* * *
A wicked smile crept up Thrum’s lips as flames engulfed his hands. Decades of life in the mines had left them scarred and calloused so the rich could enjoy their pampered existences. Meanwhile, Thrum had never owned so much as a clean set of clothes. He held up his hands, mesmerized by the wavering flames he’d bent to his will. That was all about to change.
“Thrum…” Jarum said, his thin voice cracked, filling the small grove with worry even as his eyes remained fixed on the flame. “You shouldn’t. If they catch you—”
“If they catch me…” Thrum pressed his will into the flame and threw it at a tree. The flame exploded in a brilliant shower of sparks that danced across his skin with biting kisses.
Jarum squealed and flailed about, brushing away the tiny scorching dancers. “What was that for?” he demanded, as the sparks faded and darkness enveloped them once again. “You’re going to get us caught,” Jarum whispered. “They’re going to skin you, and they’re going to lock me up for the rest of my life, if I’m lucky. They’ll probably just skin me too and be done with it.”
Thrum reached into that place beyond reality and time, the space between thought and action, sensing the cold ball of energy at the heart of the nether. He gathered just enough to conjure another flame for light. This time he attached it to a large rock at the side of the grove.
Jarum glared at him, shaking his head in disappointment. “I could have lit a torch. I like torches,” he continued, mumbling to himself like he did when he was nervous. “You know why I like torches?” he asked, staring at Thrum.
“Torches don’t get you skinned!” Jarum shouted.
Thrum gave his friend a sidelong glance. “Well if anyone is looking for us, they know where we are now.” He called the fire to his hand, earning a disapproving grumble from Jarum. “Thank the gods I can bend, or all your clamoring would get us killed.”
Jarum’s eyes widened and he sputtered around words like a fish searching for purchase on land. Frustrated he threw his hands up and began to pace.
“Pass to leave Hrathron, or not,” Thrum said, juggling the flame between his hands, “we’re in the king’s wood. If they find us here, they’ll gut us on the spot.”
Jarum shook his head. “Oh no you don’t,” he said, wagging his finger. “You’re not putting that on me. We’re only here because you brought us here in the first place. So you could bend!” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, asking himself how he’d gotten into this mess.
Thrum sent the flame to float in place in the middle of the grove, and clapped his hand on Jarum’s shoulder. “Because you’re my friend, and I need you.”
Jarum sagged and he offered a weak nod.
“You’re the only friend I got,” Thrum said. “Gods be damned if you’re not the closest thing to family I got.” He gestured to the flame. “This is our ticket out of the mines. Can’t you see that? We don’t have to be afraid anymore. We don’t have to grovel. We can take what we want, when we want.” Thrum bent more power to his will, fueling the flame. It flared, and for an instant the grove shown like daylight, then faded to a small flicker. “We can be free!”
Jarum scowled. His face was pale, even in the warm glow, and he looked as though he could be sick at any moment.
“You don’t look so good,” Thrum said, reaching to his friend’s forehead.
Jarum jerked his head back and swatted at Thrum’s hand. Discovering that your closest friend and confidant could bend was one thing; watching him bend a flame into existence was quite another.
Jarum took a deep breath, and released it with a heavy sigh. “Why’d you have to bend?” He rubbed his face and stared into an unseen distance. After a moment he nodded, as though he’d arrived at a difficult resolution.
A gentle snap pierced the blanketing quietude.
Fear leeched Thrum’s bravado from his limbs, and heart slammed in his chest. Jarum’s warning screamed in his mind, painting ghastly portents of his tortuous death. Bending was forbidden to the likes of Thrum and Jarum. They were skril, glorified slaves to the kingdom, and any who could bend were hunted with voracious determination.
“Put the flame out,” Jarum whispered, fear engulfing his voice.
“I’m trying,” Thrum replied. Desperation clouded his mind. He fumbled for the flame but his will felt too clumsy, like grasping for a needle while wearing thick gloves.
“Hurry,” Jarum pleaded. His lip trembled and tears welled in his eyes. “Please, Thrum.”
Another snap. Closer this time.
Jarum covered his mouth, trying to catch a bubbled cry as it escaped his lips. Mucus pooled on his finger and oozed down his hand. His tears ran free. “Please,” he mumbled behind his hands.
Thrum gathered his clumsy will and pressed it against the flame. Maybe he could smother it. The fire flickered and danced as he did, igniting a spark of hope within him. Thrum pressed harder, focusing on the flame, seeing nothing but its light, swaying with its chaotic rhythm. He pushed the world from his reality. Everything that wasn’t the flame or his will was gone.
In that ethereal place beyond reality and thought, in the nether, Thrum could sense the life around him. The crickets and beetles that scurried along the floor for a meal; the bats, chirping in the air, gliding through the thick grove with gentle grace; five formidable figures, maneuvering upon Thrum and Jarum with practiced efficiency. No armor covered their frames, and no weapons filled their hands. They didn’t need them.
Thrum snuffed the flame with a thought, and was thrown back into the grove.
Jarum cried into his hands.
Thrum shook his head against his confusion. He had been so careful to only bend where no one could see, and no other benders could feel. That’s why he’d chosen the king’s wood. It was far enough away to hide his bending, and close enough not to raise suspicions of a prolonged absence. Jarum didn’t know, but Thrum had been coming here twice a week for over two months now, practicing, performing feats of bending that would make that shower of sparks seem like a petty street act.
Jarum was huddled on the ground, clutching his knees to his chest, rocking back and forth. His body wracked with sobs, and mucus blubbered from his nose. In twenty years, Thrum had never seen Jarum so afraid. Not even when they’d been caught thieving the Mistress Trilind’s vault, or when they’d accidentally set fire to the city guard’s stables. Jarum had always been timid, and apt to whine and complain. But never like this…
Then it hit him.
Jarum had betrayed him. Thrum’s hold on his will wavered, as pain-filled rage burned through him. His vision swam, and he felt wet streaks trickle down his cheeks. Twenty years of trust, and a bond forged in the fires of oppression, all shattered in a single action.
Jarum’s body wracked with unbridled anguish, as though coming to the same realization, and no longer caring who heard him.
Five shadows emerged from the darkness, surrounding Thrum and the weeping traitor. Thrum wanted to hide, to be anywhere but here. The desire consumed him, fueling his nerves and confusing his will. He tried to bend, though he knew his mind was too tormented to grasp the source.
The shadows melted from the si’aad as a ball of light blossomed in the middle of the grove. Each si’aad wore a nondescript tan blouse, and dark brown leggings that fell loose over modest shoes. They might have blended into any skril community, if it wasn’t for their deadly gait, and eyes that gleamed with dreadful experience. Death clung to them with a lover’s embrace.
Thrum shut his eyes, seeking the void again, pushing everything from his mind until nothing remained. An easy chuckle from one of the si’aad threatened to shatter his concentration. He could feel their presence closing in around him but he dared not open his eyes. He shut them tight, hoping his fear might squeeze out. The sounds of the grove began to fade and muffle as Thrum struggled to focus. He formed the image of the flame in his mind again, pouring his will into it, feeding it until there was nothing else amidst the void.
Moments stretched into eternity as Thrum braced himself against his fate, waiting for the final blow to strike. Would they bend power to strip his flesh, or impale him with a shard of hardened air? But the blow never came. Thrum took a deep breath then dared open his eyes.
Mist stretched beyond sight, stirred by an unfelt breeze. The light here seemed to originate from every direction, and none. It left no shadow, and hinted at no direction. At the center of the nether, if such a thing could be said about a plane with no beginning or end, roiled a massive ball of pure energy. The source of power that fueled bending’s magical effects. Thrum felt the source’s pull, beaconing him to plunge his will into its depths. He turned away, resisting the swelling urge to taste its power, and focused on the mist. It swirled and danced before him, caressing his skin with ethereal tendrils. He thought he could see people outlined in the mist—phantoms in a sea of white.
A frustrated growl rumbled from one of them, muffled as though through thick cloth. Thrum thought it might have been one of the si’aad.
He counted the figures…
Thrum found that their images became clearer the more he concentrated. He recognized the short, frail form of one of the phantoms, huddled on the ground. Jarum knelt before one of the si’aad, pleading with his hands clutched before him.
“He’s already learned how to slip,” a si’aad said. Female by the sound of her muffled voice. She kicked a groveling Jarum hard in the face. A stream of blood flew from his mouth, along with teeth, and something thicker.
Jarum gave a gurgling scream as his mouth filled with crimson. He choked and coughed, spewing blood on the one that had kicked him. Terror filled his eyes and his mouth opened, oozing more blood and revealing a sheared tongue.
Thrum felt a pull in his mind as the si’aad bent. Jarum’s frantic scream ripped through the grove. He clutched his throat and fell to the ground, convulsing in pain. Blood dribbled between his fingers, and then poured as his throat was torn form his neck.
The female si’aad pointed to the others. As if on cue they spread out and sat with their legs crossed.
Thrum concentrated on the ethereal images of the si’aad and Jarum, and could sense waves of power emanating from them. He felt a wave hit him, and the si’aad pointed as though they could see him.
“There,” they said in unison.
Thrum felt another tug. This time it was stronger, more demanding. The leader’s magic pulled at his entire being, and he could feel his body being sucked back to the grove, and the promise of pain.
Thrum knew he could never defeat even a single si’aad, much less a team. If they pulled him from the nether for even a second, Thrum’s death would be a testament of pain for all the other skril who dared to bend. Desperate, he poured his will into the seething ball of energy at the center of the nether. Thrum submitted himself to the cold power of the nether, joining his will to its seething torrent.
A muffled growl filled the nether as the si’aad growled in frustration. “Fool,” she cursed. “He’s fused.”
Another wave pulsed from the si’aad, this one dark and putrid, tainted with fear.
Thrum felt his wicked smile return. He didn’t have power. He was power. He was the source, the raging torrent at the center of the nether. Bending was less than a thought, as effortless to him as blinking, or forming a thought. The sensation overwhelmed him with pleasure, pain, desire, terror, strength, confusion, confidence…
As before, Thrum focused his will on a single object, pushing away everything else. Again he chose the flame. A flickering beacon in a sea of nothing. As his focus narrowed, the raging emotions fled until he was as calm as the void.
Stepping from the nether was as simple as stepping through a threshold. Thrum knew that now returning to it would be just as easy.
The meditating si’aad stood to face him as soon as he reappeared, their eyes wary and skittish. Each crackled with power, ready to bend with a thought.
Thrum chuckled. Killing them would take less than a thought.
“You fool,” the leader scolded. “Why did you fuse?”
One of the si’aad launched a needle of concentrated air, aimed at Thrum’s chest. He blinked to the nether, letting the projectile pass through to shatter into a cloud against another si’aad shield.
Thrum reappeared from the nether, throwing balls of fire and shadow. He sliced at the si’aad with blades of air, encased them in water and ice, and tried to rip them apart by their cells. But the deft si’aad countered him at every step. The earth erupted and fire raged, as Thrum fought.
“Stop!” the leader shouted, her voice booming through the air. The other si’aad obeyed, halting their attacks with looks of open confusion.
Thrum absorbed a bolt of lightning cast at him then turned to face her. His breath was heavy, and his body sagged with exhaustion. No, he thought. He wasn’t exhausted. He felt weak to the bone, in a way that no amount of sleep would remedy. He felt…old.
“Why did you stop us?” one of the si’aad asked, all sense of fear vanished. “He’s almost drained. Just let us finish and we can be back to the taverns before the good whores are all taken.”
“That’s all you ever talk about,” another si’aad said. Her head was heart shaped, with short-cropped hair and a thin chin. She had a gentle smile on her lips, but Thrum knew better than to think she was anything but deadly.
“That’s all there is to talk about,” the other si’aad retorted.
They ignored Thrum, as though he posed no more of a threat to them than a puppy.
“Listen,” the leader said, demanding silence from the others. She looked to Thrum. “If you continue to bend, you will die.”
“You’re stalling,” Thrum said, though he could taste the truth of her words.
“Deandra,” the other female said, shaking her head with confusion. “What are you doing?”
“You no longer feed power from the source,” Deandra told Thrum, ignoring the question. “You have fused your own to the source, and now it feeds on you.”
“This is a waste of time,” one of the male si’aad said.
“What’s gotten into you, Deandra?” the female asked. “You’ve been off lately. Not yourself. What’s going on?”
Deandra looked to Thrum. A single tear wavered in her eye, threatening to fall. Thrum saw defeat there, and resolute acceptance as well. “Don’t let this sacrifice go to waste. There are others.”
The other female’s eyes widened with horrified shock and understanding, and all four leaped toward their leader.
Thrum blinked to the nether, hearing a deep ‘whoom’ from the real world as he did. He couldn’t open his eyes. He didn’t know what Deandra had done, any more than he knew why his heart wrenched for her. How many other skril had she slaughtered? How many other benders had she skinned alive? She didn’t deserve his pity, and she certainly didn’t deserve his tears.
And yet, he couldn’t help himself.
In the end, she had saved him when the man he’d called brother had set him up to die. She sacrificed her own life and the unwilling lives of her companions. Maybe she’d felt a sense of redemption in the act. Maybe she’d simply gone crazy. Thrum would never know, and it didn’t matter. He’d seen the sorrow and resolve in her eyes. Whatever her reasons, she’d saved his life.
Thrum wiped his eyes, struggling against the maelstrom of emotions tearing through him. Si’aad leaders didn’t attain their positions out of compassion and mercy. Thrum wasn’t any more special than all the other skril in the land, and he certainly wasn’t the first skril she’d encountered that could bend. She’d probably slaughtered hundreds before this night, and yet she’d chosen to let him live. She’d seen something in him that demanded it.
But what? And who was he to spare? He’d been a miner his whole life, chosen as such from the day of his birth. He’d never learned his letters, never fallen in love, didn’t have any children that he knew of, and hadn’t attainted anything more than failure in his life. Even for a skril he was a disappointment.
But she had seen something.
Thrum clung to that morsel of hope, savoring the irony that a si’aad had bestowed it upon him. No, Thrum thought, her name was Deandra. She’d ceased being a si’aad the moment she’d chosen him over the king, just as Jarum had ceased being his friend the moment he’d betrayed him.
The maelstrom in Thrum’s head continued to roil, and he doubted he’d find any answers here in the nether.
Steeling his mettle, he stepped back into the real world, aghast by what he saw. The land was turned to ash for a hundred paces in every direction, bordered by a thick ring of scorched trees. Where Deandra had stood, a sheet of obsidian lay, perfectly smooth and round.
Thrum’s heart wrenched again as her final look flashed in his memory. He wanted nothing more than to be away from here, but his strength was sapped. He was so tired. He knew he couldn’t travel far, but he had to get away from here. Whatever Deandra had done would have been seen and felt for miles. More si’aad would come soon to investigate.
The sun tickled the horizon, pulling a glow from the Ulinar Mountains. It would be well past breakfast by the time he returned, which mean he’d have to sneak back into Hrathron. Back to the life of a skril. Back to hiding. Back to being hunted and tortured.
“There are others,” Thrum mumbled, reciting Deandra’s last words. If there really were others, then they wouldn’t be inside the city, enclosed behind the walls of the kingdom. They would probably be in some secret village, far from any city. But if that was the case, then the chances of Thrum finding it were slim to none. Still, aimlessly wandering the land sounded far more appealing than going back to the city.
Thrum stifled a wide yawn. Exhaustion plagued him now that the excitement had ended. A soft, leaf-covered forest floor sounded like just the thing he needed to rest his head.
But which way would he go? Skril never got permission to travel more than a few miles from the city, and he’d never seen a map of the kingdom. He turned to put Hrathron to his back, and the sun to his face. East was as good a choice as any.
A gentle snap pierced the morning air.