Emaciated children in threadbare clothes pulled their feet through the muddy streets of Aleins while the elderly sat against hovels and shacks, ignored and forgotten. Meanwhile, smithies bellowed, mills ground, and tanneries sloshed day and night, supplying the tools that fueled the empire’s oppression.
Alleys and streets fed townspeople into a wide clearing, bordered by a wall of houses. At the center, a pristine white tower stood high above Aleins. Bordering the tower green was a decrepit fence that looked as old as the town. Only two guards were posted at the tower door. One sat with his head cradled in his hands, a fresh puddle of vomit at his feet; another jested at his comrade’s misery, amusing himself by throwing scraps of food at passing phaerians and laughing as they scrambled for the morsel. More than once, a frenzied brawl erupted over some larger piece of food, leaving behind a wake of bloodied and broken bodies.
Rammond had been dubious when his scouts reported no defenses around the guard tower. Surely no one would be foolish enough to leave sweetbread next to an anthill. Unless there was no reason to fear the ants. Rammond’s fists clenched.
“The phaerians outnumber the garrison at least thousand to one,” Hurian grumbled behind him, as though reading his thoughts. The shaper was absent his usual half grin and chipper step. “Even as a jumbled mob, their losses would be minimal. A small price for freedom.”
Rammond doubted he would ever understand how a man that could kill with his mind would be plagued with pre-battle jitters. “Wooden sticks and indentured ignorance make for poor weapons against steel and thousands of years of conditioning.” The general jerked his chin at Hurian. “You didn’t find your courage until after your Awakening. When you learned to throw fireballs and play with forces best left alone.”
Hurian rolled his eyes. “I’m not sure if I’d call what we’re doing courageous,” he said, then waved his arms in the air. “More like successful, blind flailing.”
Rammond lifted a finger. “Can’t you at least try and stay focused? You’re like a virgin in a brothel.”
“I’d be excited to be in a brothel,” Hurian grumbled.
“I didn’t say the virgin was the customer,” Rammond said, peering at him with a half smile.
Hurian grunted, and peered at something in the distance. “I’d still rather be in the brothel.”
Rammond returned the grunt. “Me too, my friend. Me too.”
A few minutes passed before Rebecca hobbled into view and sat by the fence. The other members of her squad meandered nearby, easily falling into the role of defeated townsfolk. The sober guard shifted his attention to Rebecca, eyeing her with disdain. Rammond’s hand tightened around the hilt of his sword hidden underneath his jacket. The guard sneered at the weathered shaper, then returned to teasing the townsfolk with scraps of food.
“Rebecca is set,” Hurian mumbled over Rammond’s shoulder. “So is Gorin, and… What are they running from?”
Townsfolk began pouring into the clearing, frantic like rats escaping fire.
Makayla strolled into the clearing behind them, power pulsing from her in waves. She was dressed in her finest woolen dress, sky blue with white lace, and her hair was pulled back to display the naked temple of her heritage. A section of fence crumbled to dust before her as she walked onto the clearing, her face a mask of confidence and power.
Rebecca stood, looking as confused as Hurian.
“Blast!” Rammond grumbled.
Rebecca, Gorin, and the other squad leaders quickly pulled from their hidden places to form their ranks.
The sober guard fell from his chair with a curse and staggered through the door. His companion gaped at Makayla with a hungry smile, spittle dangling from his mouth. He pulled at his breastplate, mumbling about the heat. “Aren’t you a lovely sight,” he slurred, burping into his fist. “You remind me of my niece.” His voice cut off with a scream as his arms folded in on themselves with loud cracks and pops. In the next instant, his entire body crunched into a bloody heap, spraying red mist into the air.
From the tower, shouts replaced laughter and the clamor of hustling bodies reverberated through its walls. A lone figure strolled out, casting amused glances at Makayla and her squad. He wore black leather armor and a cloak with a slender blade at his waist. The symbol of the Crimson Guard decorated his chest piece—a crimson hand spread wide.
Fear crept up Rammond’s neck.
“Shaping is a death sentence, phlem,” the crimsman said with a raspy voice, ignoring the ranks of armed phaerians on the green. The corner of his mouth quirked at the viscous mound of flesh at his feet. “As is killing a citizen, no matter how much he deserved it.”
Guards poured from the tower, some gagged and retched when they saw the bloody mound. An order was barked and they quickly dispersed about the clearing in loose formations best used against shapers. A second bark readied spears and pulled swords from sheaths.
The crimsman snarled, shaking his head. “Do phlem children frighten you, corporal?” the crimsman asked, casually brushing his sleeves.
The corporal’s back stiffened. “No, m’Lord. But she—”
“She’s a child,” the crimsman snapped, regarding Makayla as though examining a peculiar specimen. He held out a hand and his slender blade materialized, flames licking down its length and over his hand, though the crimsman remained unharmed. The area around him crackled with energy. Pebbles danced at his feet and dust swirled around him. “You are…unique, child. I can feel that now. But your pitiful rebellion ends now.”
The crimsman thrust his blade at Makayla and a stream of fire roared toward her. She raised a hand and absorbed the inferno. The sudden clash of battle filled the air.
Rebecca and the shapers kept the do’Vrath busy, while Gorin and the soldiers sliced into the guards. Rammond rolled in time to dodge a spear meant for his chest. The spearman stared at him in silent pain as Rammond slid his dagger into the man’s kidney. More spears stabbed and swords slashed, but he blocked and countered each, not wasting energy with unnecessary movements. Each quiet grunt issued fountains of blood. Around him, the air cackled with lightning and fire, and the shrieks of the dying.
The battle was quick and fierce. Corpses littered the clearing, citizen and phaerian alike. A handful of Makayla’s forces had survived, but of the citizens, only the crimsman remained. He stood in the center of the bloody field, the flames of his shaped sword licking his hand and cuff. Hatred skewed his face as he stared at his prey, not ten paces away. He threw his free hand out in an arch. Balls of fire and acid streaked toward Makayla, but she pulled up an earthen barrier before they reached her.
Rammond maneuvered across the field, encircling behind as the crimsman continued his relentless attack. Spikes of earth erupted, small whirlwinds flailed, and cracks of lightning shattered the air. Makayla countered each, narrowly at first but gaining momentum after each attack.
The crimsman preened with triumph when he broke his rhythm; a sudden pillar of fire burst up from underneath Makayla, engulfing her in a white-hot inferno. Rammond raised his hand to shield against the heat. The crimsman lunged at him with his fiery sword. Rammond slipped past the attack, but the blade still burned his skin, then ducked under a swipe aimed for his neck.
A dagger appeared in the crimsman’s open hand, and a flash of surprise crossed his face as he sliced open air.
Rammond had rolled back, risking a glance at Makayla. Her tiny silhouette glimmered inside the roaring pillar as Rebecca struggled to calm the inferno. Fiery steel darted at Rammond’s head, singeing his lashes. He raised his arm to block a second jab and felt the crimsman’s blade cut a deep blackened wound.
The crimsman pressed the attack. Controlled thrusts and slices were parried and deflected. The crimsman’s slender blade was like a viper in his hand, burning Rammond with each counter, cauterizing the wounds even as they bit into his flesh.
“Rammond!” he heard Makayla cry as a heavy force slammed into his chest, throwing him into the air. He hit the ground hard, feeling several broken ribs as he tumbled to a stop. His vision swam and the world became a blur.
Slurred voices began to worm through his daze. A sudden freezing chill ran down his body as though he had been doused with icy water. He felt ribs pop into place and torn muscles knit and fuse. When his vision cleared, he saw Hurian and Rebecca looming over him, dripping from exhaustion. The sun had traveled far since he last remembered.
“You will release me at once, phlem whore,” the crimsman spat, with all the arrogance of a king. He was frozen in place, held fast by forces that still made Rammond’s skin crawl.
Makayla giggled. “You are in no position to give orders, my dear crimsman.”
“If you kill me,” the crimsman said, “my brothers and sisters will hunt you to the ends of Tarligus. There will be nowhere you can hide.”
“Who’s hiding?” Makayla cocked her head and approached the crimsman. She displayed no emotion, but Rammond knew better. The hatred that burned inside her rivaled the liquid flames of Micoé. Her fingers snaked around the crimsman’s neck and she whispered into his ear. His eyes widened as a line of blue fire sliced through his neck. An easy push sent his head tumbling to the ground. Blood spurted from his neck in rhythm to his failing heart.
A faint nimbus surrounded Makayla and liquid light coursed from her fingers. Tiny streams of blue flowed into the decapitated body, coalescing above the neck into a brilliant ball of swirling energy.
A single thought pervaded Rammond’s mind.