Old Friends: Purity teaser

“I do not want to kill you, Heinrich,” he breathed. His hair was tousled around his shoulder, spilling over Heinrich’s wet snout. The wolf was panting heavily from their short battle. The hot dog breath made Fane wrinkle his nose, and he could feel the ribs moving beneath him as the lungs made an effort to breathe.

Heinrich growled. Fane didn’t understand what he was trying to say.

They remained that way, trapped on the forest floor as the strigoi morţi and vârcolaci around them slashed and snarled at each other. An echoing boom made the trees shake and the reek of gunpowder suddenly tore through the cool calm of rain.

Distracted, Fane glanced up. The movement tore at the scratches on his chest, and he inhaled sharply against the pain. Before he could look around to see who had fired the gun—honestly, the fight had only just started—Heinrich snarled and kicked him off.

Fane tumbled back and rolled down a slight slope, coming to rest at the base of a large evergreen. Woozy, he pushed off the leaves and onto his fingers and toes, squinting through the dark.

Heinrich stalked toward him, tail swishing in the dirt. His lips pulled back from his long, filthy teeth as a low growl issued up from his throat.

Fane stared, waiting.

Saliva dripped from the fangs. Deadly teeth in a powerful jaw, ready to snap. Sharp claws, already proved to draw blood even from a vampires. Heavy yet agile. Fane was almost intimidated. Werewolves were worthy foes.

Or at least, Heinrich Abendroth was a worthy foe.

Just as the wolf was about to pounce again, Fane lunged and grappled him to the ground. The rain was picking up, washing the dirt and blood from flesh and fur. Heavy, muscled legs thrashed out, slicing claws in all directions. Fane snarled and rolled to the side to grab Heinrich’s flailing legs; the wolf’s filthy, matted fur pressed into the open wounds on Fane’s chest, making the jagged edges sting.

Heinrich wriggled away and snapped his drooling fangs at his opponent. Pain blossomed in Fane’s shoulder; thick blood pooled down his flesh and ruined shirt.

He had not been bested in a true fight in years, not since the 1970s, when he had been briefly killed by his father’s former friend, mind lost.

He leaped forward, batting Heinrich’s sharp claws and bloodstained maw out of the way. The wolf roared, but Fane dodged his next attack by feigning to the left, and leaped at his object of desire: his black frock coat, cast so carelessly on the leafy carpet, soaked by the waterfall of raindrops. In one quick motion, he bent and swiped up his coat, unearthed his revolver, clicked back the hammer, and aimed it at the approaching vârcolac.

Heinrich stopped.

“Silver alloy ammunition, Heinrich,” he hissed.

All around them, the strigoi morţi and vârcolaci still fought with snarls and awry gunshots, oblivious to their leaders’ halt. Rain soaked his hair, his shirt, watering down the coagulated blood on his chest and shoulder and sending it in thin rivulets down his stiff body.

The wolf stared at him, tail swishing over the damp leaves.

“Take one more step toward me and it shall be your last. That is a promise, Heinrich. You know I do not make empty promises.”

Cowardice: Purity teaser

Crispin Kramer would not be one to call himself a coward. But when he had seen Evangeline Moreau picking wildflowers a few kilometres away from Le Vallon, prickly fear had instantly overwhelmed him.

That fear had turned into outright panic when Belle Baudelaire leaned in close to his hear and whispered, “Why not kill her, Crispin? Write a message in her blood. Heinrich would be proud.”

He didn’t want to tell her what he thought. He was sure Heinrich already doubted him, and sent him as the leader of the revolt in Auvergne to test his loyalties. Heinrich Abendroth was no fool. Crispin figured he was a genius, but of the unhinged, unstable variety.

Outright panic turned into sweaty palms and shallow breaths when Samantha Boulanger and Genji Lee captured Moreau with ease and brought her to the rebels.

When that goddamned harlot Baudelaire circled him with that dark gaze on him, silently taunted him. When Ivan Petrov and his wife, Katarzyna, cooed taunts in English and Russian, prodding their prisoner and scratching her unmarked skin.

And when he felt a hand slide slowly up his back and curl over his shoulder, and when he felt breath touch his face when Belle murmured, “Kill her, Crispin. Show the Arsenaults just who they’re dealing with.”

He couldn’t bear to look at Moreau. He could hear her stifled cries, her desperate pleas in a choked mixture of English and French. And when she struggled against her captors, Regina Carter had viciously slapped her, hard enough to shut her up and make Manfred Gottschalk grunt something about how pitiful the Arsenaults truly were.

Standing still, unable to move or speak, Crispin had done nothing when the aptly named Jezebel Baudelaire slithered up to him and lightly touched his cheek, grazing his skin with her pointed nails.

“You can’t do it?” she had purred, giving him a particular pouting look that every man—even Heinrich Abendroth—melt and become a doting puppy to her every whim. “Too bad.”

And sweaty palms, shallow breaths, terror at what in the hell he was doing—it all became an indifferent haze when Belle ruthlessly kicked down Evangeline Moreau and crushed her skull with a single well-aimed stomp.

While everyone else hooted and laughed at the grotesque execution, Crispin had been the only one to spot Evangeline’s husband, Claude, near a copse of trees in the near distance.

He had witnessed the entire thing.

Belle spotted him next. Crispin, along with Samantha, Regina, Katarzyna, Ivan, and Iris Santos, waited at their makeshift camp as the others—Belle, Manfred, Genji, and Alex Hanson—stalked up to the panic-stricken Claude in hopes of giving him the same ending as his wife.

But while Manfred managed to cut Moreau’s chest, he escaped.

And now, after waiting until day broke to launch the official attack on Le Vallon, Crispin sat on a hill overlooking the town, watching as the nine under his command shrieked and shouted and destroyed everything they could.

War Triage: Changeling teaser

The wounds were gruesome. One man was peppered with arrows; the shafts protruded from him like the spines of a porcupine. I had my doubts that he would survive, but kept quiet as the oldest squire led me around the makeshift triage. Burns were by far the most common injury. Men with fifty percent or more of their body covered in deep-tissue burns were already separated to their own section, just inside the treeline; those with a better chance of survival were kept with men with nonfatal stab wounds or slashes. I kept my face carefully composed as I surveyed the injuries. Burns from fire, ice, and electricity: they were all painful to look at, and most of those with terrible patches had already been sedated with, from what I could tell by watching one squire dole out a measure to a soldier, obscene amounts of opium.

The squire, a comely lad of about seventeen or so, peered up at me with desperate, round eyes as he finished leading me around the hospital. “Well, mum? What d’you think?”

I sighed and began to roll up the sleeves of my homespun tunic. “Separate magical wounds from tangible, and those with lesser severity from those who are on death’s door,” I ordered, pushing my wet hair from my cheeks. “Have some of the younger squires with little medical training to help the men with few, nonfatal wounds; we might be able to put them back on the battle right away if need be. Nonfatal magical wounds, there is little we can do right now—”

“Sorry, mum, but one of the men, he said you was from the mountains?”

I exhaled shortly and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Yes. I am. But I am reserving my skills for those with dreadful wounds, both magical and tangible. Nonfatal wounds are not delightful, certainly, but they will at least be survived. I will need as many hands helping me as possible, until Lord Hession returns from the battle to assist. Fetch some of the more capable squires.”

The boy nodded and hurried away to do my bidding, leaving me to make some quick decisions regarding the lives of several Nallisian and Syllian soldiers. The one drenched with arrows would have to be put down to keep him from suffering too much longer; none of us would be able to keep up with the demands of so many separate wounds. A few of the men with burns didn’t have much of a chance; neither did the one with no obvious external injuries save for an ashen pallor that made it clear he had been partially devoured by revenants.

“All right, let’s get down to it,” I muttered, and brought to my fingers a healing ward. I crouched beside the man with arrows and lightly touched his shoulder. “I am so sorry.”

He smiled weakly; blood stained the corners of his mouth, and his breathing was gurgled and laboured. “I died serving my king, Lady Healer. Make it quick.”

War Council: Changeling teaser

It was the second hour of the meeting when Alistair’s presence was finally acknowledged. Yes, he was there because his father had died and he was the new Nallisian monarch, but the only official ceremony he needed was a coronation, especially during a war. They could have managed the meeting just fine without him.

“Now we can send more help to Syllan!” the Lounian ambassador shouted, louder than those around him with a thick accent. “Montfort and Loun are no longer threatened by such danger as—”

“You trust the end of that blockade?” someone else shrieked. “It was a pirate—”

Quite abruptly, one of the ambassadors—Alistair had no idea where from—stood from his seat and slammed his hands on the tabletop. The room fell quiet, and the air around him crackled with suppressed fury. Lips pressed in a thin line, he pointed an accusing finger at the row of thrones and snarled, “Let him explain the goings-on of the embargo! Should we be concerned that Nallis will secede from the Kingdoms and make a partnership with the foulest land in Cyril?”

Alistair kept from rolling his eyes at the melodrama. Other voices rose up in protest, accusing him of joining hands with a pirate and selling the soul of Nallis; the ambassador lowered his hand, smiled smugly, and returned to his seat.

Queen Ailith cleared her throat and stood. It took a moment, but the anger of the crowd went from a bubbling froth to a simmer, waiting for a chance to explode again. Once it was relatively quiet, Ailith gestured to Alistair and said, voice echoing off the hall’s stone walls, “Before we accuse anyone, we will allow them to speak. King Alistair, will you explain to us why Captain Vincent Henson is claiming you and he are allied?”

With a sigh, Alistair stood and rested his hands on the railing before the thrones. First act of public speaking as king, and it was to explain his actions like a naughty child.

“I am certain many of you were here the last time I attended a war council, when Vincent Henson sent the allied cryonics here with an offer to stand down. I said then, and will reiterate now, that I spent time in his company during my captivity in the Gabal Mountains, and I know that he has the mind of a businessman. Offer him a suitable enticement, and he would end the blockade; offer him slightly more, and he would help us. He does not run on loyalties like we do; rather, he gives his help to the one who pays him the best.

“My opinions at that war council were scoffed at,” he added, remembering the day with distaste. “And it seemed you all decided to leave Montfort and Loun’s coastline to the fate handed to it by Vincent Henson. I returned to Syllan with my father, and the war continued as it had before, with no alterations despite our attempts in this chamber.

“Over a month ago, on the Syllan front, I received news that my father had been killed in an ambush in Galenor. My brother passed away last fall, leaving me heir to Nallis, and king I became after my father’s death. My first act as king was to send a letter to Captain Henson’s blockade, requesting his presence in Syllan. He obliged and left the embargo in the care of his right hand, Saeed Hartir.

“I offered him exactly what he wanted to hear, and what we should have done, as allies,” he emphasized, glaring down at the dignitaries gazing up at him in silence, “when the idea was first brought to us. I offered him a monetary sum and the removal of his outlawry in Nallis; in return, he ended the blockade and agreed to attack the coast of the Wynd. For as long as there is money left in our agreement, Canton and Nallis are allies.

“So yes, it is true what you have heard. I have made a contract with the pirate king of Canton, and thus ended the blockade of Loun, stopped the destruction of Montfort, given Syllan an opportunity to actually win a battle against the barbarians, and found a way to distract the Wynders and help the Galish loyalists recover and turn the tide of war in their favour. I have no intention on seceding from the Southern Kingdoms, and as for Canton being the foulest land in Cyril”—He shrugged, anger reaching a peak—“I can certainly think of worse places. Have any of you ever been to the Necropolis, or the unclaimed territories?”

The silence met his ears with a painful ringing, and he backed away from the railing, satisfied that he had made his point. With a frustrated snort, he sat back in the throne and crossed his arms, feeling rather like a petulant child.

Ailith gave him a long stare, face carefully composed to hide her thoughts, then stood once more and faced the council. “King Alistair has given his reasons as to his alliance with Captain Henson. We shall not discuss it now. This meeting shall be adjourned until further notice. Thank you all for joining us today.”

Alistair stood and bowed to her before the first ambassadors began to file from the room. “I appreciate your hospitality, Your Majesty,” he said, just loud enough that the others in the room could overhear if they so desired, “but I would rather not join another war council until after my coronation. My duties lay in Syllan—for now.”

Those sparkling green eyes remained on him for a moment, unblinking and impassive. Then a smile crossed her features and she held out a hand. Alistair took it and kissed the back. “I understand, King Alistair, and I thank you for gracing us with your presence for today, at least. You will send my regards to your sister?”

“Of course, my lady. She will be delighted to hear from you.” He bowed again, murmured meaningless farewells to the other monarchs, and left the chambers through the rear entrance.

He didn’t hesitate a moment when he returned to his borrowed chambers. Changing quickly into riding gear, he packed away the few supplies he brought with him, added extra food and drink, and collected his escorts before hurrying to the stables.

Maybe Aisling was right; maybe he could ease Nallis out of Helmene’s grip, and bring in a new age of independence with his magical inheritance.

But for now, he was just going to focus on staying alive and beating the barbarians in Syllan. Royal business could wait.

A Pirate’s Deal: Changeling teaser

No ruler of the Southern Kingdoms would offer a pirate money to join them. But Alistair Wymer was smarter than that. He would be Vincent’s key to wealth, and the tide of war would be turned in favour of the monarchs.

Only one ship remained, and it was trying to limp back to the boardwalk. Seeing the water around its hull stir unnaturally, Vincent called for his cannons to hold fire, then watched in curiosity as a neat little slip of water broke free of the rest and drifted across the deck. It began to float idly toward the Sophia; behind it, one final wave rose up, sparkling in the sunset, and crushed the last ship.

The water slip hovered a few metres above the main deck of the Sophia, and Vincent finally spotted the dark figures moving about inside. It splattered and the figures tumbled on the deck with a horrible thud, then the water dribbled back into the ocean.

Vincent arrived beside them just as Saeed did. Several of the crew gathered around, weapons unsheathed and pointed toward the five people sprawled on the damp wood.

“Hello!” he said with mock friendliness. “Welcome to the Sophia. I’m Captain Vincent Henson, at your service. You must be the Lounian cryonics. No other reason to save a few sailors, no matter how gifted.”

Three men and two women, soaked through and shivering. Though most seemed incapacitated by the fall, one of the women forced herself to sit up and gave him a menacing glare that almost made him take a step back. Wearing simple leather and chainmail armour, her hair was braided back and she had a sword on her hip—but it was the ice forming around the water on her hands that added to her threatening demeanour.

“Let us free or kill us, monster,” she snarled in a noticeable barbarian burr. “We would rather die than be your prisoners.”

“Good thing, too, because I don’t keep prisoners.” Vincent made a point of noticeably touching the hilt of his sword, and the other cryonics shrank back. The barbarian stayed strong; he wasn’t surprised, as they were renowned for their bravery and resilience. “I actually could use you first, though.”

“We’ll never fight for you!” one of the men shouted, his voice cracking on the second word.

Vincent smiled, and he saw Saeed roll his eyes. “Such bravery. Anyways, that’s not what I mean. I have no need for snow. In case you haven’t noticed, I make do just fine with water. I don’t imagine you fellows sit in on war meetings, but no doubt you can imagine how frustrated your superiors must be with this blockade. To only receive funds and supplies from land, when land is ravaged by war… no doubt your nobles are going without parties for the past few months. I’d actually like you to run a little errand for me.”

Saeed grunted and folded his arms over his chest. “Vincent,” he said warningly. “What are you up to?” He spoke in Krissen; much of the crew, and the cryonics, stared at him in confusion.

“I won’t get what I want without a little prodding, Saeed. You know that as well as I do. The faster this war ends, the quicker we can go home to Soph.” Vincent returned his gaze and smile to the five hunched on the deck before him. “I’m sure you blokes don’t want to be here. I know I don’t. But I made an agreement, and I am a man of my word. To a point.

“I can end the embargo at any time, and Loun can get its freight and supply its armies on the coasts. You could even assault the Wynd if you wanted. Not like it would do much against those cliffs, but without a blockade, the sky is the limit.”

“Make your point, Henson,” the barbarian snapped.

His smile grew and he rested his hands on his hips. “Fine, fine. I can end the blockade—but it won’t be free. I have an allegiance with Father Zdenek of the Gabal coven, and it won’t be easy to break my word. But it can happen.

“I need you to get a message to the war councils of Helmene and Nallis. I imagine they’re being held at Kelver Fortress. Helmene and Nallis are untouched by the war—so far—so it should be easy to get there. Let Queen Ailith and King Godric know what I want. Have a messenger come back with an answer. Meanwhile, I’ll be here.” He spread his arms, and knew they were painfully aware of the strength of his fleet, of how the Sophia was untouched. “I’ll keep up my end of Zdenek’s bargain until I know it’s worth ending the embargo. Understand?”

Using a staff of ice to support her, the barbarian stood and met his stare with one equally determined. “It seems we don’t have much of a choice.”

Vincent arched his brows and winked. “Not if you want to live.”

“It won’t work, Henson.”

“Then I suppose your side of the war is already lost. Have a safe trip. Saeed?”

Nodding, the big Krissen abruptly bundled them up in a sack of water and delivered them safely to the boardwalk. Once they were gone and the crew returned to their regular duties, Saeed sighed and touched his scars. “Are you certain this will work?”

“No. But we might as well get our point across early on. No point wasting our arms on people who could be our allies soon. Besides, I’m bored. This could shake things up a bit.”

“I doubt Helmene and Nallis will bow to you.”

“It might take a bit of time, but they’ll see that they need me gone in order to save their navies and stop a three-front war. The only way to do that is kill me or hire me, and I am very much alive. You’ll see. Monarchs pay well to win.”

We Shall Drive Them Back: Of the Arbour teaser

The wind whistled over the treetops, threatening to bow the ancient firs to the will of nature. Flakes of snow danced over their heads, clinging to the frost on their armour as they waited. They stood in the mouth of a mountain pass. Rocky cliffs lined either side of the funnel, gradually growing narrower as they peered onward. The air was icy, only adding to the trepidation of the day.

“This is their work, ye know,” one man beside him whispered. His breath blew little white clouds that dissipated almost immediately. “Nymphs. They can control the weather. Contort it to their twisted will.”

The man on his other side mumbled a small prayer to Celeste and Amaranth before staring solidly onward. Snow was gradually filling the pass. It would make it difficult to fight off the advancing worshippers. But it would be northern snow, not those flimsy winters from the woodlands. They had the upper hand by knowing their country; knowing the weather blessed upon them by Moirai.

A shiver passed through him. The pass was cold, even for this season. He wasn’t one to believe the legends about how the nymphs granted their worshippers the power to control nature itself, but it was hard to miss the unnatural air hovering over the heads of his men. They all believed, superstitious as they were.

He snorted softly and shifted his weight between his feet. His toes were freezing in the steel-plated leather boots he wore.

Superstition, he found, was far too prominent in big cities. He had always come to believe that it was the littler settlements that had more practicality, even though common belief said otherwise.

His father had been the most practical man he had ever met. Perhaps that was why he didn’t share the ridiculous beliefs of his men—mere people could not control the weather, and why would the nymphs bother blessing their power on their worshippers?

Well. It was up to him to encourage them once more. The people of Shield were counting on him and his army to keep them safe from the woodland maniacs.

Shaking so the gathering snow slipped from his steel armour, he unsheathed his sword with a metallic ring and marched away from the front line. The hushed babble from the crowd softened until all was silent, and every single wary pair of eyes rested on him.


But what could he say? Yes, he was the hunter of his village, but he did no inspirational speaking when he brought home the pelts of feral creatures in the wilds near home. He never had to raise the spirits of his fellow hunters and fishers. This was all foreign and new to him. And he had no idea what to say about it.

He exhaled long and slow, revelling in the brief warmth his breath filled his helmet with. “I have nay control over what ye all have learned in the chapels o’ your big cities,” he shouted, so his voice echoed off the rock walls of the mountains around them. Several of the nearby men muttered something about him being a runt from a village barely settled, but he ignored it. If they wanted to be petty, they could very well do it. “But where I come from,” he boomed, “we learn that all that is mighty in nature, all that is pure o’ the sky and ocean, that is all Celeste! May our lady guide our hands in battle, and may Amaranth bless our blades under his almighty name!”

His voice shuddered as he hesitated, scanning the crowd to see if he truly had the attention of his army. He had never spoken before such a mass before, but nobody seemed to be mocking his speech just yet.

And he had to keep going. He had to finish it. Remind them just what glorious deities were on their side. “And should this vile weather be the work of Ire, not some silly woodland nymphs who do not even exist! Least o’ not in our fair land!” He waved his sword to the cliffs surrounding them, imposing and dark even in the swirling snow. “Those fairies are nothing to our gods!”

“And what if we all die, General?” someone several lines back shouted over him.

He dropped his sword arm back to his side and glared into the crowd. “Aye? What if we do die? Fide bless our homes and make our women bear sons, aye?”

“Aye!” several voices crooned excitedly.

“And Erudite will bless our souls and bring us wealth from our woodland neighbours!” Exhilaration washed over him; hearing his soldiers, his comrades and countrymen shout their readiness for battle, pump their swords and axes to the air: it made him anxious to get started, to drive the nymph worshippers back to their ancient forest glades.

“Moirai may weep and wash the blood o’ our enemies from our blades,” he bellowed. Birds cawed as his rumbling voice startled them from their winter roosts, and the yells of his men were briefly accompanied by the flutter of many wings. “And it is her word that dictates our destinies this day! Nay nymph nor her worshipper can control who we are, and what we are meant to do!” He flung his arms to the side, and a grin etched his face as the triumphant roars of his men filled his ears.

His second-in-command stepped forward a few steps as the others shouted and roared their excitement for battle. Resting a gloved hand on his shoulder, the smaller man murmured, “They come, sir. What shall ye have us do?”

He glanced over his shoulder and saw the dark specks of the woodlanders arriving in the widening mouth of the pass. At their distance, it was impossible to tell if they were armoured and laden with weapons. Shield was nearby; the nymph worshippers were in lands foreign to them, and this grand army would stop them.

Whirling back to his men, he lifted his arms to the sky and shut his eyes, letting Moirai’s crisp, ice weather kiss his bearded cheeks. “We shall drive them back!” he shrieked, raising his blade to the clouds. “We shall show them just what the Army o’ the Blade is, and why their nymphs do not compare to our gods!”

And with his army at his back and his elegantly crafted blade in his hand, he turned and faced the approaching woodlanders, grinning.

The Fields of War: Changeling teaser

Whatever allied soldiers had survived the explosion had either fled back to camp or been slaughtered by barbarians. We had not come fast enough; no corpses could use our help.

We stood there, with no inkling of how much time had passed. Both aware we were needed elsewhere; both too shocked by the savagery of what was before us to leave.

Then something stirred the air. Hession grunted, sensing the shift in spirit as well, but before he could shout a warning or unsheathe his sword, or before I could cast a spell, something invisible and hard slammed into us, sending us flying into the ash and remains. We tumbled through the embers, burning bared flesh and inhaling dust and ash. I managed to stop myself with a blast of psychokinesis—which I recognized as being the spell that knocked us back—but Hession had no such luck and only stopped when he landed face-first in the mud.

Whirling around to our attacker, I snarled and curled my hands into fists. “Lacramioara.”

“Aisling.” She smiled and flicked her long blonde hair over her shoulder. Behind her stood a flock of at least twenty Gabal Mages—men and women I had grown up with, who had all been treated to Father Zdenek’s cruelty and somehow remained. “I never expected to meet you here, of all places. I knew I smelled your spirit the night the prince left. We should have known you would not leave him to rot.”

“Father Zdenek would have killed him or have him locked away. His training needed to end.”

“Cute. Leave this battlefield now and we will spare your life,” she warned, and with a whisper of words and a flick of her fingers, the charred remains began to moan and shift around us. I grimaced, and behind me Hession let out a string of disgusted oaths. Necromancy was a filthy magic, and one I never favoured. “You know I am capable. My pets defeated you last we met. No prince is here to save you now.”

I used a minor mimicry spell to keep my face neutral. She was right, as much as I was loathe to admit it. I would have suffocated and died if Alistair hadn’t intervened and destroyed her undead creations, when we met in the woods before meeting Father Zdenek. She had been favoured in my absence.

Hession stumbled up beside me, battered and disoriented, but his sword was drawn and his healing was at work. Lifting a hand to wipe blood from a cut on his forehead, he fixed Lacramioara with a baleful glare and snapped, “Raisin’ the dead is sick magic.”

A cruel smile curled her lips. “And I learned from the best, Canton.”

As one, the bodies jerked toward us.

There is no doubt that, especially during war, necromancy was a useful, if foul, magic to practice. Turning the bodies of a general’s soldiers against him was useful, as Zdenek and Lacramioara liked to prove time and again.

However, as with most of the rare and difficult magic—chronomancy, psychometry, psychokinesis—it had a weakness, about as avoidable as the sunset.

In order to control a unit of soldiers, as Lacramioara was apt to do, a mage must know a series of command phrases in Old Helmenian—or Gabalic, in our case. Without these phrases, the corpses are reanimated but worthless. This leaves only a small margin for a Gabal Mage to cast any other spells, leaving her to rely almost solely on her undead army.

I knew from experience that Lacramioara was skilled enough to produce a volley of devastating attacks between commands but it was our only window of opportunity, and I planned on taking full advantage of it.

I lunged at Hession. As soon as I moved, Lacramioara pushed her corpses into movement. I enveloped Hession in camouflage, and as soon as he vanished from view I called white-hot fire between my palms and sent an arc of it around the clearing. It hungrily caught what was left of clothes and hair, but the bodies continued to shamble toward us.

One came close and snarled as its gnarled paws swiped toward me. In the moment between their approach and the beginnings of their attack, Lacramioara shouted another attack and a crackling storm materialized above me. The heat and electricity snapped the air, sending prickles of static through my skin. Before lightning could strike and spear my heart, I kicked the nearest corpse away and let my spirit swell within me to absorb and steal the power of Lacramioara’s attack. I gritted my teeth as the sudden jolt of power shot through me, but my spirit quelled it and pushed it down to my fingertips. Fingers splayed and hands flat, I ducked the attack of a shrivelled corpse and sent a wave of lightning through its body. The blinding blue-white flashes danced over the blackened flesh, then jumped to the one nearest and spread through the crowd.


Hession’s cry made me whirl around, just in time to see a fist of ice shooting toward me. I blasted it aside with a jet of fire before running to where I sensed Hession’s spirit. My camouflage was holding up, and he was moving silently and invisibly through the clearing. Undead fell as his sword cut through them without them knowing; Gabal Mages in Lacramioara’s troupe were swearing and trying vainly to find him and force him out of hiding.

Another wave of Lacramioara’s monsters rushed me. I sent out a blast of flames, but it only kept them at bay for several seconds.

Hession and I would be overwhelmed if we didn’t escape or do something drastic. I doubted he would back down from a fight, and I had too much pride to let Lacramioara win like this.

Drastic measures must be taken.

A blast of psychokinesis sent the corpses sprawling away, and left a neat round crater in the already ravaged ground. “Hession, keep me safe!” I shouted, then dropped to my knees and cupped my hands together.

I would need utter silence and serenity to do this. But I had neither, and would have to make do.

It was a delicate manipulation of the spirit that allowed chronomancy. Ancient Helmenian scholars once surmised that the gods only allowed a small handful of born chronomancers to walk the earth at one time, due to the dangerous nature of the magic. Father Zdenek had been one of those lucky ones, and his powerful time-alteration had been passed down through the children.

Gods do not wish the fingers of mere mortals to touch the hands of time.

My spirit slowed and nearly ceased all movement. It itched to rush through me, ready to jump at a chance for practice—a side effect of being pyrophoric—but I forced it to relax.

Calm passed over me.

Then with an intricate phrase that flowed from my lips like a tangled web that smoothed itself out into a flat braid with each added syllable, it seemed to ooze through me and pulsed.

The beat nearly rent my soul in two, with its bottled energy unleashed. I felt the warm rush of it pass through me, escape through my pores, and wash over the battlefield. It was just powerful enough to affect the clearing where we fought; any further, and the only indication would be a tingle of spirits in nearby mages.

Then I opened my eyes, and time stood still.

Hession’s spirit stood nearby, and as I stood I tentatively reached out and brushed what should have been thin air—but instead felt the rough material of his armour. Around us lay the battered bodies of Lacramioara’s risen army; the air was thick with the stench of their rotted death and lingering fire and ash. Several Gabal Mages were dead or dying, hunched in the mud where they fell. Moving slowly, too exhausted by the effort of casting the spell, I walked past the wreckage, to the spot where Lacramioara stood.

Her long blonde curls were spread behind her, frozen in a gust of wind. Her face wore an expression of hatred and determination, matched by the thin blue tongues wrapped around her arms. I reached out, fingers just millimetres from the frozen lightning. Had I cast the spell a moment later, I might not have survived.

A shiver passed through me. I very rarely tampered with time, but it always left me uneasy. I was not nearly skilled enough to stop my own aging as Zdenek did, but even just stopping time for a moment was uncomfortable. Unnatural.

I scoffed and rounded on Lacramioara. I had once fancied the idea of agelessness. It would be useless now.

With trembling fingers, I unsheathed the small blade on my hip. I whispered a small prayer and plea for redemption from the Druid, then drew the sharpened edge of the blade across the thin, unprotected flesh of her neck. The skin parted, but no blood fell quite yet.

My stomach squirmed as I slipped the sword back into its scabbard and walked back across the clearing. The air started to shift and morph around me; I froze and held back my nausea as the world suddenly tilted and time resumed.

The noise and stench hit me like a boulder and brought me to my knees. Something crackled and fizzled behind me, then voices began to screech and snarl oaths in Gabalic. Clutching my roiling stomach, I whirled around just in time to see Lacramioara collapse. Blood soaked her front and turned the ground beneath her to mud. Hands and bodies whirled around her, shouting for help and hurrying her away.

Breath stirred my hair. “What happened?” Hession’s voice was exhausted and out of breath, and thick with confusion. “I feel sick.”

I reached behind me and rested my hand on his sleeve. I murmured a soft word, and the camouflage melted off him. “We should go,” I whispered, and turned back the way we came. I kept my head down as we walked back to the hospital tent and our side of the battlefield. The sounds of battle were all around us, but our allies kept the barbarians at bay. We returned to the tent tired but unmolested, only to find no time for rest; survivors of the earlier fiery explosion were being tended to by Chard and Maks, but the two were overwhelmed.

Numb, I rolled up my sleeves and accepted a fresh rag offered by Maks, and followed him to a group of moaning soldiers, each coated in fresh magical burns.

I had never once toyed with the thought of ending Lacramioara’s life. Zdenek’s wrath would have kept me at bay, but I was no murderer.

When had I become so ruthless?