By Edward Mack
The hussar captain was a monster of a man with shoulders like city walls. The silk scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face and his horse stamping impatiently at the dust made him look like some two-bit bandit from a dime-novel western. I’m sure the effect was meant to be menacing, but in practice it was merely comical. I watched his eyes, one an inky brown, the other a cloudy white, as they narrowed and looked us over. He pulled his scarf down to reveal a long, jagged scar. “Zese are ze foreigners?” he said, his words heavy with the accent of the east. “So puny.”
“And who are you?” I asked, counting a half-dozen scimitared and carbined men on horseback blocking the road behind him.
“I am Sandor Zoltan,” he said as though it were obvious.
“Of course,” I said. “How could I not have recognized the great Sandor Zoltan?” Nels was tugging on my sleeve. “What?” I hissed.
My sister’s face had gone pale, like it did when the Doctor told her she had to expel the harpy from the Tower of London by herself. “Sandor Zoltan is the commander of the 13th division of light cavalry of the Black Army Irregular,” she whispered out of the side of her mouth. “Legend has it that the Black Army has never lost a battle…”
“They haven’t battled with me,” I whispered back, scanning the road for potential advantages. Before us, the hussars. Behind us, the burnt out shack where we’d lost most of our supplies, leaving us with little more than the wheelbarrow with the decapitated baroness we’d failed to save. And our wits.
I’d been in worse spots.
“Legend further says,” Nels hissed pointedly, “that Sandor Zoltan feeds the remains of his enemies to their horses.”
“Enemy meat, zis makes you strong,” Zoltan said.
Hussars had never troubled me before and I didn’t intend to let them start now. “What do you want?” I asked.
Zoltan eyed the wheelbarrow and its headless occupant. “We will take you to ze Baron von Kiss. Zere you will be an example for your crimins.”
This is what comes of doing the right thing. I’d try to tell Nels, but she just had to insist. “And if we refuse?” I very much felt like refusing. I could feel a fire building in my belly. Who was I to deny it?
No, Reave. You must resist it.
“Zen you die here instead.” The hussar captain shrugged like he didn’t care one way or another.
“Amazing options.” Breathing deeply, I smothered the fire, settling my anger.
“We’ll go with you,” Nels said. I looked at her. She was sweating and her breath came in short gasps. Oh, for the love of Burch.
“No, we won’t,” I said.
“That’s where we were going anyway,” Nels said. “We’re all on the same side here. We tried to save the baroness but, unfortunately, we were several days too late, as you can see,” she said, indicating the general headless state of the body. “But we got the monster. Monsters, actually. We were just on our way to return the body to her father.”
If I didn’t like Nels’ insistence on returning the body before, I was beginning to hate it now. If it weren’t for her stupid concept of nobility, I would have been back in the hotel already, enjoying a nice soak and some local wine. Her words were kindling to my fire. All this talking was exhausting.
Each element responds to magic differently, Reave. You are very passionate, fire will tempt you. But you must resist it.
“Reave, let’s just go with them. Father always says that every death threat is an opportunity.”
“Screw the Doctor,” I hissed. Zoltan raised an eyebrow at me. I noticed that as we spatted, his men crept steadily closer. One good spur, and their horses would be upon us. “If they get us to that castle, there’s no way out. At least out here we have a chance.”
“Oh,” Zoltan said. “One more thing.” He waved one of the hussars forward. A large bundle wriggled on his horse’s rump. Long, brown hair hung over one side and weathered leather boots kicked at bonds on the other. Some form of woman then. “You mages are infesting the Capital like rats. Ze Baron, he does not like it. It draws ze monsters out of zere hidey holes. Then, tragedies like zis.” He drew his scimitar and leveled it at the girl on the back of the horse. “If you do not come with us, she dies now.” He raised the sword.
“What do we care?” I said. “I don’t know her.”
But as I was speaking, Nels let out a squeak. “Ashley!”
Zoltan’s eyes narrowed in an evil grin.
“Goddamnit, Nels!” I yelled at my sister. “Goddamnit, goddamnit, goddamnit!” She was looking at me with those wide, frightened rabbit eyes and I knew that, once again, it was up to me to get us out of this. Hesitation has lost many battles, so in one smooth movement, I twirled the lasso over my head and brought it down over the neck of Zoltan’s horse. With a downward tug, I released a spell that called upon the strength of Tamerlane himself to pull the horse to the ground. At the same time, I opened my senses, letting creation flow into me.
But Zoltan’s mount reared, resisting the lasso and dragging me forward. Spurring the horse, Zoltan raised his scimitar and charged.
“Nels,” I yelled, diving out of the way of hooves and sword. “Get the girl!” But mounted hussars had my sister by either arm, dragging her between them. The remaining hussars had leveled rifles at me.
Zoltan called something in some eastern tongue as he spun his horse and charged at me again. The hussars held their line, but did not fire. So, he did want us alive after all.
The roiling rose in my belly, the beckoning of anger. My senses were clear, creation swirling within me, begging for release. I could call it now, the flame, and destroy everything.
No, Reave, you must resist it.
Smoke poured from my fingertips.
Fire is the element of destruction. It feeds on your anger.
My fist clenched but the smoke leaked between my fingers. It would be so easy.
Fire is useful in small flames, but let it grow too high and it will consume you.
Finally, I felt the heat smothered in my hands. I tried to level my breathing.
You must resist it.
I told you I would.
Pushing down the anger, I reached out with my lasso again, wrapping it around the hussar who had Ashley tied to the back of his horse. I tugged and toppled him, just as Zoltan’s horse barreled into me, its bony knees knocked into my chest, it’s strong flank drove me to the ground, twinging my arm behind my back and forcing me to drop the lasso.
I breathed dirt. Dirt and earth and mud. I sensed the ground underneath us: strata of ancient Carpathian stone. They sat on top of each other in stacked plates weighing millions of tons with roots down thousands of feet.
Then I heard Nels. She didn’t scream, she never does. All she said was a desperate, breathless, “Reave,” and fear wrapped its cold fingers around my heart.
Earth is fire’s natural balance. But remember, earth is a purely reactive element. It responds to fear and surprise. It wants to protect you in its embrace.
“Nels.” The fear licked up my spine and I reached into the earth and twisted.
The ground buckled. A crack seared through the hard-packed road. The branches of nearby trees shook and cracked as if in a great wind. The horses staggered. I dove deep into the crack and ripped it wider, opening a fissure. One of the horses reared and collapsed on its rider. The two holding Nels dropped her and she fell to the dirt.
I twisted again, leveling the ground under Nels and sending a shock wave like a thunderbolt at the remaining hussars.
But delve too far, Reave, and the earth will bring you down into it.
I could feel it already. Smothering the flame that had burned so recently in me and burying the fear. Even now, my mancing was weaker, the earth less responsive. My breath slowed. Weight piled on my chest.
The fissure had opened between Zoltan and me. Ire sparked in the hussar’s eyes as he steadied his steed. He meant to leap the gap. The man didn’t stop. I was half impressed.
“Nels,” I yelled, but the earth dragged my voice down. “Nels! Get Ashley.”
For a moment, I was afraid my sister was lost in one of her trances, paralyzed by fear and indecision. But, for the love of all things, she moved. She hurried to the riderless horse with Ashley still strapped across its back and grabbed its reins. As she spoke some word of calming and slid into the saddle, I crawled to grab my lasso from where it had disentangled itself and sent one last shock wave at the hussars.
My knees buckled when I tried to stand and I plopped on my butt. The earth was so calm and steady. Why shouldn’t I stay here, right here? I patted the dust.
A hand was on mine, pulling me. “Reave, you’re too heavy. For Burch’s sake, let go,” my sister said, trying to tug me onto the horse.
Yes. I let go and she dragged me across the back of the horse, stacking me over Ashley like cord wood. “Go, Nels,” I said heavily, unearthing the words as she stared blank-eyed at Zoltan charging at us. “Go, go, go.” I slapped the horse’s rump and it shot off between the trees.
My head knocked against Ashley’s. “Hi,” I said heavily. She was good-looking, just like Nels had said. Even despite a fiercely blackened eye and blood drying on her forehead. Or maybe because of it. “Hi,” I said again, clarity bouncing back to my head. Bullets ripped through leaves around us and the hussars steadied their mounts and gave chase. “Remember me?”
“We have to go back and get the baroness!” Nels shouted over her shoulder.
“What? No. Screw the bloody baroness!” I said. A bullet snapped past Nels’ ear, shearing off a lock of her dark hair. As if that made up her mind, she leaned into the horse’s neck, driving her heels into its flanks leaving me and Ashley time to get acquainted as we bounced along.
“I’m Reave,” I said, shooting her my most winning grin. “I’m here to save you.”