The war is over—or is it? In this installment, a warmage resisting the occupation must battle her own anger, resentment, and pain as well.
Photo credit: Barefoot Liam
If you want to start at the beginning: Table 1
…is sturdy, heavy wood with thick legs, wide enough for two people to work side by side. Everything about the table is utilitarian. Even the marble slab on top is unadorned, purely protective—a precaution illustrated by several scorched holes. Ceramic and cloudy glass jars crowd a corner of the table and the shelf above it. A hefty book with a complicated iron clasp leans against the wall, propped open to a page of arcane script and precise diagrams.
A chest waits under the table, worked red leather cracked with age, steel corners scratched and dull. Its crow-shaped latch has no keyhole. When the lock spell was cast, eight people could open it. As of today, the woman standing at the table is the last one alive.
The woman feels safe here, in the secret basement of this nondescript building. Such are all the opposition hideouts now, reached by dark tunnels or false walls or hidden trapdoors.
She thwacks a mallet against the table, mixing a pinch of black powder into a lump of dark gray resin. She tells herself, again, that she couldn’t have saved the others. Saved him.
Him. She has worked with many men but there is only one him. Tall him, with the thick black curls and long graceful fingers and oh-so-Jovo amber eyes. And the smile. Never the right smile—not for her—but any smile of his was worth savoring.
If only he had smiled at her that way, even once. She glares at her arm. Pasty as a peasant, as they say. She has some Jovo blood—everyone does by now—but she’s too pale to pass. Her short stature and light hair are bad enough. But her skin? Every freckle screams her status.
She once demonstrated a perfect five-forked lightning spell. Generations ago, that would have required elder-level expertise. But warmages advance quickly in combat spells by specializing so intensely, sacrificing all else. Even so, she mastered it young. He noticed, and commented. “Impressive, for a kazatu.” Worse, he meant it as a compliment.
She pounds the resin again, hard. She pounds her anger into it, and her fear, and her guilt.
It wasn’t her fault. They all knew what they were up against. They’d prepared. When they heard the clanking boots of the drovers approaching, they all cast their seeming spells.
Hers worked. The enemies’ eyes drifted past her, unseeing. Relief! Until they attacked the other two. She had few options. Openly retaliating would break her spell, making her visible too. She quickly calculated her attack options—no, not fast enough, too outnumbered. She tried to distract the drovers, give her companions time to retreat. Too late. They were already down, not moving.
It took all her effort not to cry out, seeing him like that. She pulled her training up over her face to steel it. That battle was over. Getting herself killed too wouldn’t accomplish anything. At least she could try to complete their mission.
They were supposed to sneak in, grab the confiscated items, and sneak back out. That plan had already failed. She stood in the storage room, her sack filled, two dead guards on the floor, more on the way. She had secretly prepared a more extreme spell. Her companions would have rejected it as too dangerous. It was. She thought of him lying motionless, bouncing limply when kicked. She made a decision.
Invisible again, she ducked into a doorway, breathing heavily. She peeked down the street. Mistiming too long was better than too short, but what if—
The drove base exploded in flames. As did the drovers who’d run into it, responding to her call.
Standing at the table, she remembers the heat against her face, the panicked screams. If her companions weren’t dead already, they are now. Her only solace. She knows how captured mages are tortured.
None of them would have predicted she’d be the last one alive. She worked so hard to prove herself. Always assumed to be slow-witted because of her pink skin and straw hair. Always doing twice as much and getting less credit. She went on more missions, took more risks, yet she survived while they all failed.
The vindication is bittersweet. She wishes he were here, to witness her triumph.
She examines the resin. It’s too soft, but it should still work. She places a hot coal into a brazier on the table, holding her hand over the brass bowl until the heat is right. Pulling an unlabeled jar from the shelf, she pours in four drops of clear oil and adds the resin.
Stealing a glance at the books she liberated from the drovers, she wonders if they include the spell she has sought for so long. Ironic, if she were to find it now.
So much lost over the years. When she first arrived, the elder wizards talked about the old Guild, how wizards met there openly. A whole faculty of masters she might have asked. Walls of books in the library she might have consulted. Now those masters are dead, and the elder wizards, too, and all their knowledge with them.
The magruks destroyed the Guild’s library in the Caundaer Attack. When they returned nineteen years ago, they burned the whole building to the ground, killing all the wizards they could. The magruks have no true magic, but they have pikes and maces, which split a wizard’s flesh as well as a soldier’s.
That’s when the aesor began seeking trainees among the peasants. Her parents didn’t sell her, no matter what people say. The armed man tried to quiet her parents’ protests with some coin, but they had no choice. She had the sight. She must learn to use it for war.
By the time she could return, her whole village was gone—killed or kidnapped or escaped, no one knew.
She vowed to find her parents, or know their fate. She searched everywhere for a long-range finding spell, in vain.
The war’s end gave her hope. Then the drovers came.
The drove currently occupying the city call themselves the Taeleatara—united by blood. They were led by an infamous captain from the Thoronit army, recently killed. Without him, rumors say the Taeleatara falters. The woman notices only more repression, more violence.
But it will falter. It will fall. She can almost see the image floating before her, like a vision, a premonition. A promise.
The image shifts until it is his face filling her mind. First smiling. Then on the ground, battered, the last time she saw him. The thought tries to slip away, to spare her, but she holds it firmly in both hands, searing it onto her eyes. It powers her.
She takes the bowl off the brazier and stirs the ink. When the consistency is correct, she scrapes every drop off the stick, covers the bowl, and places it next to the prepared vellum scrolls. It’s too late to start the ritual tonight, but all is ready for the morning.
Tomorrow, she will put her plan into action. Not the city elders’ conciliatory cowardice or her mentors’ delaying tactics or her companions’ cautious incursions. No. She is no longer fighting for time, waiting out the occupation, waiting until she can find her parents. She is not even fighting for survival. She has a new mission.
Now she is fighting for revenge.
She slides both hands over the smooth surface of the table, surveying the equipment of her profession. She may be alone, but she has all she needs. She smiles, stretching her pale arms high overhead, licking her lips, tasting her victory already.
They will learn what it means to be impressive for a kazatu.