Sample Chapters: The Beast at the Gate

 

THE BEAST AT THE GATE

Rayna of Nightwind Series, Book One

 

© Copyright December 2012 JK Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

ISBN# 978-1-301-20108-2

 

 


Chapter OneRayna

 



Rayna began to question the wisdom of going for a drive so late at night, knowing that a storm was on its way. Though she strained her vision, Rayna could see only a few dozen feet ahead; beyond that was only deep shadow, which seemed poised to swallow her as the car approached it. She could hear the faint rumbling of thunder in the distance. Recently graduated from college, Rayna moved back with her mother in their home on Nightwind Drive.

Just a few more minutes, she told herself, and then I’ll turn back. Rayna sat stiff in her seat, her back as rigid as the apprehension she felt. Her petite frame was angular and well-toned. The bones of her face were prominent and were a striking testament to her mixed Native and African-American heritage. Her skin, drawn tight against her face, giving her an attractive sculpted look. Her cheekbones were high, and her jaw was sharp-edged beneath full lips that always seemed to be in a pout. Jet-black hair full of vibrant sheen rested at her shoulders in thick, unruly curls.

The soft-hued backlighting from the dashboard cast a cool tint of indigo to her reddish-brown skin. For a car belonging to a twenty-two year old, its interior was uncommonly quiet, outside, the subdued hum of the motor. Music was distracting, and Rayna found she focused better in silence.

With her free hand, Rayna reached for her purse, which lay in the passenger seat, to get her mobile phone. After a brief rummage inside her purse, she realized she had been in such a rush to get out, she forgot to bring her phone. It’s still probably charging on the dresser in my room—right where I left it, she thought, mildly chiding herself for her absentmindedness. No matter, I won’t be gone long.

Instinctively, Rayna glanced at her watch, a gift from her mother on her sixteenth birthday. Over the years, it served her faithfully without fail, through exposure to rain and through bumps against various objects. Its face was a smiling clown; the two ends of whose bright-red mustache served as the minute and hour hands. A clown watch. She sometimes felt ashamed to wear it but could never bring herself to replace it. Now, the mustache indicated it was a quarter to midnight.

Spindly shadows of the nightscape passed over Rayna as she drove, reflecting in silence.

Her mother had a tough time letting Rayna go away to college, even though she earned a full scholarship in natural science. Her mother was willing to let her go only because she wanted Rayna to be—as she put it—‘A woman of power.’

A flash of lighting streaked across the night sky briefly illuminating the car’s cabin in a flickering white glow. Rayna had another bad dream earlier tonight. It so disturbed her she could not go back to sleep. It was a recurring dream, but she could remember only parts of it. She knew it involved a mysterious woman urging Rayna to follow her somewhere. It took place somewhere mostly dark but with small sparks of light, like stars in a midnight sky. The woman was dressed in some type of green uniform unlike anything she’d seen before. The woman’s face didn’t look threatening initially. However, a closer look showed her eyes to be unusual; they had no whites or pupils, black balls filled their sockets, giving them a sinister appearance as they watched Rayna. In the dream, as Rayna walked toward the woman, she realized she was walking into some kind of trap. Before she could escape, she felt herself falling into a black nothingness. As Rayna fell, she could hear the woman’s cold laughter. Then she would wake up, always troubled and frightened.

A lone car with its high beams on rushed towards Rayna. She squinted and looked away toward the side of the road trying to recover her sight. As the car passed, she noticed it had its wipers on. Only then did Rayna realize it was raining. She silently scolded herself for letting her musing distract her.

Her windshield was alive with the sound of light drizzling rain dancing on its surface. Thunder crackled nearby. Like jagged white flames, bolts of lightning blazed from the sky at a startling pace. The pace of the rain increased even as Rayna turned on her wipers. The wet road looked like black glass in the darkness. Rayna decided the weather made driving unsafe, and she scanned ahead for a good place to turn around. It was time to go home, tomorrow she would tell her mother her decision. If she was truly to become the woman of power her mother wished, it had to be done.

A woman stood in the middle of the road straight ahead. She seemed to have come out of nowhere. Terrified, Rayna slammed on the brakes. The road, slick from the pouring rain, offered no traction and the car skidded out of control. Rayna fought to regain control of the car, her mind flooded with fear. Time slowed, threatening to suspend the horrible moment forever. Suddenly, the road was gone, replaced by shrubbery and grass. Mud and loose rock bombarded the windshield threatening to break through. Rayna could barely see where she was going and was still frantically trying to stop the car. A large stone hit the windshield, which cracked, spreading a cobwebbed ripple across Rayna’s already severely limited view. She could feel the car swaying and rocking as she struggled to keep it from flipping over.

Graphic images raced through her tortured mind of her dying amid twisted metal and flames. Control! She needed control. She battled with the steering wheel, jerking it wildly like a sea captain of days long gone fighting the wheel in rough seas. After what seemed an eternity, Rayna felt her wheels grip something solid. The car began to slow, but through the ruined windshield, Rayna knew it would not be soon enough. Directly ahead of her was a large oak and there was no time to avoid it. Rayna never felt so helpless in her life. The next instant she heard a deafening crash. Perfect silence followed.

***

 



When Rayna came to, she was so lightheaded she was afraid she would lose consciousness again. Her head pounded demanding an aspirin she didn’t have. She managed to undo her seatbelt then did a quick check of herself. She jabbed her side with trembling fingers, jabbed her stomach and legs, but no pain answered her probing. To her relief, she wasn’t hurt—besides feeling faint, weak, and queasy. She didn’t know if she passed out from the crash itself and possibly from an impact to her head, or from the fear. She couldn’t feel any bumps on her head, and she wasn’t bleeding. However, her headache and disorientation worried her. A concussion? Her watch told her she had not been out for long; it was ten minutes to twelve. The rain was coming down hard, pounding on the roof of her car like countless coins dropping into a tin bucket. Rayna was sure it was that racket, which awoke her so soon. Perhaps it was the thunder, she thought, listening as its booming sound filled the air.

Dazed, she brushed shattered bits of wet glass from herself. Bracing herself for the worst, she got out to inspect the damage. The front of the car was pressed firmly against the tree, with its headlights busted and dark, she could just make out the steam spouting from the bent hood. The car was the most valuable thing Rayna ever owned. Though she knew that wasn’t saying much, the years of freedom the old car gave her made it priceless. The modest blue four-door Ford she bought used from a friend, with practically no mileage, now appeared smashed beyond repair.

With considerable effort, Rayna managed to tear her muddled mind away from trivial concerns about the car; the wreckage could be concealing flames that might cause an explosion. She had to get away from there. With unsteady feet, she began to distance herself from the car, too confused to focus on a specific direction. As she made her escape in the rain, she tried to look for a way back to the main road. The darkness was nearly pitch-black, which made retracing her car’s tire tracks impossible. She was surrounded by a dizzying world of shadow and rain, and she momentarily braced herself against a tree to keep from falling. Trees and foliage extended in every direction, and the farther Rayna walked, the deeper the woods seemed to get. New apprehension settled over her like a chilled mist. Stay calm Rayna, have to stay calm, she told herself. However, she knew she was lost. It didn’t seem right her car strayed so far from the road or the stretch of road she was driving was surrounded by such thick forest. As she stumbled ahead, the tall gangling army of trees seemed to move slightly aside to make room for her before closing back in, barricading the way from which she came. Rayna rubbed her wet face and blinked to clear her eyes. Her mind was playing tricks on her, doubling her vision and making things appear to move that weren’t. Definitely a concussion, she thought.

Rayna had to admit, however, the canopy of oaks and willows were useful for blocking some of the soaking rain. Mud sucked viciously at Rayna’s shoes as she trudged through the woods looking for a way out. Her eyes spotted something ahead, a standing figure.
Rayna stopped walking, slipped behind a nearby maple, and hid. It was possible, she thought, the person saw the accident and was there to help, but Rayna wasn’t going to take that risk. She was a young woman alone in the woods at night; she was not about to embrace the first stranger she saw. She would find her way out on her own. As quietly as she could, Rayna turned around praying the rain would hide her as she crept away in the opposite direction.

After going a short while, she managed a staggering jog. Frequent lightning lit her way as she hurried ahead. Looking behind her, Rayna could see nothing but layers and layers of dense forest that closed behind her like dark curtains. By now, the rain completely drenched her, aided by a strong wind that caressed her with its icy touch. Her dark, wet hair flapped around her head and face in the rushing breeze. The brutal storm defined Rayna Powell. She was no longer a twenty-two-year-old college graduate with hopes of becoming a scientist one day. She was a terrified child lost in the woods.

Suddenly Rayna stopped running and stared ahead, unsure of whether or not to blame her concussion, again, for what she was seeing. The mysterious figure stood silently ahead of her in the distance, as if Rayna never changed her course. She decided it was real—she was being followed. The tense muscles in Rayna’s legs were ready to run, but fear paralyzed her. A cold panic descended upon her; she felt herself tremble like a rabbit facing a wolf. The rain and distance made it impossible for her to know if it was the same person. It seemed to be, but that was impossible. How did he or she get ahead of Rayna in woods as thick and dark as this? Nobody could move that fast! Gradually, Rayna felt her rational mind return to her.

She had to believe there were at least two people out there, possibly more. Could they be a rescue party? Rayna seriously doubted it. Neither of them attempted to call out to her nor identify themselves, and the accident didn't occur that long ago. Whoever they were, Rayna was convinced they were not good Samaritans. The other one was probably on his or her way to join the accomplice. If she tried to run again, she might fall into an ambush.

She focused her attention on her present stalker. The heavy showers formed a veil between the two, preventing Rayna from seeing much more than a hazy outline of her pursuer. The chill of the rain on Rayna’s taut face suddenly felt unbearable as she saw the stranger begin to walk towards her. Whoever it was advanced softly and confidently in the darkness.

Nervously, Rayna called out loudly, only half expecting a response. “Hello? Who are you, and why are you following me?” Hesitantly, she added, “I don’t need any help, I’m just fine.” She swallowed deeply after she spoke, and then waited.

The stranger said nothing and continued steadily towards her.

Buried anger slowly seeped its way into Rayna’s consciousness, washing away her fear. She was letting herself be intimidated by someone she couldn’t even see clearly. Fear of the unknown. Her intuition told her that whoever was out there was unarmed and was trying to prey on her fear. She refused to give the person that satisfaction. Caution wasn’t working—she would trust her intellect to bring her through this alive. She frantically looked around for something useful.

A nearby storm-beaten tree provided an answer. At the foot of its trunk lay an assortment of branches and twigs. It didn’t take Rayna long to find one that suited her, a straight branch about a yard long with enough weight to be an effective weapon. She grabbed one end of it and swung it against the tree as a test.

Braaac! The solid sound of wood striking wood briefly interrupted the steady rattle of the rain. Her headache, however, drew strength from the vibrating impact. Stubbornly, Rayna swung the limb at the tree again, this time more as a warning to her enemies than a test of its strength.

Satisfied, Rayna gripped the branch like a baton. It was strong wood that would not break easily. Strong enough to take a man down, she hoped. She inhaled the damp night air fully and stepped forward into the gloom to meet her unknown adversary. It’s time for this terrified child to be brave if she wants to survive the night, she thought. The clouds became alive again with an endless series of lightning flashes. Rayna was never in a storm as violent as this one. Thunder roared and rolled, testing the full range of its scales. The wind pushed urgently at Rayna, forcing her to push back. It felt like it was trying to turn her away and shield her from what lay ahead. Rayna continued forward, club in hand. As she drew nearer, the shadowy figure slowly took shape, sharpening into a detailed, clear image.

Rayna now recognized the woman as the one she ran off the road to avoid. Though she saw her face for only a second, it was painted in her memory as vividly as a photograph. Rayna felt certain it was her, with her long, lustrous black hair streaked with gray and her cold, dark eyes.

The woman smiled.

“Thank you, Rayna Powell.” Her woman’s voice was hollow and measured—unnaturally so.
For an instant, Rayna was almost ready to forgive the lady for the fright she put her through, thinking the woman followed her only to offer her gratitude. Then Rayna realized the woman, a stranger, called her by name.
As if summoned, a recent memory triggered in Rayna’s mind. She stared in disbelief. She did know this woman. She was the one in Rayna’s dreams, dressed in the strange green uniform, with the same unsettling tone to her voice. With the same eerie black orbs for eyes. Fear and bewilderment sucked at her—she felt as if she was sinking deeper and deeper into a nightmare.

“Am I dreaming?” Rayna heard herself say without thinking.

The lady cackled the same chilling laugh that haunted Rayna’s dreams so many nights. “You exist not to dream but to become.” She raised her arms high, as if welcoming the icy rain to drown her.

Rayna paused, confused. The air suddenly became alive with heat. A clap of thunder vibrated in Rayna’s clenched teeth. Jagged slivers of lightning ripped open the heavens above. Rayna wasn’t sure what was happening, but it was getting too dangerous to stand her ground. This was no natural storm, and it was no dream. Rayna knew she needed to seek shelter quickly. The woman apparently was in some sort of shock, blind and deaf to what was happening. Rayna considered dragging the woman with her but dismissed the idea. That would make it the second time she would have endangered her life as a result of the uniformed stranger’s reckless abandon. The woman would have to save herself this time.

The woman’s eyes snapped open as a fresh chain of thunderbolts hurled down like a volley of arrows. Then came more—closer and closer—until Rayna and the mysterious woman were bathed in a continued renewal of celestial light. Rayna could only watch the event in transfixed terror, afraid if she moved one of the bolts would strike her down in the bizarre lightning orgy.

When her eyes darted upward at the angry sky, she knew her fear was about to come true. Rayna felt herself engulfed in an explosion of pain. Flaming light burned in her tear-glazed eyes, hands, and feet, forcing her to her knees. Only the mercy of unconsciousness rescued her from the onslaught of agony.

 

 


Chapter Two: Irel’s Band

 



Rayna drifted in the dark oblivion. She felt herself floating freely in its space. Stray noises with no discernible source faded in and out of range. Starting as a few simple beeps and hums, they gradually multiplied and melded into a complex, harmonious symphony of machine sounds. Rayna turned around in slow motion. “A dream?” she wondered aloud. Slowly, a large mirror formed and shimmered in front of her. Rayna frowned. Her reflection was that of the uniformed woman.

“I do not exist to dream, but to become,” the reflection whispered. The mirror shattered, sucking Rayna into the void it left in its place. The place of machine sounds and nothingness fell away violently.

***

 



Rayna’s eyes opened to a world far unlike the one she left, with the darkness replaced by the light of day. She lay sprawled on the ground like a discarded rag and struggled to stand, fighting disorientation that lingered from her blackout. After she stood upright and breathed in mind-clearing air, her mouth gaped in disbelief. Gone were the rainy woods and the mysterious woman; barren, flat wasteland surrounded Rayna. The dusty red ground beneath her feet was hard and lifeless, without even a single weed. Trailing networks of small fissures and cracks spread over the earth.

The landscape appeared unnaturally forbidding, and Rayna began to doubt her sanity, wondering if such a place could only emerge from madness. The sky, colored a red so complete it formed a seamless union between it and the equally red ground beneath, obscuring the horizon.

She couldn’t tell one direction from another; there were no trees, hills, or anything she could use as a marker. Various-sized rocks, strewn across the expanse, too haphazardly to offer any navigational aid.

A wave of sickening dizziness came over Rayna, and she almost lost her will to stand. She staggered a few steps before regaining her balance. Her head pounded in a frenzy of pain. No visible sun, no clouds... What was this place? She forced herself to look down at her feet, and the nausea faded.

Before Rayna could ponder her situation any further, she heard strange sounds all around her, and it made her aware of yet another problem—a terrifying one. Continuous bolts of lightning lanced their way down to the earth. Rayna winced, remembering her recent encounter in the woods, but this was different lightning. This lightning was unusually narrow, and it came down perfectly straight, like some sort of white laser. No rain or wind accompanied it, the air was as dry and dead as the parched ground on which she stood. In place of a crackle, the lightning made sharp popping sounds, like a bug-zapper. When the bolts struck the earth, they exploded, leaving shallow craters about the size of Rayna’s fist.

Rayna noticed the entire landscape, spotted with such lightning craters. Their pattern, random and wild, made it appear as though mad giants with round, spiked shoes, had invaded the world. The feeble snapping sound the bolts made did not fool Rayna. She knew she stood in the midst of falling death. She paused. How did she get here? The last thing she remembered was being struck by lightning. If that were true, Rayna proposed, why was she not hurt or dead? She recalled literally being set ablaze from the lightning storm, yet she could find no burns or other physical evidence of having been struck.

Secondly, why was she here? She shuddered to think she had really died and materialized in this hellish afterworld as punishment for some unknown deed. Rayna’s forehead wrinkled in worry. It was possible she was hallucinating, that explanation made the most sense of any. On the other hand, she reasoned, on the other hand, this could be an extension of the strange, dark dream from which she had just awakened.

Rayna sighed, dismissing that possibility. Unlike the dream, the pain of her headache from the car wreck was present and pounding. Her resolve strengthened, and she deeply inhaled more of the strange red-tainted air. This was no dream, and it was not the time to second-guess herself. Rayna’s thoughts shifted to the woman she had seen in the woods. What happened to her?

Her concentration was shaken when a charge of lightning touched down close to her left. The small pit it left behind smoldered with the promise of instant death to anyone foolish enough to stay around for another. Rayna scolded herself with fear-laced sarcasm. Only I, she thought, would sit around and debate a situation while unknown energies blasted around me. She wanted to blame her recent blackout or her headache for the dangerous lapse in urgency, but she wasn’t sure. The questions would wait. Survival was first priority.

Rayna started to walk, slowly at first, then faster, until she was at a full run. She didn’t know where she was running to. She prayed she would find a road leading to a neighborhood—any neighborhood. Rayna found solace in the possibility of reaching a phone and calling to have her mother to pick her up. Then this nightmare would be over.

Suddenly, she heard a loud pop, and fragments of rock sprayed over her back and neck. As she ran, she turned her head to see a newly formed lightning crater with hot gray smoke ushering out. Rayna panted with relief. If she had been running just a little slower, she would never have seen her mother, or anyone, ever again.

Two lines of the white energy landed almost in the same spot in front of her. Rayna dodged avoiding the flying bits of dust and stone, still running hard. Sweat flowed over the skin of Rayna’s tense face. Its salty wetness slid into her eyes, joining with her tears. Her ears heard only the sound of her own heavy, ragged breathing. Rayna’s burning lungs coughed in protest; her legs began to buckle. She slowed, then collapsed and folded onto the hard ground, gasping in the stale crimson air.

Rayna groaned. When she was running, every tendon had hurt, and her headache had gotten considerably worse. Now, the fall intensified the muscle pain so much her headache seemed trivial. Wearily, she rose back to her feet. Her ankle stung under the pressure of her weight. She wiped her sweaty face to clear her vision and discovered blood. Rayna’s body was so filled with pain, she couldn’t tell exactly where the blood came from. She felt like a drunkard vainly trying to pinpoint her nose. From the location of the blood, she guessed she had a nosebleed.

As she limped on, a brief surge of tingling warmth came over her. Rayna ignored it, not daring to stop walking. She could see and feel the white beams detonating all around her. Eventually, Rayna’s sense of terror became as depleted as her body. She no longer flinched with each loud impact. She was no longer in any condition to dodge the bolts—that would take too much valuable energy. Instead, she doggedly hurried down a linear path of cracks at her feet. The fissures in the ground, though jagged, did follow a somewhat straight direction. She refused to let herself die here, in this lonely, bitter place. She found her thoughts drifting back to another, better time. She recalled how she used to help her mother tend her garden many years ago.

Her mother let her do much of the planting, and she was proud to care for that small spot of land. A stray cat delighted in trespassing into that beloved space. The long delicate stalks and stems of lovely flowers were nothing more than green yarn to the cat. Some days, when Rayna came home from school, she would see the cat in her garden joyfully pouncing about and swatting at her beautiful plants—mangling them with its paws. Furious, she would chase the pest away, her ebony ponytails flying in the afternoon air. The cat, no wiser from the ordeal, would return to play in the garden the next day. Rayna stared at her dismal surroundings. This was no beautiful garden.

This place was so desolate and empty she would gladly have that miserable cat by her side now. Rayna closed her eyes to the loneliness around her and imagined being back in her garden. She imagined the feel of fresh soil in her hands, the purity of a spring breeze washing over her, blending with the perfume of budding flowers as she worked. A wonderful, cool breeze, so…

She felt the breeze!

Rayna opened her eyes in shocked surprise. She had grown so used to the windless world in which she was trapped, the change felt almost traumatic. The current of clean air was steady and gentle. She felt its soft touch brush the right side of her cheek. Her fatigue momentarily caused her to forget where she was. She was still walking, her feet on autopilot. Rayna’s head tilted upward at the sky, testing the air with her face. Cautiously, she continued onward, letting her sense of touch guide her through the faint, whispering, airy oasis she found. The lightning became less frequent, and she noticed fewer craters as she hobbled on. She scarcely bothered to look up at the sky to predict its descent. The breeze got mercifully stronger. Then, as if an atmospheric veil had lifted, the dim, red world that had become familiar slowly receded, and soon Rayna was standing on green earth.

 

 


Chapter Three: Kuara

 



Ragged but determined, Rayna made her way across the grassy plains. The bright morning sun and gentle wind helped brighten her mood and replenish her precious little stamina. It was hot, and the breeze was just enough to make the heat tolerable. Rayna removed her sweater and tied it over her head, bonnet style. It gave her much-needed shade from the overbearing sun, though by now she was already perspiring profusely. Her blouse, soaked with sweat, made the wind feel blessedly cooler. Rayna couldn’t help thinking that not long ago she had been standing in an icy downpour at night, and then awakened in a red wasteland. Now she was here—a sunny, green, and very warm pasture.

By now, Rayna found that little could surprise her. She wanted only to get back to civilization and go home. Her ankle hurt, forcing her almost to hop forward, putting as little weight as possible on the injured ankle. The countryside was flat enough to see for miles in each direction; it didn’t take long before Rayna saw what she was looking for. A small town loomed in the distance, perhaps two miles away—thirty minutes by foot, much longer if one foot was hurt like hers. Several small houses lay scattered at its outskirts, like little children who wandered too far from their mother. Rayna glanced at her watch and saw it had stopped near midnight, moments after the car wreck.

She unclasped the band and took the watch in one hand, lightly smacking it into the opposite palm to try to get it working again, but to no avail. The grinning clown face stared at her, the halves of its silly mustache saluting upward. Rayna tapped and shook the watch a few more times, then gave up, reattached it to her wrist, and looked for somewhere to rest. The pain in her ankle told her the injury could not go untreated for much longer, and she needed to limit her walking. As far as Rayna could tell, there was no bleeding, but she feared what she would find underneath her sock. At the very least, the ankle felt extremely swollen. She bent down and explored the ankle with a light touch, grimacing in pain that felt as fresh as the initial injury. She tried to remove her shoe to take some of the pressure away, but even though she handled her foot as gently as possible, the pain forced her to stop. Rayna knew she would never make it to the town like this. She guessed she might be able to walk for five minutes at a time, at most ten, before the pain became too great.

As tempting as the grassy meadow looked, she resisted the urge to lie down. If she rested here, she thought, the swelling would only get worse, the muscles would stiffen, and she might not be able to walk at all. Then she would be stranded—alone and helpless in the middle of a field foreign to her, with nothing to eat but grass.

As if in answer to her worries, Rayna caught sight of a small, green cottage. She hadn’t noticed it at first because a gentle slope mostly hid it. Its old-fashioned charm suited the rustic landscape perfectly.

Rayna smiled optimistically. Whoever lives there, she thought, would hopefully drive her to a hospital. However, from her vantage point, she couldn’t see any sign of a car or garage. On a sudden impulse, Rayna turned to look back at how far her travels had brought her. Past the waving grasses and sea-blue skies, she could still see the edge of the crimson abyss from which she had come. It was like staring back at a nearly forgotten dream—pale and insignificant in the distance. She turned, putting the past behind her, and headed for the cottage.

The door to the cottage was open, as if whoever lived there was expecting her. Beyond the gloom of the doorway loomed a lone figure sitting at a table. Rayna paused, now uncertain of her prospects here, but her pain made her abandon caution, and she went inside. Upon closer inspection, Rayna saw the figure was a girl, thin, frail, and sickly. She was dressed in dirty white robes and was barefoot. Rayna guessed she was about eleven or twelve years old. She looked tired, as if she had not rested in a long time.

The girl held a staff of polished tan wood, both ends wrapped with silvery metal. Something about her concerned Rayna. The girl’s skin had an unhealthy tinge to it. Dark hair draped both sides of her long, pale face before coming to rest limply on her shoulders. The overall effect gave her a long, sad, look. Her eyes, like dark, oval pools, reflected sorrow and despair, and Rayna could tell the girl had experienced things far beyond her physical years. Rayna wanted to speak, to ask for help, but the pain muted her.

Thankfully, no words were needed on her part. The youth was aware of Rayna and did not appear to take her unexpected presence as an intrusion. She gestured for Rayna to take a seat in a nearby chair. Without hesitation, Rayna limped over and sat down hard on its wooden seat. She sighed in relief. She closed her eyes and just sat for a moment; her eyes shut tightly in sightless silence, breathing deeply, and savoring the simple joy of sitting.

***

 



When Rayna opened her eyes, she noticed her sneakers and socks were missing. The sweater that had been tied around her head was now neatly folded and placed on her lap.
The girl sat facing her, holding one of Rayna’s shoes, eyeing it with reserved fascination. She glanced up at Rayna sorrowfully, looking even wearier than earlier. “So this is what Powers wear on their feet. The paintings showing you wearing sandals are wrong, Irel.” Her voice was soft and kind, yet so sad.

The girl’s words puzzled Rayna. “I think you have me confused with somebody else. My name is Rayna, not Irel,” she blurted awkwardly. “And I need to see a doctor. I think I broke my ankle.”

The girl smiled faintly. “I am the only true healer you will find in West Taren. My talent is humble, but I was able to restore your wounded foot to health as you slept.”

Even as the girl spoke, Rayna realized the pain was gone. She touched her ankle, lightly at first, then more firmly. She could not find the slightest swelling or redness anywhere. She stared at the girl in disbelief. “How?”

“Your body is strong and healthy. Healing was easy because all I needed to do was focus that strength on your injury.” The girl paused and leaned forward in her chair, staring briefly at Rayna’s sweater before returning her gaze to the floor. “Forgive me for removing your sacred headdress, but I had to know if my eyes were mistaken…they were not.”

Rayna wrinkled her forehead, puzzled. “What are you talking about?”

“Forgive me. I talk in riddles. Let me recall all I know, so you will not think I was not paying attention.” She leaned back and slowly closed her eyes.
For the next few minutes, the frail girl sat so quiet and still, Rayna feared she had died. Then, to Rayna’s relief, the girl began to speak. “Shortly before you came to me, I was peering through the window for signs of the Red Robes. It was then I first saw you. Prophecy tells of a day when Irel will come back and punish those who sent her away. She would cross through the very Band they used to imprison her.”

The girl’s eyelids opened, revealing dark glistening orbs on the verge of tears. “I lived here in Kuara most of my life, and I have seen several people enter into the Band, but no mortal has ever departed from it. And so, Irel—” The girl paused, and then began again, speaking cautiously and thoughtfully. “When I saw you pass from the Band, I was afraid my eyes were seeing things not true.”

Rayna peered out the window. Though it was a strain, she could still see the accursed thing, a crimson stain that would not wash away. “When you say ‘Band,’ you’re talking about that red no-man’s land back there, aren’t you?”

The girl nodded meekly, “We know it as the Band but sometimes call it ‘the Place of Unbent Lightning.’”

Rayna smirked at the colorful names for something that nearly killed her. She remembered the white lasers coming down all around her and repressed a shudder. Turning away from the window, she faced the girl.

“What is that place, really? Some kind of weird military testing ground? I must have accidentally stumbled onto it after the car crash.”

The girl smiled—the kind of sheepish smile people give when they really don’t understand what you’re saying but are too embarrassed to admit it.

“Do you want me to tell you how I knew for certain my eyes had not deceived me?” The girl’s question was an obvious attempt to change the subject to something more familiar.

“Sure. Why not?”

The girl’s eyes widened, looking like sad, ebony saucers reflecting back at Rayna. “Everyone in Taren knows that Powers are round-ears. When I removed your beautiful headdress, and saw your ears, I knew you could be no one other than the Power Irel, free from exile!”
“Wait a minute,” Rayna began. “What’s a ‘round-ear,’ and why do you keep calling my sweater a headdress?”

The girl tilted her head slightly, seemingly confused by the double question. In resignation, she apologized and said nothing else.

It suddenly dawned on Rayna what the girl meant. “You mean my ears are round, so you call me a round-ear?”

The girl nodded. Rayna shot the girl a questioning glance from the corners of her eyes. She felt herself becoming annoyed for allowing the childish game to get this far and not catching it from the start. Rayna wasn’t good with fast, witty retorts, but she wasn’t about to be made a fool by a twelve-year-old. “Well, if I’m a ‘round-ear,’ then what are you, a ‘square-ear’?” she said sarcastically.

The girl, sensing she was misunderstood, simply pulled back her long, raven-black hair so Rayna could see her ears. They were narrow and long, with a sharp, distinctive point at their top. Astonished, Rayna gawked at the girl.

“How...how long have your ears been that way?”

“From the start of my life. All mortal citizens of Taren are as such.”

“You’re telling me there are more people around here with ears like that?”

“Yes, Irel, many more.”

“Please stop calling me that! My name is Rayna, Rayna Powell.” Rayna forced herself to look away from the girl’s disturbing ears. “I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you’re a very tall elf.”

“I know not what an elf is, Irel.”

“That’s a relief–and again, for the last time, my name is RAYNA.”

“Forgive me.”

Rayna sighed, realizing how rude she must have sounded. “No, forgive me. You let me in your home and somehow healed my foot. I really appreciate all you’ve done. And I’m sorry about your…birth defect.”

The girl looked uncomfortable but nodded respectfully, a small smile on her face and a bit of uncertainty in her eyes.

Rayna frowned. “Sorry again. In case you haven’t noticed, I have a tendency of putting my foot in my mouth.”

“It is not my place to question where a Power puts her foot.”

Rayna laughed, and soon the girl’s delicate laughter joined Rayna’s deeper, throatier chuckle. Rayna relaxed, relieved the tense encounter had taken a lighter turn. The girl’s eyes softened, and for a brief moment, she didn’t look so ill. To Rayna’s surprise, she began to sing, a smooth, enchanting melody. Her ethereal voice perfectly suited the song’s haunting lyrics. As Rayna listened, the spirit in which they were sung superseded the girl’s thought-provoking lyrics. Still, Rayna’s sharp mind managed to commit to memory the first few verses:

The club forged of trees
is greater than the sword forged of fire.
For its wood is born of life,
and above life, there’s nothing higher.

Let not evil dark deeds

bring the sorrow, which robs all happiness.
Stand against the hate disguise,
and unite half to make whole our less.

The light is our need
and will take time for us to brandish well.
Winds of wrong blow without toil,
but the labor to make right prevails…

When the girl finished, Rayna wanted to ask her to sing again, sad and almost angry the beautiful song was over. Before she could say anything, the girl spoke.

“That was an old song passed on for many ages. It is customary to offer aPower a gift if one should be fortunate enough to meet one. My father and I are poor. The best gift I could offer was a song. My father says my voice is as lovely as the land of Kuara, so I chose to share it with you.” She smiled briefly, trying not to reveal her pride.

Rayna appreciated the girl’s kindness but knew she was enjoying benefits and courtesies not intended for her. Her analytical mind demanded a rational explanation. Who was this Power called Irel the girl spoke of? How could Rayna be mistaken for her? And how did all of this connect to her being in this strange place?

Rayna surveyed the small room. The minimal furnishings were Spartan, with no upholstery on the wooden chairs and no decorative carving on the small, simple table. She noticed the absence of a television, radio, and lamps—not a single electric appliance could be seen. The windows had no glass, only antiquated shutters. The table where they sat had one unlit candle in its holder, and a mortar and pestle in one corner, its crushed contents still inside. The girl certainly spoke the truth when she said she and her father were poor. Rayna made a sweeping gesture of the area with her hand, nodding several times.

“Nice place,” she lied.

“Thank you.”

“I don’t suppose you have a phone I can use to call home?”

The girl, predictably, shook her head, a puzzled look on her face.

“You don’t know what a phone is, do you?” Rayna asked, softening her voice to avoid sounding condescending.

Again, the girl shook her head.

Rayna leaned back, and the old wooden chair creaked under her weight. She began to massage her temples. “Your song was so wonderful I forgot I have a splitting headache,” she said.

The girl rushed to Rayna’s side and offered to heal her. Rayna was tempted to let the girl do for her headache whatever she had done for her ankle, but she reluctantly refused. The girl looked half-dead already, and she looked worse after healing Rayna’s ankle than before. Whatever she did seem to take a lot out of her, and Rayna feared that any more of this mysterious healing could kill her.

Rayna smiled sadly. “I would simply ask for an aspirin, but I don’t think you know what that is either.”

An awkward silence followed.

Rayna was curious about her host and this strange, backward place, but she couldn’t think of a polite way of asking for explanations. She was pleased when the girl began to talk about herself. Rayna learned the girl was born in a providence called Zuran. She had begun to demonstrate healing talents before she could talk.

“No one was sure,” the girl said, “why I, a child of West Taren parents, would possess magic. Such people as myself are called ‘Unnaturals’ because we are neither truly West Taren nor East. Few of us exist.”


“But you do.”
“Yes, and I believe my mother would have preferred it if I had come into the world blind or crippled instead. You see, when I turned seven years of age, my mother could tolerate my magic no longer. She begged my father to kill me, and she accused me of being a spawn of evil.”

“You’re not evil,” Rayna assured her.

“Thank you, Irel. That means much to me.”

“I’m sorry for interrupting. What happened next?”

“My father, a well-regarded courier by trade, also feared my magic, but he could not bring himself to kill me, his only child.” The girl’s stare focused down at nothing as she relived the past moment in her mind.

“Soon after my father’s decision to spare my life, my mother hung herself outside our home. The note he found in her pocket said she forgave him for being too weak-willed a man to perform the deed.”

Rayna was stunned into silence.

For the first time, the girl raised her voice in anger. “My father is not a weak man! His body may falter, but his spirit never has. Surely you know this to be true, Irel.”

“Yes, of course,” Rayna answered, unsure of what else to say.

Reassured, the girl continued. “My father was fearful for my safety, because soon my talents would be too difficult to hide. Even back then, the penalty in West Taren for using magic was death. The only hope a magic user had of avoiding such a fate was self-exile to the land of East Taren, where magicians were not only accepted but also welcomed. However, my father, as most West Tareners did, regarded East Taren as a foul land not fit for raising West Taren young. Instead, he quit his position and secretly moved us here to Kuara, a West Taren province known for its strong but welcoming people.”

Rayna learned from the girl, though deep in magic-phobic West Taren, Kuarans were rumored to accept magic healers into their community from time to time. According to the girl, her father was a big, strong, hardworking man then and could fit in as a Kuaran native easily. He gambled the Kuarans would accept them both. They did, so the girl and her father remained in Kuara.

Throughout the conversation, much of which went against everything Rayna knew to be rational and sensible—places she never heard of before, the casual references to magic. Yet, Rayna found herself intuitively trusting the girl’s words, accepting them as truth. If it were not for the bizarre course of events leading up to this point, Rayna would have dismissed the whole story as the product of an overactive imagination. Something strange, however, happened to her in the woods during the storm that night. In that context, the girl’s story could make sense.

Rayna recalled the chain of events that led her here. She had been followed by a woman she had previously known only in her dreams, then been struck by lightning, only to appear in a red wasteland unscathed. A pointed-eared girl claiming to be a magical healer had mysteriously healed her badly injured ankle. Then there was the issue of being mistaken for someone called Irel, apparently an important person. It all had to mean something.
A feeble cough sounded from behind a closed door. The girl took notice, looking more anxious than ever.

“Please excuse me. I must go now to attend to my father.” When she stood, the girl leaned on her staff like a cane, as if the young girl’s uncharacteristically mature behavior had internally aged her body. As the girl rushed to the closed door, Rayna decided to follow her, partially out of curiosity and partially out of her desperate need to find clues to the growing mystery of what had happened to her.

The girl opened the door quickly, but Rayna slipped in before the girl could object. The pungent smell of decay and sickness rushed violently into Rayna’s nostrils. She gently closed the door behind her, sensing it never remained open. With the door of the windowless room shut, she felt like she had entered a small tomb. A lone candle illuminated the room only dimly. As Rayna’s eyes adjusted, she first made out a bed, then the man in it, partially covered by a thin, veil-like sheet. His eyes were shut tight, and his breathing was shallow and irregular. His face, the least ravaged by whatever dark malady gripped him, indicated he was somewhere in his forties. The rest of his body, Rayna observed, looked much older.


At one time, he may have been the powerful and hardworking man his daughter claimed him to be, but now, all that was left of his frame was a brittle, withered mass of bone and skin. Then there were his ears—pointed, just like his daughter.

It must be a hereditary deformity, Rayna thought. The dying man spoke no words; Rayna was unsure if that was by choice or due to his sickness.

He appeared blind to Rayna’s scrutiny. His pitiful hacking cough eased only momentarily in response to the girl’s whispered words of comfort that Rayna could not hear.

She turned to Rayna and said, “It has been a long time since my father has been well enough to work. Ever since he became ill, I have earned our bread by healing the local laborers after they toil in the fields all day. It is a secret arrangement that no one outside Kuara knows of. I earn enough coin to care for my father and keep our home, and that is all I need.”
“Why can’t you heal him like you did me?” Rayna asked.

The girl shook her head tiredly as she brought her father some water and helped him to drink. “I fear that is my failure. My father suffers from a rotting sickness that consumes from the inside out. I can only partially heal such a condition, and at that, only modestly. Healing a sore limb or treating a backache is an easy task for me, and I can do so using only small amounts of magic. You see, the Red Robes, though powerful, cannot sense magic used in such small amounts. I can help the farmers and townspeople with their minor ailments without fear of detection.”

“I see,” Rayna said thoughtfully. Her thoughts ran briefly to that of her own father shortly before he died of cancer. She remembered him looking as frail as the girl’s father. She cried when the nurse asked her to leave the room. That was the last time she saw her father alive.

“But your father is a different matter,” Rayna said, drawing herself back tothe present. “His healing would require more than a little magic.”

 

The girl nodded in agreement. “Yes. For years, I have been able to keep him somewhat well through a blend of small healing and herbs I buy in town.

However, recently he got worse.” She clasped her hands around those of her father. “Last night, I feared he would die unless I did more.”

 

“So you gave him everything you could muster, the full extent of yourpower.”

 

“Yes, and it was a great strain on me, but it was not enough, Irel. His illness goes beyond my abilities. Death still grips him, and I know he will die before thesun sets tonight.”

 

Rayna put her hand on the girl’s frail shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

 

“As am I, for now I am certain my magic has been detected by the Red Robes. Soon they will come for me, to punish me.”

 

Rayna struggled to swallow all of what the girl was saying. Magic, Red Robes, death. “Maybe we can find you a hiding place,” she said.

 

“There is no hiding from the Red Robes. Once they have caught the scent of my magic, they will track me down and find me. No one has ever escaped the hunt of a Red Robe.”

 

The girl quickly turned apologetic, forgetting her company was special. “Please forgive me. I am sure a Power as great as yourself could provide me sanctuary. However, my father is too ill to hide with me, and I cannot abandon him in his final hours. I must be by his side through it all.”

 

Rayna remained silent. She wished the girl would stop referring to her as some great Power, but this was not the time to raise the issue. She had to admit, the girl’s father appeared to be in no condition to move, and she agreed that any attempt to move him had a high probability of killing him.

Rayna admired the girl’s maturity and devotion to her father. Watching her, Rayna couldn’t help feeling ashamed of what she planned to tell her own mother before the car accident.

 

The girl spoke, interrupting Rayna’s thoughts. “When I vainly poured out my magic to help my father, I did not know you would be coming, Irel, so I did the only thing I knew at the time would save me.”

 

Rayna didn’t like the sound of that. Afraid of what she might hear, she asked anyway. “What did you do?”

 

The girl walked to a corner of the room, to a small wooden box on the floor. She reached into the box and produced a handful of small dried berries, bluish-gray in color.

“I have used these herbs,” she said solemnly, “in the past for my father’s pain. In small portions, these berries help to ease suffering, but if too much is taken, it sours in the stomach and becomes poison.”

 

Rayna felt her blood run ice cold. It suddenly dawned on her why the girl looked so pale and sickly. “You’re telling me you overdosed on that stuff, and you’re dying?”

 

The girl poured out her confession, speaking rapidly, in a hushed tone. “I have taken more than what was needed to do the deed. I did not want to risk facing the Red Robes alive when they come.” A strange look of resolve passed over the girl’s face. “It was my plan to die with my father tonight and cheat the Red

Robes of their bounty. Unless…” The girl hesitated, looking up at Rayna. “Unless you see fit in your wisdom to change that.”

 

Rayna turned away, unable to look in the dying girl’s vacuous eyes. “What do you think I can do? You are the healer. Heal yourself—please!” she pleaded.

“Whoever these Red Robes are, I’m sure we can talk to them and get them to understand that you used the magic only to help your father. At most, I can see them giving you a few days in prison for breaking the rules. They might even be able to help your dad. Please, heal yourself now. You’re scaring me.”

 

“You are the one my daughter spoke of moments ago,” a crackling voice uttered behind them. Rayna turned to see the bedridden man, who somehow managed to prop himself upright, seemingly through sheer will. “Please come closer, let me see your ears.”

 

Rayna took in a deep breath to calm her nerves, and then did as he asked.

As he peered at her ears, his clouded eyes widened in amazement. “So it is true, the time has finally come,” he said. “Irel is here, and my heart is glad. I know you will vanquish the enemy. Please…” He broke into a fit of violent coughing, which gradually subsided into low wheezing. His daughter brought him more water to drink. As she slowly moved her hands over both sides of her father’s body, Rayna saw a halo of soft light build around the girl’s thin fingers and over her hands. The man’s body relaxed in relief, and he slid down to a supine position. The girl sat on the bed for a moment, momentarily unable to stand. The strain of healing while poisoned was taking its toll.

 

Rayna didn’t believe in magic, but she just witnessed what appeared to be magic in action. The conflict between what her mind refused to accept and what her eyes clearly saw formed an unsettling paradox inside her that wouldn’t go away. Scientifically, she tried to rationalize the feeling away. The glow she saw on the girl’s hands could have been a trick of the light in the dimly lit room; perhaps something on her skin reflected the candlelight. But the feeling she had just witnessed something beyond the explanation of known science remained.

Unnerved, Rayna felt an urgent impulse to flee the house and leave the wholedepressing nightmare behind her, but she sensed the girl needed her. Rayna wanted to say something noble and comforting to them both, something worthy of the wise and powerful person they thought her to be.

Noble, comforting words would not come to her mind. “My name’s not Irel,” she said instead.

 

In reply to Rayna’s feeble and indirect response to her father’s plea for help, the girl’s voice took on a desperate tone. “Irel, forgive me if I can call you nothing else, but you ask me to deny the only name by which I have learned to know you.” As she spoke, the girl added another sheet to her father’s coverings. “He has become weaker still. I think the end is near,” she wept. “I know they say sometimes, before revealing his or her true self, a Power will test a follower to see if he or she is worthy,” the girl said. “I have done everything you have set before me. I have healed you, even though I know you could have easily healed yourself. I have answered your questions, even though you surely know the answers already, and I have explained things that you surely understand better than I. And I have accepted the knowledge that you will not cure my father of his illness.”

The girl’s head drifted downward, then jerked back up again as she resisted the dark sleep as long as she could. “I only ask—no, I beg this one thing of you, for I can feel the cord of death tightening around my neck, like my mother’s noose.”

Rayna envisioned the poison pulsing through the girl’s veins, like hundreds of tainted rivers. She trembled and realized she, too, was crying. Though she had known the girl for only a few hours, she felt there was nothing she wouldn’t do for her. “What is it you want me do?” Rayna asked.

“My father once told me I have the soul of a West Tarener but was cursed with the magic of an East Tarener. He often spoke of how wicked the East Tareners are, saying their ways of magic are the cause of the woes in the world. I don’t believe all magic is evil; I have done much good with mine. My father would ask that you destroy East Taren and its people. I do not want such a thing to happen. I just want peace, true peace—not this false peace we have been living for so long. I believe my father wants this as well, deep in his heart. Please, do this for us and…”

 

The girl collapsed, and Rayna quickly knelt by her side. There on the floor, by the dim light of a single candle, Rayna held the dying girl closely. A faint sound from behind Rayna aroused her attention, and she turned to see a woman standing at the doorway, blocking the only exit from the room.

 

 


Chapter Four: The Talisman of Light

 

The first thing Rayna noticed was her black, wide-brimmed hat made of painted straw. Long, thin, braided locks of her hair drooped down freely from under the hat. She was taller than Rayna—with a lithe, athletic build, and a stance suggesting she was no stranger to fighting. She watched Rayna carefully, with a stare that was more than simply imposing; there was a glint of formidable intellect and purpose behind those unblinking eyes. Unsurprisingly, the stranger’s ears were pointed just like the girl, and her father. Several small drawstring sacks filled with unknown things, hung loosely against her sides, attached by a thin rope tied to her belt. She wore a cloak, a dark-gray tunic along with matching trousers, and worn black boots. In her hand, she held a long curved knife. Her brown face was stern and tense, like dark granite.

 

Startled, Rayna backed away and hurried to her feet. “Are you a Red Robe?” Rayna spotted a wooden chair not far from where she stood. She planned to grab it.

 

“Hardly,” the woman scoffed, sheathing her knife. “My name is Keris.” Following Rayna’s gaze, she added, “Chairs make poor weapons—don’t make the mistake of using them for anything other than sitting. I mean you no harm. If I did, I would have done so.”

 

“Then what was the knife for?”

 

“I trust few people—least of all unknown magic users. However, I have

decided you are a reasonable sort, so I apologize for appearing before you armed.”

 

Rayna quickly dried her tears. She didn’t trust the stranger, and she wasn’t going to show weakness. “What do you want?” Rayna asked in a gruff tone.

 

Keris arched an eyebrow. “I want many things this day: Freedom from oppression, vengeance against my enemies, the sound of my friends near me…but for now, your abilities will suffice.” With uncanny speed and grace, Keris reached down and lifted the girl in her arms, gently laying her on the bed. “I wish I had the chance to speak with her,” Keris said softly, remorse in her voice. “I did not know her, yet I feel she was far stronger a person than she appeared. If she had joined me, it would have been a blessing to my cause. It is said healers bring not only healing, but good fortune as well.” Keris shook her head. “But it is too late. She is dead, and so is her father,” she announced. She held a small mirror near their noses and mouths and failed to see signs of breath. She moved quickly around the room, gathering odds and ends,

bits of food, medical supplies, and cloth, shoving them into her knapsack.

 

Rayna watched her incredulously. “Don’t you have any shame? You can’t just walk in here and start stealing their stuff just because you can.”

 

“I am no thief,” Keris said defiantly. “What I take, I take for our survival in the days that will follow, not profit. The dead have no need for food or medicine, but we do.” She handed a blue robe and a shirt to Rayna. “Here, change into these. The garments you wear are too exotic and will draw attention.”

 

Rayna folded her arms indignantly. “I’m not changing clothes, and I definitely am not going with you.”

 

“We do not have time for debate. If what the girl says is true, the Red Robes could be here at any moment. We need to leave now.”

 

“How did you know about—”

 

“I have followed you ever since I first spotted you limping toward the healer’s home. I waited outside by the window as you spoke to the healer, and I heard everything said. When you two moved into the next room, I could no longer hear, so I came inside.”

 

“You were spying on us?”

 

“As I said earlier, I was planning to recruit this healer for my cause when I saw you. I feared you might be an agent for the Red Robes, so I decided to hide and wait. I could not afford to be detected.”

 

“You make even less sense than the girl did.”

 

“I will explain things in better detail when we are somewhere safer. Now, put these clothes on.”

 

Rayna studied the garments suspiciously. “Whose robes are these?” she asked.

 

Keris shrugged. “They look too long to belong to the girl; they must be her father’s. They should fit you well enough, though.”

 

“I’m not wearing any dead person’s clothes.”

 

“If the Red Robes find us here, we will be dead as well. Now hurry, we don’t have much time!”

 

As Rayna reluctantly donned the shirt and robes, Keris thrust yet another item at her. It was the dead girl’s staff.

“You will need protection. You do not appear to have any of your own.”

 

“She was kind enough to heal me, and you want me to repay her by taking her staff?”

 

“She thought highly of you. Surely she would have given it to you if you had asked while she lived.”

 

Rayna let the staff drop to the floor. “These Red Robes don’t know me, and I haven’t done anything wrong. I refuse to behave like some kind of criminal.

Maybe these Red Robes can help me find a way back home.”

 

Keris’s voice took on an edge. “By coming to the home of a magic user, you have now made yourself a target. The Red Robes are cunning hunters, and such hunters know not only the trail of their prey but everything and everyone that prey has recently been with. That includes you. They will associate you with the magic user and hunt you as well. Any pleas of your innocence will fall on deaf ears. Then

they will interrogate you.”

 

Rayna remained skeptical. “What kind of questions will they ask me?”

 

Keris looked impatient but answered anyway. “They will want to know of your loyalty to the throne, and whether or not you know the whereabouts of other magic users. However, the Red Robes will not trust your tongue. Instead, they will reach into your mind and tear out the information they desire. It is a most painful ordeal.”

 

Rayna, though nervous, tried not to show it. “Why are you so eager to help? What’s in this for you?” she asked.

 

“With the death of the healer, I am still in need of a magic user. I would have preferred a healer—someone who could heal our warriors as they battled. Instead, I will settle for a sorceress, such as yourself.”

 

Rayna laughed aloud. “What? You think I’m a sorceress?”

 

“Unlike the girl, I do not believe you are Irel, or any other Power, for that matter. To do so would lend you more credit than you deserve.”

 

“Thanks,” Rayna quipped sarcastically.

 

“I believe you are a sorceress, though, I will not request proof here, at this time. We don’t need to add to the scent the Red Robes are following.” As if in anticipated response to Rayna’s next remark, Keris added, “Do not debate the benefit of my doubt. If I were certain you couldn’t help me, I would leave you here for the Red Robes to find. Now gather what you may need and let us go!”

 

Stubbornly, Rayna refused to move, watching with disgust as Keris hastily rummaged through more of the dead family’s provisions, like a grave robber. With reluctance, Rayna concluded it was better to go with Keris, a somewhat known, if unlikable element, than to face the totally unknown Red Robes. The Red Robes certainty didn’t sound like good guys, and the girl had been so terrified of them that she had taken her own life to avoid them. Rayna couldn’t imagine anyone so evil who would want to harm someone as kind and as harmless as the girl.

 

Keris stood at the doorway of the room. “Are you coming?”

 

“Yes.” Rayna stepped to join Keris, and at the last minute, she grabbed the staff. She might just need it, she reasoned, if not to defend herself against the Red Robes, then against Keris.

***

 

Rayna felt torn with mixed feelings. She was glad to be out of the cottage and the stale, fetid room where she just witnessed two people die. On the other hand, she was nervous about being with Keris, who moved with the stealth of an assassin. Rayna couldn’t help feeling like a mouse trusting a cat to help it avoid a mousetrap. It was getting late in the day; they fled the girl’s home and hidden a distance away behind a sloping hill. Though the sun had nearly vanished behind the horizon, it was still very warm. Crouched close to the tall grass, they watched the cottage from their concealment. Keris wanted to be certain the Red Robes had truly sensed the girl’s magic and begun pursuit. It didn’t take long to find out: the Red Robes arrived within an hour.

 

Rayna could make out several hooded figures dressed in red, moving in and out of the house. Straining her eyes, she could see them—outstretched hands, touching everything in sight, from the opened front door, to the furniture and walls inside. It was as if they were trying to feel what happened there. Minutes after their arrival, they all gathered outside. One of the figures, who was carrying a torch, set fire to the cottage, and soon the entire home was engulfed in flame. The bodies of the girl and her father were still inside.

 

“So those are the Red Robes,” Rayna whispered, her voice edged with anger.

 

“Yes,” Keris said. “They are the scourge of Taren, and they serve Nephredom and his personal witch.”

 

Rayna didn’t hear her. Watching the burning of the small house, she had become fixated on the dancing, popping flames. The fire forked upward at the darkening sky, like a horrid, clawed hand. Silently witnessing the pyre, Rayna mouthed a brief prayer for the girl and father, she found herself again fighting to hold back tears. The whole time she was there, she thought, she didn’t even ask for the girl’s name. Why didn’t she ask for her name?

 

A warm, tingling sensation on Rayna’s left wrist began to bother her. She felt it almost since they left the cottage and had been absently massaging the feeling away. Now the warmth had intensified to the point she could no longer ignore it.  That was when she noticed the watch on her wrist had a glow.

The growing heat and illumination of her watch’s band were nothing compared to the wonder going on within the watch’s face. The silly clown illustration looked silly no more—it looked terrified. The idiotic grin it once wore was gone; its expression was of animated fear. Its eyes had widened, and its mouth formed a terror-stricken ‘O’ that twitched occasionally. The mustache hands, formerly stuck on midnight, now spun wildly around in opposite directions. No voice came from the clown image, but with a performance like that, Rayna thought, none was needed. Rayna was about to show Keris, but she saw the woman was already aware of the spectacle.

 

“So,” Keris spoke without expression or emotion, “it seems you are the sorcerer I thought you to be.”

 

“Look, I have no idea why my watch is doing this. This is not my fault!”

 

“Shhhhhhh! We will discuss this later. Now end your talisman’s glow before its light and magic reveal our position.”

 

“I can’t get it to stop. My watch doesn’t even come with a light. It’s not supposed to be able to do any of this.”

 

One of the Red Robes looked up in the direction they were hiding.

 

“I think they are aware of our presence,” Keris said. “We must leave now. The town is near—we can hide there for a while.”

 

“Will they chase us?”

 

“Chasing is not their way. They may follow, but they will never run. Like the spider, they are patient hunters. Now come.”

 

Despite her newly healed ankle, Rayna had a hard time keeping up with Keris as they raced together toward town. Keris glided effortlessly across the land like a feline, her sleek body perfectly attuned for motion. Between gasps for air, Rayna found herself silently cursing Keris’s athletic prowess. The heat didn’t help.

 

Only the splendid scenery helped to take her mind off the running. Kuara was filled with a natural beauty Rayna had never experienced. Even in the dusk of day, everything was vivid and full with the color of life, with endless, grassy plains and broad, majestic trees. A pleasant warm wind blew from the west; the star-emerging firmament above lay over the land like a sparkling quilt. Rayna noticed two stars that looked out of place. They shined brightly in the sky in close proximity. One was red and the other blue.

 

Rayna called out to Keris and pointed upward as she ran. “Those two stars. Do you know their names?”

 

“They are called the Twin Stars of Taren,” Keris called back. “Rumor has it they are mystical eyes placed in the sky by the Powers, so they can watch over us. I do not believe in such things.”

 

As the sights of Kuara soothed her soul, Rayna saw her watch was returning to normal. The glow had died down to a barely noticeable shine, and the clown’s ridiculous grin had returned. The hour and minute hands froze at twelve o’clock again. As Rayna watched, the shine disappeared, leaving the watch deceptively innocent looking.

 

They stopped to rest in a blossoming field of wildflowers, with the town in sight. Acres of well-kept farmland surrounded the field in all directions. Keris produced a white scarf from her bag.

 

“Here,” she said, handing it to Rayna. “You must wear this. We will not get much farther with your unusual ears announcing us.”

 

“My ears are not unusual,” said Rayna, tying the scarf around her head so it covered the upper halves of her ears. Her long hair flowed from the top of the scarf, like a plume.

 

“Why then are there no others with ears such as yours?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Well, time is the greatest solver of riddles. We will see.” Keris handed a piece of fruit to Rayna, who bit into it hungrily.

 

“I haven’t eaten in nearly 24 hours.”

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

“Oh, thanks.”

 

Keris sat with her knees drawn toward her, watching Rayna as she ate. “Tell me,” she asked, “back in the cottage, when the girl was still alive, I overheard part of your name—Rayna. What is your full, proper title and origin, Rayna?”

 

Keris irritated Rayna. Who did this woman think she was—first bossing her around, and then asking her casual questions as if her previously rude behavior was irrelevant?

 

“I am Rayna Powell, daughter of Mary Powell and Stephen Powell, the first,” she replied, mocking Keris’s haughty, proper tone. “I live in the affluent suburbs on Nightwind Drive. Is that full and proper enough?”

 

“Nearly. Your homeland is unclear to me. Because you are a sorceress, I will wager you are of East Taren. Is that true?”

 

“No.”

 

“You are a West Taren Unnatural then?”

 

“No.”

 

“Well, then.” Keris’s voice took on a cynical tone. “I assume you wish me to believe as the child did, that you are Irel from the Band.”

 

“I did come through the Band, if you want to call it that.”

 

“And this Nightwind Drive you spoke of, is it on the other side of the Band?”

 

Rayna finished off the last bit of the fruit and crossed her arms defensively. “It has to be. It definitely can’t be around here. Everything here is so primitive.”

 

“What a shame we lack the comforts you are accustomed to.”

 

“You don’t believe I came from the Band, do you?”

 

“No, Rayna Powell of Nightwind, I do not.”

 

“Look, there’s no way I could make up the kind of hell I went through in that forsaken place. The girl had seen me leave that place, why didn’t you?”

 

Keris pulled out a piece of fruit for herself and began to chew on it slowly. “Perhaps I was momentarily blinded by the brilliant light of your presence,” she said. “That is rumored to happen to those who attempt to look directly at a Power without permission.”

 

Rayna fought to keep her composure. “I’m sick of your snide remarks.”

 

“As am I of your lies,” Keris replied. “If you prefer not to reveal to me your true origin, then be straight about it and say so.”

 

“But I’m telling you—”

 

Keris raised her hand in interruption. “Hear and understand this. Primitive I may be, but I am neither child nor fool. No one can walk seven steps into Irel’s Band without being struck down dead. No one. Are we agreed this joke is done?”

 

“Fine. It’s done.”

 

A moment of angry silence passed before Keris spoke again. “Aside from your sorcery, what do you do to earn coin?”

 

“I was a university student, and I didn’t earn coin. My mother sent me money when I needed it.”

 

“Ah, a student. What is your discipline of focus?”

 

“I was a science major.”

 

On seeing the amused look on Keris’s face, Rayna shot back, “Don’t they at least have science here?”

 

“Science is a most futile craft, practiced by a handful in Dosk. They supposedly study in secret, but their secret is poorly kept.”

 

“Where’s Dosk?”

 

“It is an East Taren province, many days’ journey from here.”

 

Rayna was going to ask more about Dosk when she felt a tingle on her wrist. The clown face of her watch grinned on, unchanged, but the watchband took on a steady, faint glow—barely noticeable, even in the fading light. Keris saw it, too.

 

“It appears that your talisman warns you of danger,” Keris said, looking at the watch and then back at Rayna with new insight. “I take it the Red Robes are somewhere near?”

 

“Yes...I guess.”

 

“You do not know the magic of your own artifact?”

 

Rayna frowned. “I’m used to watches telling time, not glowing and making faces.” She recalled how earlier her watch tingled lightly then increased in both sensation and light as the Red Robes drew nearer.

“Somehow my watch has turned into some kind of proximity detector,” Rayna muttered absent-mindedly.

 

“In common tongue, I assume you mean the closer the danger, the greater your talisman’s light becomes?”

 

“I think so.”

 

“Then we need to move on now, while they are still some distance away.”

Keris rose to her feet. Her black hat looked menacing in the darkness.

 

End of sample.

 

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