By M. Elizabeth Ticknor
Originally published in Flame Tree Publishing’s Epic Fantasy short story collection.
♦ ♦ ♦
White-hot lances of pain stabbed through Adelle’s lungs. She leaned against one of the limestone walls of House Favren’s coliseum and brought a hand to her chest. Agony pierced closer to her heart with every breath. She sent a pulse of healing energy into her chest to temper the wasting curse and pushed the poison down, past her stomach, into her womb.
The howling clash of distant battle echoed from the arena as she caught her breath. Lord Favren’s prized pack of ferals was dueling a trio of havocmages in the arena. Based on the ratio of snarls to screams, the mages were losing.
Unless Adelle succeeded in buying Bastian’s freedom, he was slated to fight those same ferals in three days’ time–and he was scheduled to do it alone. It wasn’t a guaranteed death sentence; he’d spent years in the fighting pits and had a wealth of combat experience. Still, three against one was never good odds.
Adelle caught up to Lady Eclisse just before she exited the arena. Her flaxen hair was pulled back, held in place with dozens of jeweled pins, and her dress was all lavender-colored silks and delicate white linens. Bloodwood gates, carved with reliefs of swordsmen looming over fallen foes, towered behind her.
Adelle knew she must look a fright to the noblewoman; the thought filled her with grim pleasure. She wore the cowled cloak, tunic, breeches, and leathers of a soldier. The curse had drained a portion of her strength, but she still knew how to project a veneer of command despite the waxen pallor of her skin and the dark circles beneath her eyes.
She stepped in front of the lady, ramrod straight, lips pressed in a thin line. “Good morrow, Lady Eclisse. I am Corporal Adelle Xephani, of the Twenty-First Regiment–”
Lady Eclisse’s face puckered like she was eating a sour fruit. “I don’t care who you are. Attempt your climb up the social ladder elsewhere. I’ve an appointment with Lord Favren within the hour.”
Adelle clenched her hands. The temptation to slap Lady Eclisse’s perfectly painted face was strong. “I have no intention of keeping you from your appointment. I’m simply here to requisition the release of one of your gladiators.”
Eclisse laughed mirthlessly. “And who is that?”
“Bastian Lang.” Adelle had been trying for years to find the funds and opportunity to free Bastian from the fighting pits. Before the argument that had led to his arrest and public branding as a havocmage, they’d been lovers. Bastian might be able to help remove her curse; even if he couldn’t, she’d rather die knowing he was free than bound to suffer a similar fate.
“The Fiery Death?” Lady Eclisse sneered. “He’s not for sale.”
Adelle scowled, pulled the parchment scroll from her belt pouch, and unfurled it with a flourish. She kept her thumb firmly over Achos Cruen’s name; it wouldn’t do for Lady Eclisse to realize this contract had been written to enable the capture of a man who was already slain. “I have an official writ of conscription from the Valdian United Militia. It allows me to conscript any citizen into service.”
“Bastian Lang is not a free citizen. He’s been placed under my care until I deem him eligible to return to society, and I have no intention of allowing you to take him.”
“He may not be a free citizen, but you are, milady. If I’m unable to acquire Mister Lang, I’ll have to make do with you instead.” Adelle smiled, all false politeness. “You would be compensated, of course, should you relinquish him to me.”
Eclisse stared at Adelle, aghast. She ripped the scroll from Adelle’s hands and read it with narrowed eyes. “Twenty thousand gold pieces.”
Adelle’s stomach clenched. She’d been saving for years, but didn’t have even half that. “I’ve been authorized to pay seven thousand for his release.”
“That price is laughable. I make over five thousand from the Fiery Death in a single year.”
“There’s no guarantee he’ll survive another one. Besides, what good is the money he earns you in the arena if you die on the battlefield? How much is your life worth to you, Lady Eclisse?”
“This is extortion. I want to speak with your commanding officer.”
A vicious grin spread across Adelle’s face. “Go ahead. Sergeant Geddies specifically sent me to acquire Mister Lang. I’m sure he’ll be eager to handle the matter of your conscription personally.”
Lies, all of it. Adelle had been granted medical leave from the military two days ago, due to her failing health. She’d stolen the writ on her way out of camp. Sergeant Geddies had no idea she was here.
A vein in Lady Eclisse’s forehead twitched. She swallowed hard, grimaced, and nodded. “Very well. Seven thousand.”
Adelle provided ink and pen. The lady signed the writ, authorizing Bastian’s release. She scurried off toward her meeting, stride clipped, shoulders rigid.
As soon as Lady Eclisse was out of sight, Adelle collapsed onto a bench. Her whole body shuddered with a combination of relief and nerve damage too long ignored. She shifted the location of encroaching decay, moving it into one arm, then the other. Away from the heart. Always away from the heart. If it took hold there, it would spread like wildfire through her veins.
Once she managed to bring the curse back in check, she set out for the stables. Hope surged within her, but she tamped it down. For all she knew, Bastian had spent the last seven years nursing a bitter hatred toward her. In truth, Adelle still blamed herself for the argument that led to his exposure. Bastian had lost control of his temper–and his magic–in public. Once he was outed as a havocmage, and a manipulator of fire at that, there had been nothing she could do to help him–until now.
She clutched his writ of release like a lifeline and pushed onward toward the black granite building that housed the fighting pits’ gladiators.
♦ ♦ ♦
The stables might as well have been a prison. There were no windows, no beds, and far too many locks and barred gates. Magic-absorbent sigils adorned the walls. Lonely torches formed islands of light in an ocean of darkness; stale air reeked of smoke, old sweat, and dried blood.
Adelle pulled her cowl low and kept to the shadows when the guards marched Bastian out of his holding cell. She couldn’t afford to let him recognize her–not until they were safely away. Too much familiarity would breed suspicion from his captors.
Bastian stared at the ground, eyes dull, shoulders slumped. Brick-red hair fell past his shoulders and a thick beard bristled on his chin; both were streaked heavily with white, which seemed odd considering he was barely thirty. The manacles fastened to his wrists and ankles were designed to absorb magic, as was the collar around his neck.
The guards handed Adelle a set of keys and the lead to Bastian’s collar. The unspoken implication: He’s your responsibility now.
Adelle led Bastian out of the arena swiftly, with as few words as possible. They had to get away before Lady Eclisse realized she’d been tricked, before Adelle had a relapse, before one of the guards realized the military usually sent a full unit to claim conscripts instead of one lone corporal.
The limestone buildings of the city gave way to farmhouses and fields, then clusters of bloodwood oaks. The blanket of leaves that layered the forest floor lent the air an earthy crispness Adelle could taste as much as smell. She leaned against a rust-red tree trunk to catch her breath. All she had to do was deliver the signed writ to Sergeant Geddies and Bastian would be a free man–
Chains wrapped around Adelle’s neck.
“You’re very brave.” Bastian whispered into her ear like a lover, but an undercurrent of menace tainted his words. “I may be chained up, but I’m twice your size. Give me the keys.”
Idiot! The guards must have told Bastian he was being conscripted. It was common knowledge convicts were placed on the front lines. Bastian had survived seven years in the fighting pits, and now he thought he was being dragged into battle against gods knew what. Of course he was going to retaliate.
Adelle struggled to force her fingers between the chain. “Bastian–” Her voice came out raw and garbled, too restricted to be easily discerned.
The curse seemed to sense her moment of weakness. Black tendrils crept up her back, spread to her shoulders and neck.
Bastian tightened the metal noose around her throat. “Give me the keys!”
Adelle tried to gasp Bastian’s name again, but the chains bit too tightly into her flesh. Her legs went slack as she fumbled for the key ring the guards had given her. Bastian guided her to the ground. His grip never faltered.
The keys slipped from Adelle’s grasp and fell to the ground. She gagged, panicked, and stretched her fingers toward them.
They were too far away. She couldn’t reach.
Bastian shifted his wrists, pulled the chain from around her neck, and shoved her face-first against the forest floor. He held her down, one arm on the back of her neck, and scrambled for the keys. Adelle coughed and gasped for air, desperate to re-inflate deprived lungs so she could find the strength to keep the curse from reaching her heart. It was far too close for comfort, teasing at veins, seeking a weak spot so it could plunge into her ventricles.
Bastian seized the keys and removed the manacles on his wrists, then shoved Adelle away and unlocked his feet.
Adelle propped herself up with her elbows and growled, “Gods damn it, Bastian! I’m trying to save you!”
Her voice was raw, ragged, and venomous enough it gave Bastian pause. His face blanched with slow realization as he turned toward her. “Adelle?”
“Yes, you bloody moron, it’s me!” A coughing fit took her, harsh and violent. The curse was in her lungs, withering them from the inside out. She couldn’t breathe.
Bastian rolled her over, supported her neck, and examined the welts from where the chains had strangled her. “Just–calm down. Take slow, deep breaths.” His eyes widened when he saw the discolored skin around her neck. “What in the seven hells?”
Adelle forced the curse out of her lungs. Into her breasts. There. That was better. She lay still and focused her energies on repairing damaged tissue. Vitals first. She couldn’t heal herself if she were dead.
Bastian loosened her clothes and traced fingers along the pattern of necrotic skin, down her neck and across her shoulders. “I’ve never seen anything like this. What’s wrong with you?”
Adelle waved him off. “Later. I’ll tell you later. We need to get off the bloody road. If someone walked up on us right now, they’d think you were trying to murder me.”
“I almost did.” Bastian sounded guilty. Bitter.
Adelle shook her head. “If you’d wanted to kill me, you would have snapped my neck. Help me up.”
He stood, looped his arms under Adelle’s, and lifted her into a standing position. She leaned against him as she limped into the forest.
Once they were well and truly away from civilization, Adelle shrugged out of Bastian’s grasp. “I need to rest.”
“Already?” Bastian’s brow knit with concern.
Adelle nodded, leaned against a tree, and groaned.
Bastian sat across from her, crossed his legs, and brought his hands to rest on his knees. “What happened to you? You’re dressed like a soldier. You were always a fighter, but you don’t have the right temperament to go military.”
“I can bark orders with the best of them.” Adelle tried to smirk, but it felt more like a wince. She shifted the curse inside her almost reflexively, started healing the damage it had caused. “After you got sentenced, I trained with the village healers long enough to fake my way through the med corps entrance exams. I didn’t get exposed as a havocmage until I saved the life of an officer with ties to the Great Houses.” Sergeant Geddies. She owed him a great deal. “He decided that I already knew how to control my abilities and I’d do more good helping my fellow soldiers than I would in a prison cell.”
Bastian traced his fingers along the discolored patches of skin on Adelle’s shoulders. “What about this?”
Adelle bit back a gasp–not only from the pain Bastian’s touch caused, but from the delicacy with which his fingers had danced over her skin. She’d missed that secret gentleness, missed it dearly, and now she couldn’t properly enjoy it. “You ever hear of Achos Cruen?”
Bastian shook his head.
“He’s a havocmage with a knack for curses, works as an assassin. Someone put a hit out on Lord Favren, and my regiment got sent to take Cruen out before he fulfilled his contract. We caught and killed the bastard, but he hit me with a wasting curse. No one I’ve talked to has any idea how to dispel it.” Adelle took a shuddering breath. “I can heal most of the damage when I’m awake, but it takes constant focus to keep it from running rampant through my body. If I don’t get rid of it, it’s going to kill me.”
Oh gods, Bastian was already mourning her. She could see it in his eyes.
Adelle clamped her jaw tight to keep it from trembling. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this curse, how it works. We can’t dispel it, but I think we can still beat it if we work together.”
Bastian arched an eyebrow. “How?”
“I want you to burn the curse out of me.”
Bastian’s expression turned to stone. “No. It’s too dangerous, I could kill you.”
“I’m already dying! I can’t keep up with this on my own. I’m falling behind. Right now all I can do is spread the damage around to the point that I’m only hampered instead of crippled. It’s like a physical poison in me, Bastian.”
Bastian shook his head. “My fire burns too hot. What if I lose control?”
Adelle brushed her fingers across the scars that riddled Bastian’s torso. She would have wiped them away if she could. “Fire can heal as well as harm when it’s used right. You’re one of the most capable havocmages I’ve ever met. I can heal any damage you do, so long as we’re careful.”
“There has to be another way.”
“Believe me, I’ve been looking.” Adelle worried at her lip and took his hand in hers. “It has to be you, Bastian. I can’t trust anyone else. I know you won’t give up on me. I know you won’t cut your losses and leave me to die.”
Bastian took a shuddering breath. “Alright. We’ll try it. Show me what to do.”
Adelle laid her cloak on the ground and used it as a makeshift bed. She forced her curse to the surface and held it there so Bastian could see it move under her skin. Bastian knelt beside her and grazed his fingers against the discolored flesh. “Here?”
A blur of color and shadow slammed into Bastian’s left side and knocked him off-balance. A second, larger figure shoved him to the ground and perched atop him with a snarl. Saw-toothed humanoids–ferals–crouched low to the ground, pointed ears twitching. Their dusky green flesh shifted, chameleon-like, in colors and patterns that matched the greens and browns of the forest. Their ears perked to sharp points and shifted back and forth like cats on the prowl.
Adelle rolled over and tried to stand, but a feral with savage teeth and a missing eye held her down. It wrapped clawed fingers around her neck; one wrong move and it would slit her throat.
The ferals who had tackled Bastian, a wiry female with short-cropped hair and a stocky male with heavy scars across his arms and shoulders, worked in tandem to maintain their hold. Heat boiled up from Bastian’s shoulders, but before the explosion could come to fruition a larger female leaped from the shadows and slammed his head against a tree–one, two, three times. Bastian slumped to the ground, body limp, eyes glazed.
Lady Eclisse rode into the clearing atop a silky white mare. An armored nobleman bearing the Favren family crest reined in a bay stallion beside her and gestured at Bastian. “I take it this is your man?”
By the gods, this was Lord Favren in the flesh. Adelle had only ever seen him from a distance, but it was hard to mistake the jagged scar that chiseled its way across his face. It started at the top of his right eyebrow, split his nose, and tapered off just below his left ear. He’d fought in the pits himself for a time, though it had been by choice rather than the whim of another.
Lord Favren tilted his head to the left and studied Adelle critically. “You’re injured. Did Mister Lang harm you?”
Adelle shook her head fervently. “No, milord. He’s done me no harm.” She glanced at Lady Eclisse. “With all due respect, milord, Lang doesn’t belong to the lady anymore. She released him from her service.”
“In order to facilitate the capture of one Achos Cruen, is that not correct?” Lord Favren’s gaze burrowed into Adelle, pointed and calculating.
Adelle swallowed hard and nodded.
“Achos Cruen was slain five nights ago.”
Adelle’s jaw twitched. “True enough, milord. I’m the one who killed him. It’s a good thing, too. You were slated as his next target.”
Lord Favren studied Adelle’s face, his expression pensive. “I’m aware.”
“I’m Corporal Adelle Xephani, of the Twenty-First Regiment. May I stand?”
Lord Favren considered her request, then nodded. “You may.” He waved his hand and the one-eyed feral stood down.
Lady Eclisse dismounted and walked over to Bastian, her expression triumphant. “Milord, my agreement to free Mister Lang was made under false pretenses. I appreciate your help in reclaiming my property.”
Bastian stirred and muttered something illegible. The trio of ferals pinned him afresh; the wiry female pressed a claw against his jugular.
Adelle stood and glared at Lady Eclisse. “You signed the agreement, milady. You were compensated for the sale. The contract may be old, but it’s still legally binding. Achos Cruen is dead. That means Bastian is a free man.”
Lord Favren’s voice cut through the clearing, his words clipped, his tone stern. “You obtained Lady Eclisse’s signature unlawfully and under duress. That is inappropriate conduct for a military officer, Corporal.”
“With all due respect, Lord Favren, I stand by my actions. Bastian was sentenced to fight in the pits until Lady Eclisse deemed him safe to return to society. She’s kept him there seven years simply because he can set himself on fire without burning to death. I’ve heard of rapists and murderers who were granted shorter sentences. This writ was issued before Cruen’s death. If we hadn’t encountered Cruen en route to the pits, Bastian would have been included in the effort to hunt him.”
Lady Eclisse spat, “You embezzled government money–”
Adelle shook her head. “No, milady. Every coin I gave you was mine. I’d been saving for years so I could purchase Bastian’s freedom. Most gladiators cost between five and ten thousand gold pieces, even at their peak. I never expected your price to be so high.”
Lord Favren looked back and forth between Adelle and Lady Eclisse, weighing his next words carefully. “I cannot condone such a brazen dismissal of the law. Corporal Xephani, I hereby strip you of your military rank and dismiss you from service. Bastian Lang will be returned to Lady Eclisse. If it is confirmed that the funds you provided were not embezzled from the military, they will be returned to you. If the funds were stolen, you will be made to stand trial for your crimes.”
Bastian’s voice rang out through the clearing. His words, though slurred, carried the weight of conviction. “I’m not going back.”
Lord Favren snorted. “You’re in no position to protest your fate.”
Bastian’s tone shifted, ominous and dark. “I’m unshackled. I could roast you in your armor without a second thought. Your slaves won’t stop me, either. If you die, they’re free.”
The ferals glanced between each other, then to Lord Favren. The trio keeping Bastian pinned let go and backed away. One-Eye slunk past Adelle to join them. Adelle choked back a sob of relief, thankful they were willing to take advantage of the opportunity to gain their freedom.
Bastian stood and cracked his neck. “Leave or I’ll burn you and Eclisse to ashes.”
Lord Favren’s eyes narrowed. “If we disappear while we’re searching for you, you’ll be declared an outlaw and a murderer. You’ll be hunted for the rest of your life.”
Adelle put her hands on her hips. “And you’ll be dead. It would be best if the two of you ride home now. You’ll keep your lives, and we’ll never bother either of you again.”
Lady Eclisse clambered onto her horse, her brow beaded with sweat. “You’re both outlaws. I’ll see the pair of you hanged.”
Bastian conjured a line of fire in front of the horses to underscore Adelle’s threat. Lord Favren’s stallion shied back and nickered. Lady Eclisse’s mare reared, loosed an equine scream, and galloped away.
Lord Favren glowered at Bastian, Adelle, and the feral pack. His hand hovered at his sword.
Adelle snarled, “Leave. This is your last chance. You’re an accomplished fighter, yes, but you’re also a strategist. One swordsman doesn’t stand a chance against two havocmages and a pack of ferals.”
Lord Favren clenched his horse’s bridle with a white-knuckled hand. “When my soldiers capture you, you’ll be shown no mercy.” He clicked his tongue and rode after Lady Eclisse’s panicked mount.
Bastian frowned, clutched at his head, and let out a pained hiss. The flames burst higher, catching on underbrush and trees.
Adelle rushed to Bastian’s side and touched a hand to his head wound. His mind was fogged with concussion; he couldn’t retain enough focus to contain the flames he’d called into being. Head injuries were always difficult to handle. Common medical knowledge claimed the heart was the container of the soul, but Adelle’s experience as a military healer had taught her the brain was a far more likely culprit. One misplaced surge of healing energies could ruin a person for the rest of their life. This would take hours for her to heal properly.
They didn’t have hours.
Adelle motioned to the pack of ferals. “He can’t control the fire! Help me carry him.”
One-Eye shook his head. “We’re not getting executed for anyone else’s weakness.” He led the pack into the trees.
Adelle swore, bit back tears, and dragged Bastian to his feet. “Come on. We need to go.” Bastian nodded. He leaned on her as they staggered through the woods.
Adelle probed at his injury with her magic as best as she could, easing the swelling in his brain. Her curse ran rampant, tearing through her organs. She ignored it. If Bastian proved unable to regain control of his magic, she’d die anyway.
The flames chased after them, a blazing wildfire. The heat scorched Adelle’s back. The curse ate into her leg muscles; she collapsed under Bastian’s weight. “Bastian, I need you to focus. I need you to make it stop.”
Bastian crawled atop Adelle and wrapped his body around hers as a shield from the heat. He closed his eyes and took rhythmic breaths. Adelle held her hands to his face, monitoring his brain activity, doing her best to keep the concussion at bay. The flames near them sputtered and died, even as the forest burned around them.
Adelle’s eyes drifted shut, just for a moment.
Calloused hands gripped her shoulders and shook her roughly. “Adelle! Wake up! Adelle!”
Bastian was yelling. Why was he yelling?
She must have blacked out. The forest fire had moved past them; a circle three feet around them showed no signs of flame. Even so, her flesh looked charred.
No. Not charred, just mottled with black. The necrosis must have reached her heart. Veins protruded like roots beneath her skin. Her muscles barely functioned; it hurt to breathe.
The curse had yet to permeate her brain. There was a membrane that protected it from unwanted toxins, and it had thus far done its job. The heart, then–that was where she needed to start. She focused her energies on cleansing it, then the blood that pumped through it.
Her lungs failed. She arched her back, eyes wide, gasping in a desperate bid for air.
Bastian clenched her hand. “Stay with me!” His eyes darted across her body as he searched for a way to help.
Adelle focused her efforts on her lungs, regained the ability to breathe. She forced the poison up to her skin, focused it on her belly, then resumed her efforts to clear her heart.
It took the better part of an hour to pull the last remnants of the curse back into her skin. She pulled Bastian’s hand toward her stomach. “Finish it.”
Bastian nodded curtly, wreathed his hand in white-hot flame, and pressed it to Adelle’s flesh. The agony of cooked nerve endings flared through her body. She screamed and writhed, fingernails biting into her hands, as the skin on her stomach carbonized and sloughed off.
Bastian didn’t stop until every inch of damaged flesh was destroyed or consumed. He knelt beside Adelle and pulled her head into his lap. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He stroked her hair and studied her every movement with watery eyes.
Adelle fought back choking sobs and held a bloody hand over her torso. It took several minutes to mend her flesh, but she couldn’t eliminate the hideous burn scars that stretched across her limbs and torso. She checked her internal organs, then breathed a sigh of relief. There was damage, to be certain, but everything was salvageable.
Bastian stroked Adelle’s cheek. The gentle repetitive movement seemed to sooth him as much as it did her. “I thought I’d lost you.”
Adelle smiled wearily and nuzzled Bastian’s hand. “I’m not letting you off that easily.”
Bastian helped Adelle to her feet. “We need to go.”
Adelle nodded. “West. We need to go west.” Across the Dragonspine Mountains, away from the Valdian houses. They could make a new start in Rysa.
Bastian scooped Adelle into his arms and carried her between the charred husks of trees. Some had fallen or cracked open; blood-red sap oozed from blackened bark, lending sweeter notes to the ever-present bite of wood smoke. As they traveled farther from the fire’s central path, they found trees that remained whole–scorched and scathed, but still green in the uppermost portions of their crowns.
When it grew too dark to travel, they made camp beneath a tangle of fallen trees. Bastian pulled Adelle flush against him. Even at night, his skin carried the heat of summer.
He twined fingers through her hair. “I thought about you sometimes, in the pits. I missed you.”
“I missed you terribly.” Adelle chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully. “I want us to be together again.”
Bastian brushed his knuckles across her cheek in a semblance of tenderness, but his eyes grew dark. “I wouldn’t be good for you. Time in the pits changes a man.”
“So does time in the military. We may not make it, but we ought to at least try.”
Bastian fell silent for a long moment, then looked away. “We’ll talk about this after we cross the mountains. Right now we need to rest.”
Adelle bit back a sigh of disappointment and nodded. “Alright.”
Bastian pulled Adelle close. It was a protective gesture more than an intimate one, but his warmth proved soothing, and the memories of his earlier tenderness remained strong in Adelle’s mind. Despite the uncertainty of their future–of everything–a glimmer of hope remained in her heart. She and Bastian might part ways after they crossed the mountains, but they had a chance at finding freedom and happiness, however fleeting it might prove to be. Adelle drifted off toward sleep in Bastian’s arms, healthy and at peace for the first time in days.
♦ ♦ ♦