they thought. In truth, they knew nothing of what the Ull wanted. This could just be some religiously motivated invasion.
Aengus stared at Vilir for a few minutes, and then he gave the order to have their priest brought out.
The grey haired priest cloaked in brown robes walked onto the field, flanked by three men on each side. Seamus thought that, if not for the priest’s surroundings, he looked like a man out for an early morning walk. In fact Father Oisin used to perform his meditative walk in these fields each morning before the siege. He had an open face with kind brown eyes. Seeing Oisin here made Seamus feel better despite the situation. This priest just had that ability. He had performed marriage rites for almost everyone at the castle and had blessed their children. Oisin had been trained in the healing magic of their land, a magic that drew on the fertile earth to heal. It was of no use in a fight, but Seamus couldn’t regret it as he looked at Oisin and remembered all the lives he’d saved.
“Here is our priest. He is a kind man. What do you want?” Aengus asked.
Vilir glared down at Oisin.
“Kind men have no place in this world. There is no mercy. There is no weakness. There is only strength. My strength. My power that comes from the passion within me. You will learn this now.” Vilir raised his thickly corded arms and clenched his fists. The mists gathered rapidly into a ball of darkness. Seamus felt a deep hum throb through the air around him. The wall of warriors behind Vilir swept forward and engulfed them all.
No person was spared.
Cha, Republic of Lawan
The sunrise painted the tall spires and steep roofs of Cha with gold and streamed rays of light into the courtyard where Iduna sat on her heels. A terraced fountain bubbled in the center of the small square garden, adding to the atmosphere of pervasive tranquility.
A small swirling sphere of water hovered above Iduna’s loosely cupped hands. Currents of wind and water flowed smooth and slow. Her forehead was serene and her posture as if a string were pulling the crown of her head to the sky. Thoughts meandered in her mind, clear and easy. Energy emanated from her, causing her white hair to float and glow with the color of luminescent pearls. Her orange robe rippled lightly as if waves of static energy ran over it.
The morning gong began to ring a hollow, somber tone. Its deep echoing call ran through the corridors and into the courtyard. She slowed the water in her hands to a gradual stop, and her eyes opened to reveal a bright blue gaze.
Arising, she walked to the fountain and poured the water from her cupped hands back to its source. She stretched her arms over her head and gently arched backward to gaze above, reaching nimbly for and peering softly up to the cloudless sky. The rainy season had passed, and it would be a warm spring day. Closing her eyes, she brought her steepled hands to her lips and pressed her palms together, chanting in a humming whisper. With the last tremor of the gong, she sighed. It was time to go.
The open-air corridors of the Institute were full of other wizards going to break the fast as she was or acolytes going to sessions on sparring, meditating, chanting, or casting spells. The morning meal sent smells of the customary warm, sticky rice and salty broth, subtle and comforting, wafting through the halls. Acolytes brushed by her in their rush. She never tired of seeing them and their palpable energy. They were an inspiration and a reminder of her early days of training.
When she was halfway to the dining hall, she picked up her pace. She needed to visit the kitchens before the morning meal.
She entered the kitchens through the side door which allowed for a discreet entrance. She’d used it often as a child. Iduna’s parents had died eleven years ago when she was eight, and she'd been raised in the Institute. Unlike the other acolytes who spent time with family members on various holidays, she never left but lived at the Institute year-round, through the two months of the rainy season that was winter and the long dry months of the Lawan summer.
The silence in the kitchen was absolute.
All the workers in the kitchen stood as still as statues. It was the key moment when the aged Surat—head cook and a force stronger than any magic Iduna had ever seen—decided whether there would be a warm breakfast or everyone would eat stale rice crackers. Surat raised a wooden spoon to her thin lips and slurped the rice porridge that bubbled in the large iron pot beside her. A young acolyte stood by with head bowed and the tendons in her arms showing as she twisted the towel in her hands. Iduna knew how the girl felt. People were eager to please Surat; the cook had high expectations, and most found they aimed to meet them.
“Good enough. Breakfast is ready,” Surat said. A palpable wave of relief swept through the room, and everyone returned to their tasks.
The large wooden block of a counter had rows and rows of assorted bowls filled with shredded ginger, parsley, and sliced pork. Trays of soft-boiled eggs were being carried to the tables in the dining hall. With everything in order, Surat turned her attention to Iduna.
“Good morning, Mistress Iduna,” Surat said with a shallow bow which Iduna returned. “What brings you here today?”
“You know,” Iduna said. She pulled a wrapped package from one of the many pockets in her robe and stretched out her arm to Surat. “It’s your birthday.”
Surat’s eyes lit up, and her mouth spread into a large smile that was rare in the kitchen, despite the deep lines in her face that could only come from a life of many smiles. Surat took the package and opened it with hands crisscrossed with faint scars from the inevitable slips during dicing and chopping. Inside the package was a small pile of red, star-shaped peppers. Surat gasped. “Where did you get these?”
“Oh, here and there.” It had required a trip to the southern border, but the light in Surat’s eyes was worth every bruise from the saddle. Iduna wasn’t used to riding much these days. She traveled less and less often while her work unraveling the mysteries of the Advanced Spells became more serious.
“You never tell me how you find the exotic foods or where.” Surat pretended a slight annoyance, zinging Iduna with a sharp snap of her towel and laughing when Iduna caught the towel with a wizard’s swift reflexes. Surat turned to order an acolyte to get the empty bowls from the dining hall. Her task accomplished, Iduna left without a word. Surat was used to the brisk manner of the wizards of Lawan.
After the mouthwatering savory smells of the kitchen, Iduna was looking forward to her morning meal. Just as Iduna sat down at the long dining table before a steaming bowl full of food that made her mouth water, an acolyte rushed up and tapped her shoulder. He was slightly out of breath and looked about ten years old.
“Mistress Iduna, there's an important meeting with Lady Harmazd in the Sun Chamber.”
“Indeed, Hu, when is the meeting?” she asked.
“Right now. Immediately. I can take you there,” Hu said.
“Thank you. I will find my way,” she said while trying to slow him down. Youthful energy needed to be channeled into the Path. She encouraged him with the words “The calm moon shines.”
Hu bowed before he walked slowly toward the chanting hall. Leaving her breakfast with a small twinge of regret, she strode down the corridors mindfully. She needed to make sure she kept as calm as possible. Even seeing Surat’s smile was enough to make average spells impossible for her.
She entered the Sun Chamber to find Lady Harmazd, the head of the Institute, with three others. Iduna knew two of them. Sensei Angko and Sensei Reza were the heads of the two schools of magic that made up the Institute. The Lady’s third guest was unknown to Iduna.
This was serious. The council getting together and inviting someone to their meeting was a rarity.
Sensei Somchai Angko was the Head Spellcrafter and, as such, her supervisor. He was cleaning his half-moon spectacles with a kerchief he'd pulled from the pocket of his orange robe. His light gray hair contrasted sharply with his naturally tan skin. He looked up at her with a wink of his almond-brown eyes.
Sensei Reza was a short, bald, and serene man wearing the characteristic deep-crimson robe of the Elementalists. He was the Head Elementalist, and Iduna saw him only rarely these days, though she had spent time under his tutelage when she was very young.
Lawan was a quiet country which valued tranquility and the fine art of magic. There were two schools of magic based in the capital of Cha. Masters of the Elementalist school were able to manipulate one element at a time, while the Spellcrafters were able to use more than one element to achieve their goals. Both schools were at the heart of the fine arts culture of Lawan, but they were also used as a military force. The differences between the two schools were always a source of tension. When Iduna had inadvertently combined air and flame to create a fiery bubble when she was a nine, she was put in the Spellcrafter camp. However, her emotional lapses when she was young, which the instructors blamed on her heritage, had complicated the matter. Sensei Angko had suffered the effects of many of her “emotional lapses,” but, with time, had brought her onto the Path. She now enjoyed a life of serenity and intellectual pursuit.
The Sun Chamber was round with a glass dome, creating plenty of light on a sunny day such as today. Harmazd, Angko, and Reza were perusing a map spread across a large circular table. Concluding their discussion, they turned to her.
“Good morning, Mistress,” Lady Harmazd said.
“And to you, Lady Harmazd. How can I be of service?” Iduna asked.
“I'm afraid we have troubling news to discuss.” Lady Harmazd turned to the stranger in the room. “Secretary Thaksin, this is the Spellcrafter we spoke of, Mistress Iduna Lodindotter.”
Iduna’s impression of the importance of this meeting grew. The family name of a young wizard was rarely used and even less often with people outside the Institute. After bows were exchanged, Lady Harmazd continued. “Please, everyone, have a seat.” Harmazd gestured to the plush gold-colored cushions arranged in a half circle, facing the large fireplace. As they moved to sit, a servant placed a tea setting on the low table in front of them. The scents of cinnamon and oranges wafted through the room. Harmazd sat between Angko and Reza, which was only appropriate since her role was to supervise the two and serve as a bridge from their disparate fields. Secretary of Defense Thaksin sat at one wing, and Iduna settled gracefully on his other side. Her hands rested lightly in her lap. After the servant left, Secretary Thaksin spoke.
“Gaelen is silent. The last message we received indicated that the Ull were advancing into their lands. Ever since the Ull had adopted military rule last year, their society appears to have become barbaric and is now expanding.” Thaksin explained further, “We do not know why, how far they intend to go, or how large a threat they represent.” He paused, contemplating.
“It seems there is much that we do not know,” Angko said, replacing his spectacles on the bridge of his narrow nose.
“We have been thinking about how we can learn more”—Harmazd alternated making eye contact with Angko and Reza—“and how Mistress Iduna is particularly suited to this situation.”
Her statement met unresponsive faces. An amount of time was allowed to pass, which permitted everyone a moment to think and room for anyone’s voice to be heard.
“Perhaps someone with more concrete experience with the world than Iduna would be more suited,” Reza offered.
“Mistress Iduna knows plenty about the world. She has had years of study and traveled with her parents who were traders when she was much younger. She was the best Spellcrafter of her class,” Angko said. “She was also born of Ull parents and is pure Ull.”
“Spells learned from books and done in the Institute are one thing,” Reza began. “Executing them in the real world, and when it counts, is another. On top of that, I'm not sure we should be drawing the attention of the Ull to us.” Reza moved to shift beyond the iconic differences between the two schools and to rest his argument on something new. “If we seek out the Ull, we may turn their sights on us.”
The words hovered, and everyone turned to the tea setting in front of them. As the youngest, Iduna moved to do the serving. Steam rose as she poured tea into each of the small blue porcelain cups. Settling back, they all sipped quietly.
Lady Harmazd looked between the two Sensei and inclined her head slightly to Angko before turning to nod at the Secretary of Defense.
“Your opinion is important to us,” Thaksin acknowledged, clearly realizing that he was quickly becoming hamstrung. Reza was an important leader. “We'll deliberate more. I'm sorry, Mistress Iduna. Your presence here was impetuous on my part. We'll call on you if we decide to send you out. Stay close and ready.”
His words and the quick change in direction confused her. Everyone stood and went their separate ways. Sensei Angko walked along with her a few paces. He carried a cane these days, and she slowed her pace.
“You look well,” Angko said.
“Thank you, Sensei. I am well. How are you?” Iduna asked.
He shrugged. “Not much changes when you are my age.” His eyes scrunched with humor. “The recent events do raise some questions.”
“Such as?” she asked and was relieved that he thought so as well. Leaving a threat to their country unexplored seemed unwise in her opinion.
“How are you progressing in the Path?” Angko asked in reply.
“I am full of peace.”
They walked in step around the courtyard now, her arms tucked into the sleeves of her robe.
“Are you sure it is peace that you feel?” Angko asked.
“I am calm, and my feelings are like flutters of a light wind.”
“Are you able to cast the Advanced Spells?” His words cut to the point.
She sighed. “No.” She had actually tried just last week. With years of serenity training, she had hoped that, by clearing away the remaining stirrings of her emotions, she would be able to cast the Advanced Spells. Supreme calm was required to be successful. She knew the words by heart, but they remained a mystery. She was still young yet, just having reached her nineteenth birthday, but most wizards showed their full potential by then.
“You know the spells. You can do them. You just need to resolve the problem that your passion causes you.” Angko’s words were encouraging and discouraging in equal measures.
“I don't feel the passion and excitability that I used to.”
It was Angko's turn to sigh. “In the days ahead, we may have need of a Spellcrafter with abilities not seen for centuries.” He let the words hang in the air.
Her mind worked through the various puzzling levels of meaning set forth in the formal meeting and now in this conversation.
Interrupting her thoughts, he said, “Keep an open mind.”
He turned to face her, and she mimicked his movement with just a slight delay. They bowed to each other slowly. When Angko straightened, he said, “Take care, little one,” and turned to walk down the corridor, his cane making a slow series of clicks that trailed away with him.