WARNING: The following content may not be suitable for young readers or audiences sensitive to violent content.
Mara’s feet pounded the ground in an uneven drum beat. Ba-thump. Ba-thud-thum-thump. She staggered across the plain, ducking and dodging and weaving over the blackened, pock-marked earth that had once been covered in grass.
The Vaerin war-machines had already burned it all. And still their flaming projectiles thoomed and hissed through the air, seeking more Cader targets. Thick smoke issued from boiling rocks that had already landed, each one setting fire to anything it touched.
Another hacking cough rattled Mara’s body. But still she pressed on, still struggling to listen for the telltale hum of aether, the sound that was growing louder every second, even over the sounds of war.
“This way!” she shouted to Caders she hoped were still behind her; it was impossible to see them in the smoke.
Ian coughed feebly and tightened his grip on her shoulders. “Mara…” he whimpered.
“Almost there!” Mara breathed, reaching over her shoulder to squeeze the child’s small hands. “Hold on, Ian. We’re almost through the fires!”
Ian weakly squeezed back. “Don’t stop, Mara,” he whispered. “Please don’t stop…” She felt him burying his face into her back.
But his words were nearly drowned out by the next explosion of Vaerin fire. The earth shook; Mara stumbled but kept her footing.
She ran in a jagged line, hoping to spoil the Vaerin aim—but making her path that much longer. Sweat trickled down her forehead, her back, her nape. It was hot. The heat and smoke from flames spreading on either side squeezed the air from her lungs. Still she kept running.
The humming was ringing in her ears now; the blessed sound of a high concentration of aether.
“Mara!” she barely heard Monroe call from behind. She didn’t slow, but she did chance a glance over her shoulder.
She couldn’t see Monroe or any of the other Caders; just a few silhouettes waving back and forth in the smoke, like flags wavering in the heat. She had no idea how many of her friends were still following her. But those few silhouettes she could see were still moving.
“Cover your ears, Ian!” Mara warned. As he clapped his hands over his ears, she bellowed at the top of her hoarse voice: “This way! Follow my voice!”
It hurt to talk, but she was rewarded by the sight of Monroe and Kitti emerging from a billow of fresh smoke, coughing and rubbing red, watery eyes. They chased her doggedly.
“Almost there!” she shouted. “Keep going!”
She just had enough time to see Monroe turn and shout something behind him before she turned back to her task and put on even more speed. She ran past two smoldering tree trunks, just beginning to catch fire. And then she passed more trees, these still green. And then there were trees all around her.
Here, the aether’s hum had reached a feverish pitch. She’d never experienced aether levels quite this high; her skin felt like it was burning from exposure.
“Ma—” came an exhausted, puffing cough from behind. It was Monroe’s voice. “Mara!”
“I’m here,” she called, scooping Ian out of his sling on her back and setting him down on the ground. “Stay back, Ian.”
He scooted obediently a few meters away as Mara began to dust leaves away from the loamy earth in a large circle.
She heard footfalls behind and chanced a glance behind. Monroe, leading ten Caders, stumbled into the clearing. There was no sign of poor old Hare.
Three men had tried to save him, and it still wasn’t enough to douse the Vaerin fires.
Mara rubbed away hot tears of rage. She couldn’t mourn yet. There was no time.
“Mara, what are you doing?” Monroe asked, bewildered and out of breath.
“Keep everyone back!” Mara barked. More sweat trailed down her face. She plucked a stick off the ground and began stabbing lines into the earth: the beginning of a string of ancient Cader runes and mathematical equations.
“It would take a tremendous amount of energy and an extremely skilled mage…”
“What are you doing?! They’re still after us!” the blonde woman, Saundra, cried.
“We can’t stop here! Mara, get up!”
“She’s gone crazy.”
Someone shushed them all.
“But in the end, it’s quite simple.”
“Identify the area of highest aether concentration—” Mara scrawled a circle all around her a meter in diameter. She wiped sweat from her brow, her eyes darting around the writing she’d completed.
“Next, utilize the Thaegorian Axiom, plug in the appropriate numbers…” She glanced up, licking her finger and testing the direction of the wind. She added a few numbers to her equation.
Too long. This is taking too long.
She heard another thoom, far too close for comfort, followed by the crackling of fire licking at wood. The Vaerin were beginning to bomb the forest.
The earth quaked at her feet. She crouched back down to her work, double-time.
“Adjust for the latitude and longitude…” Mara mumbled.
“She’s going to use magic!” she heard Kitti shout in shock, delight, awe. “The—the aether here. Can you hear it?”
“She’s not going to finish in time,” Alan muttered. His voice came from close behind her. “Not before they find us.”
“We’ve got not choice but to trust her!” Monroe yelled. “Do you have some better plan?”
There was a stretch of silence. Mara desperately tried to shut out the voices, struggling to stay focused on her task.
Latitude and longitude… What could their current latitude and longitude be? Come on. Remember your training. Remember everything you studied in the Academy. Her breathing ran ragged, out of control. The smoke in her lungs wasn’t helping. Mara coughed into the crook of her arm.
Latitude of the northern Torien border is something like 49 degrees. But longitude?
With trembling hands, Mara scribbled out another equation, leaving a blank box and staring at it hopelessly.
“Not a better one,” she could just hear Alan murmur over the roar of her thoughts. “But it’s the only one.”
“Alan, what are you—Alan!” For the first time, Monroe sounded… panicked.
The tremor in his voice made Mara turn from her work. She glanced up in time to see Alan disappearing into the woods… back the way they’d come. Back toward the Vaerin.
She felt her mouth drop open in shock. And then fear and dread seeped into her veins. “S-stop him!” Mara screamed, scrambling across her circle on hands and knees. “I can get us out of here! If I can just finish—”
But Monroe—and everyone else—stared at her with pale faces.
“He’s buying you time,” Monroe said simply.
Buying me time. “B-but he has a family—”
“He’s going to distract the Vaerin, lead their shots away so you can finish your magic.” Monroe’s eyes hardened, and he pointed toward the equations she’d made in the ground. His hand was shaking. “So finish!”
It was punctuated by the sound of another thoom off to their left. This time, she could swear she heard a scream—of anger? Of agony?
Mara gritted her teeth and roared, slamming the stick in the earth as she chiseled in her guess. Longitude: -96 degrees.
Tears coursed down her face as the stick fell from her hand. The callous aether shrieked in her ears.
“Keep everyone back!” Mara repeated as she began to rub her hands together.
“Mara…” she heard Ian warn from behind.
Monroe joined him: “I think we’re out of ti—!”
An unbearably loud thoom cut off those last words as the trees erupted in flame. Mara heard someone to her left scream in pain—before the scream cut out in instant death.
“Adonai, please let this work!” Mara screamed as she threw her arms open wide to channel the shrieking aether.
White-hot energy, raw and molten, poured down her throat. The aether flooded her every extremity. Mara’s world went blue and white and bright.
She sensed more than saw a dim purple light flood the clearing. It coalesced into a ring, a doorway that led to nothing but swirling darkness.
A portal. A portal howling and pulsing right in the middle of the burning woods.
She wanted to weep. She wanted to warn the others to get in now, before she lost her grip on the portal. But all her concentration went into this: bending the aether to her will before it tore her apart.
A single tear slipped down Mara’s cheek.
“Mara will get us out!” Ian shouted. “C’mon!” Mara was frozen, but she could just see her little boy dragging Monroe toward the portal.
All Monroe could do was stare at the portal, even as Ian pulled him closer. “What—”
But Ian, at least, knew there was no time. He charged straight into the portal—one moment there, the next gone as the portal swallowed him whole.
“Ian!” Monroe and a few of the others yelled.
Still Monroe hesitated, glancing from Mara to the portal, unsure.
The aether was burning her alive from the inside. Please, Mara begged. Please hurry!
Monroe finally nodded toward the portal. “Everyone in now!”
One by one, the Caders walked toward the portal… and the purple energy seemed to wrap around them before swallowing them. Kitti and Saundra and the woman with brown tresses—Hannah—and the man with the sad eyes—Albrecht. Three men waited to step in last: Erik and Monroe and the young pale man, Kale.
They vanished into the black one after the other, some pale or screaming in terror, others charging ahead before they could be convinced to turn back.
The flames all around Mara burned. Some of the smoke was slipping into the portal, as well. Mara’s whole body trembled, convulsed.
Could she get through herself? Or would the portal close as soon as she lowered her arms, as soon as her form faltered for a split second. Would she be sealed here, on the wrong side, leaving Ian and the others to fend for themselves… wherever she had sent them?
But if she stayed here any longer, the aether itself would devour her from the inside out. It was die by the aether, die by the Vaerin, or try to jump in.
I won’t die here.
With a roar that shook the air, Mara ripped herself from the aether current and flung herself toward the portal. Immediately the portal began to shrink. But she staggered forward anyway. I can still make it.
Vaerin voices shouted and hollered just behind her. The portal loomed a centimeter before her face.
And then suddenly she was through, encompassed by darkness but backlit by crimson fire’s light. With a whoosh like wind, she sensed the portal slam shut behind her. All at once it was gone—the sight of the fires, the light from the outside world, the sounds of the Vaerin hunters—everything.
Mara pitched headlong into the darkness.