“Is that it?” Kenzi nodded.
“Looks like it,” I said, and peered around the thick trunk of an ancient tree. I pressed my hand against the bark, felt the roots that traveled under the surface of the ground, along through the small town that waited up ahead. The tree was old, here long before this town was, her roots digging deep. She was here before, and she’d be here long after we were all gone. I closed my eyes, breathing in deliberately, slowly. Focusing.
“How many?” Kenzi asked, a whisper.
“Hard to say,” I muttered back, trying to feel everything up ahead. The militia had stayed behind, a solid mile or so down the road, as the two of us scouted forward; the usual routine.
Move up, figure out how many people were around, and engage any surprise enemies, if need be. Well, Kenzi would. The fact that he was Inked and a powerful Conduit, made him a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, and the perfect partner in scouting. He wasn’t like me, or like a lot of the other Conduits with us, without Ink and bearing gifts. No, his were enhanced, thanks to the Ink from another Conduit, pressed onto his skin through the magical tattoos so many in the Realm carried.
He was unbelievably powerful, and the Citadel knew. Gods, we’d seen enough Wanted signs in the different villages we’d come across.
He was popular.
“Definitely a lot of people, but the usual press of boots, the weight of their armor and the weapons . . .” I shook my head and opened my eyes. “I can’t be sure. It’s not there.”
“Unoccupied, maybe? That information was a few months old. Sure would be nice if the messengers returned with something better,” Kenzi suggested. “Or, you know, anything at this point.”
“Tell me about it.” I shrugged. “Could be empty. Feels weird though. Something isn’t right.”
He nodded off to the side. I agreed and moved with him away from the town and back down the road, cutting through the dense brush before hopping out to see the rest of the militia. Ryst was waiting up toward the front, her eyes hard, her lip piercing burning with that powerful red fury. The second her eyes caught us, the rage vanished, the bit of metal clasped around her bottom lip fading to a cold silver-blue.
I glanced up at Kenzi, who smiled softly, and fought the urge to roll my eyes. This secret was getting old and was hardly a secret.
“When are you going to talk to me about this?” I whispered, speaking out the side of my mouth.
“Why, what ever do you mean?” he whispered back, his eyes looking straight ahead, the hint of a grin pulling at his cheeks.
“And?” Ryst asked, nodding at the two of us.
“Feels unoccupied. The heavy boots, the armor . . . nothing. It’s quiet,” I said, looking back toward the militia. A few were sharpening swords and practicing with their gifts, summoning up flames and frost with their hands. I spotted two of our Healers working on minor scars and scratches while the rest milled about, their expressions disinterested.
“Growing restless,” Ryst said. “It’ll be fine. I’ve got it under control.”
“Good, good.” I nodded. “So the town. Plenty of people home, couldn’t say how many Citadel forces are there though. Could be hiding in the buildings or out on the road. Maybe napping, maybe no one.” I shrugged.
In addition to their leather armor and billowing capes, the Citadel Guard wore telltale boots, with thick soles and cleats on the bottom that tore at the earth when they walked, supporting them in the soil and grass. It was smart, really. In battle, their footwear sometimes made them difficult to knock down, a worthwhile compromise to the fact that they slowed them down. But this supposed strength was also one of the biggest giveaways. Forget how it made them easy to run from; it also made it easy to detect them through the roots of trees, as I channeled Magic outward.
It particularly helped us avoid situations where we’d have to run in the first place. “What do you think?” Ryst asked Schmidt, one of the Conduits with us. He ran his hand
through his beard, and glanced back at the militia, then back to Ryst, his green eyes hinting of worry.
“I think we’re fine, going in, at least,” Schmidt said, before closing his mouth, the narrow slit disappearing back into his thick beard. He opened it again, but then shut it, shaking his head.
“What is it?” Ryst asked. “Out with it.”
“Some of the people are talking,” Schmidt said, his voice barely a whisper. “We’ve been away for far too long. Six months is a long time, Ryst.”
Ryst cleared her throat and Schmidt stammered.
“Er, General,” he continued, and Ryst smiled. “They don’t see us making any real dent in this rebellion. The letters are getting fewer and fewer; people are worried about their families.
We’re still hearing stories of Conduits being harvested, citizens being Inked, in every town we get to. By the Realms, there are still Scribes on the road, making their annual pilgrimage to Ink more people.”
He looked up at Kenzi and then turned away, back to the militia.
My heart wrenched in its chest. Kenzi hated those looks. He was a Scribe when he first came to us. One of them, one of the Citadel’s unknowing agents. And here he was, Inked. His tattoos layered upon Magic. A former Scribe. So much of what everyone was fighting against, lumped together in a single person. The fight to not be Inked by the ruling Citadel, to not be forced into a way of life. To have to deal with Scribes in the first place. It wasn’t fair.
“There’s talk of leaving,” Schmidt said, his voice wavering as he stepped away. “I’m not one for that, but a few of the others . . .”
He turned back and gave Ryst a knowing look. Her expression darkened. She looked over at Kenzi, and he scowled, as if reading her thoughts.
“What?” I asked, and glanced between the two of them and up at Schmidt. “What is it?
What about the others?”
He lowered his head and took a step back.
“It’s not my place to say, but some still believe in—” He looked back up and his eyes went wide as he reached for something at his side. A blast of wind picked up around him as he channeled his Magic up from the earth. “Get down!”
A dagger was suddenly in his hands and then, just as quickly, hurtling through the air, slicing through the wind with an audible whoosh, before hitting an unseen target with a sickening wet thud.
I spun around.
There, in the middle of the road, stood a Citadel Guard, his hand still notching an arrow to a thick, black bow. He glanced down at the dagger in his chest and back up at us, his eyes wide with horror and disbelief, before falling to his knees and crumbling onto the soft earth. His burgundy cape lined with gold billowed down onto his body as he fell. The bow fell out of his grasp and hit the ground without a sound. And that gave me pause.
I was still channeling the roots under the earth, feeling the pressure of people against the soil in the town, and all around us. And the bow. It was as if it hadn’t weighed anything.
I sucked in a breath as a sudden impact thundered all around us.
The enraged screams burst from all sides of the woods as Citadel soldiers crashed through the trees, charging in a mad fury from all directions.
“Caenum!” Ryst shouted. “What in the—”
“They must have crept up on us!” I exclaimed.
A flash of energy coursed through me, and I heard the audible snap of Kenzi’s lightning as he summoned forth his gifts. A burst of warmth blossomed from my side as Ryst cast two fireballs in her hands, and the crackling and roaring sounds of other Conduits bringing their Magic into the world, pouring it up through the earth, echoed all around us.
I thought of closing my eyes, of focusing on the ground, on the trees around us, on the plants that could aid us. But before I could, I focused on one thing.
One odd, strange, almost ridiculous little detail. Sandals.
“Prepare yourselves!” Ryst shouted over the roar of the approaching soldiers.
The Citadel Guard were wearing sandals. Leathery-looking things, thin and almost threadbare.
I felt the earth shake, and pushed outward, my mind feeling for the trees lining the roads.
Their branches lowered quickly, forming a wall along our sides, blocking out a few of the soldiers that had managed to flank us by the road. If they wanted us, they’d have to face us head- on, through a walled-in tunnel that offered little escape. I winced, feeling angry blows against the wood, swords and hatchets and daggers taking out chunks of the living barrier I had willed to grow. Gritting my teeth through the pain, I pushed them to go higher, the vines and brambles stretching up toward the sky.
The Citadel had adapted.
The footwear was different. Even their uniforms looked thinner, fewer bits of decoration.
Their burgundy capes flapped about like worn sheets hung out to dry in the wind.
And the weapons.
Swords were snapping, bows were getting discarded quickly. Everything was weaker, lighter, shoddier. They’d discarded the strength of their weapons in order to ambush us.
Kenzi hurled a bolt of lighting ahead of us, and several of the Citadel’s people dove out of the way. Ryst joined in, her flames connecting with the lightning, balls of fire and energy exploding, cutting down the oncoming threat. Schmidt took a step forward, sending his daggers hurtling forward at an impossible pace, the winds his to control.
A scream echoed in back of us, and I spun around to catch a glimpse of one of our own falling to the earth, holding the handle of a sword buried in him. I squinted, trying to see who it was, and I looked around for one of the Healers. Another Conduit, Quirno, spun around to face the Guard, and in one swift motion he pulled the sword from the body and thrust it through the attacker.
They had figured us out.
I roared and reached out my arm, my fingers outstretched, as a vine burst out from the wall of brambles, extending off a nearby tree, thickening and whirling into a mad coil, wrapping around the Guard. I fought against the urge to close my eyes as the sickening crunch of his body shook from inside the thick tendrils and released him, his body crumbling to the ground like a child’s rag doll, and focused my attention on the oncoming army.
They knew how we were finding them.
A heartbreaking thought crashed through me. Maybe someone told them we were coming.
Ryst charged forward, heat bursting off her as she ran past. I winced and stepped away, the smell of my own burned hair in the air, singed by her Magic. She looked back, her eyes illuminated, the piercing on her lip heated to a menacing shade of bright red, pulsing with the intensity of a sword being tempered by a blacksmith.
Two balls of flame exploded from her fists, lighting them up like small suns.
“Do you really want me to hold your hand right now?” she asked with a smirk.
“Everyone!” she shouted over the soldiers’ roars as they stampeded toward us. “We’re going to push them back!”
“Ryst, you should know, I—” Kenzi started.
“Gods damn it, not—” she ducked to the side as an arrow whisked by her, and she threw out her hand, a burst of flame exploding forward, knocking two soldiers with bows backward onto the ground. I felt them hitting the earth with a thump. “Not now!”
Kenzi crackled, his skin snapping with electricity.
“Fine,” he muttered, the hollow, echo-filled sound of his voice rumbling in his throat, the way it always did when he channeled up his gifts. “But if we don’t make it—”
“I said—” Ryst started.
“You know how I feel,” he said. He glanced over at her and then past her at me. “Happy now?”
“Kind of,” I said with a shrug.
“Boys,” Ryst grumbled. “I’ve got no time to think about love when the world is ending. Get ready.”
The Citadel soldiers grew closer, their screaming loud and intense. The new weapons had a dull luster as they rushed, catching bits of light streaming in through the tree canopies lining the mostly covered road.
“They changed their armor. The weapons. Everything,” I said, my heartbeat quickening as they grew closer.
“Hold!” Ryst shouted, lifting a hand up in the air as Kenzi shot out a crackling blast of lightning, taking down an archer far up the hill. A few Citadel soldiers turned their heads, slowing down their run before joining back in with the rest of them.
“I had no idea they were even there,” I continued. “It all felt so different—”
“If you think I’m going to die because of a change in fashion, you’ve got another think coming, Caenum,” Ryst snarked, swatting at my shoulder. She breathed in and out, bits of smoke pooling from her nose and mouth as she exhaled.
“Let’s light them up.”
The Citadel soldiers thundered against the road as they drew closer. I could make out faces. Young. Old. Weathered. Inexperienced. Expressions that said they’d been to battle and some that had likely never seen it and never would again.
“Now!” Ryst roared over the sound of the Citadel soldiers. With a wave of arms and a roar, roots exploded from the soil, tendrils seeking and reaching and wrapping. Around legs, arms, torsos. Kenzi and Ryst shot blasts of lightning and flame at the soldiers as they writhed about in the roots and ivy, cutting madly at the plants that held so many of them in place. I staggered back at each cut and slash dug into the green, slicing them like my own skin, like hundreds of daggers and hatchets and swords were knicking at my body.
Those not cut down by Ryst and Kenzi’s blasts were wriggling and cutting themselves free. I struggled to hold them down, but I could only do so much before feeling entirely drained. I grit my teeth and pushed one more time, the roots grasping and flailing, when a hand pressed against my shoulder.
“Hang back,” Schmidt said, pulling a hatchet out from his belt. “We’ve got this.” “Forward!” Ryst shouted as some of the Citadel soldiers finally wrestled free, moving toward us, blades swinging. Kenzi turned to look at me, and I nodded. I’d be fine. The remaining soldiers, a solid number either sprawled out over the cut-up roots–bodies burned and shocked, the greenery blackened and dead–ormoving toward us or hurrying away, back up the hill or into the woods.
I looked behind me. The two Conduits that had been cut down lay sprawled out on the soil, their blood staining the earth next to the roots that swallowed the soldier responsible. I squinted. Quirno lay still, but the other, the one I didn’t know . . . there was a quick flash of movement. A flutter of an eye, the twitch of an arm.
He was still alive.
Blades clashed madly against bursts of Magic. Flame breaking against shields, surges of water being broken by swords, the pillars split in two.
“Healer!” I shouted, my voice breaking. “Someone!”
Kayseid, one of strongest Healers and one of the youngest Conduits in our militia, rushed away from the battle toward me, eyes wide and searching.
“Where?” he asked.
“Come on,” I said, pulling him forward. We hurried over to Quirno and the other Conduit, who twitched against the ground, one of his arms shaking as he looked up at us, a gaping wound in his chest.
“Gods, he’s—” I shirked out of the way of what looked like a dagger or a small sword that came hurtling by, clattering against the earth near us. I caught a glimpse of Schmidt taking down the soldier who appeared to have thrown it, with a hard swing to his chest.
“Run right through, I know,” Kayseid muttered. “Let’s see.” He rubbed his hands together, hard, golden light illuminating from them. “You able to stand guard? I know you’re weak after you—”
“I’m fine, I’m fine!” I snapped.
“Got it.” He nodded curtly and pressed his hands down against the Conduit’s chest. The Conduit gasped, gritting his teeth.
“Hey,” I said, nudging the Conduit. “What’s your name? Hmm? Come on, stay focused, stay with me.”
He looked at me, his dark brown eyes focused and pained. “Bardhan,” he groaned out, spitting out a bit of blood.
“Good, good,” I said, nodding. “That’s good. After all this, we’ll head to the tavern. Back at home. We’ll talk. I bet you have good stories from our time out here.”
“Sure,” he muttered and then screamed, loudly, as bones came back together, snapping loudly in his chest, reforming and melding back quickly. I watched the muscle grow back over fast, his breathing intense and quick. He exhaled loudly and coughed.
Kayseid dove to the side as a soldier lumbered through and swung a sword back down on Bardhan, silencing him. He turned, his sword bloodied, and rushed toward me. I wrestled with my Magic, pulling as much power as I could, and managed to push just a handful of brambles out from the woods and some thin roots from the ground, which he swatted away like they were nothing.
He raised his sword.
I closed my eyes.
And opened up them at the sound of screams following his swing. Kayseid lay sprawled out in front of me, the sword in his chest, and the Citadel soldier was crumbled on the ground, his skin red and welted, burned beyond recognition. I turned away, feeling a retch in my stomach, as Ryst and Kenzi rushed over. I glanced back at the battle, Conduits finishing off several soldiers who were writhing on the ground or chasing away fleeing warriors.
“You hurt?” Kenzi asked. I winced; a long red slash marred the right side of his face, the cut above and under his eye. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
He turned his eyes to Kayseid. “Gods damn it.”
“I think . . . I think I can fix this . . .” Kayseid lifted his arms up, shaking, and placed his palms against his chest. He was still alive, and the sword was protruding out of his chest. The golden light pulsed from his hands onto his flayed skin, and I glanced up at Kenzi and Ryst. She pulled Kenzi close and buried her face in his chest, and he shook his head at me. I turned back to Kayseid, the glow from his hands pulsing brightly, then going out, bright and out, like a dying firefly.
“Hey,” I whispered to Kayseid. “Here, give me your hands.” I reached out, and he swatted me away. “It’s all right,” I continued.
He looked up at me, his eyes damp. His hands stopped glowing, and with surprising speed, he reached out and grasped one of mine, clenching it tightly.
“I wasn’t ready,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. His hand trembled in mine.
Until it didn’t.