Kids on Fire: Free Excerpt From Fire Mage

We’re happy to share this post from our sister site, Kids Corner @ Kindle Nation Daily, where you can find all things Kindle for kids and teens, every day!

Last week we announced that Fire Mage (An Epic Fantasy Adventure Series) (Blacklight Chronicles) by John Forrester is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:

Now we’re back to offer a free Kids Corner excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!

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Here’s the set-up:

For centuries, mages perfected magic at the Order of the Dawn. Mastery over fire, wind, and storm. They live in the last free city in a world plagued by dark sorcerers.

Talis Storm and friend Mara discover a terrible secret. The Jiserian Empire has targeted their city for attack. An army of undead soldiers. Flying necromancers. None have ever survived.

When a surprise aerial invasion hits the Order’s temple, Talis casts fire magic for the first time. But his spell is wild and does more harm than good. Sorcerers try to capture Talis and Mara, but they flee into the temple crypts. Awoken from an ancient rest, a fallen champion slays the sorcerers and gives Talis a legendary map, leading them on a quest to discover the lost Temple of the Sun.

To save his city, Talis must unleash the power of magic locked away inside the ancient temple, and become a true fire mage.

Sun Mage, Book Two in the Blacklight Chronicle series, is now available.

 

And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:

 

1. THE HUNT

Talis searched the swamplands in twilight, driven by the challenge of hunting his first boar. He bent down and flipped his hair away from his eyes, feeling a thrill at discovering fresh tracks. He looked ahead towards a stream, squinting at the path illuminated by the four moon sisters. Mara, his best friend, came alongside and studied the tracks. He pointed his spear to where they led.

She shook her head stubbornly, her short, brown hair slashing along her neck. “It’s late.”

“But these are the best prints we’ve found.”

“What are you trying to prove? We’ve been out here all day. I’m not going to let you get yourself killed doing something foolish like hunting a boar in the dark.”

“Don’t be angry.” He flashed her the look he knew always made her smile, and gazed into her devilish, amber eyes, hoping to convince her. “We can do it…if we work together.”

“It’s your father, isn’t it? You think he’s going to pay attention to you if you bring back a boar? Listen, he doesn’t really see you like he should. Ever since your brother died…”

The wind stirred and Talis sighed, memories flooding his mind of his older brother Xhan.

“You know I’d hunt with you to the Underworld and back. We’re a team. I just hate seeing you like this.”

“Please…just one boar—”

A blur of movement ahead shifted his attention. He stopped and searched. There, beyond a patch of bushes, something waddled down a muddy path. His heart pounded at the sight. Tensing his muscles, he stalked low, tracking the animal. He found another track and grinned at Mara. A boar. He followed until he reached a stream, and there, in a wallow surrounded by a circle of mossy rocks, was a boar, settling into the mud.

This boar will make a fine roast for Mother’s kitchen, he thought, wielding his bow.

He nocked an arrow and glanced at Mara. She nodded, her eyes wary, but she readied her bow as well. This will be a tricky shot. He leaned to the side, aimed, and the arrow sped towards the boar. It was a good shot. Straight at the target, but the arrow caught a thicket’s branch and droned off past the boar.

The boar jerked its head up and glared at Talis. He barely had a second to think before the beast sloshed in the stream, bounding towards him. He ducked as Mara’s arrow flew past him and slammed into the boar’s chest.

He brandished his spear. “Spread out,” he hissed, and circled around as Mara gripped her spear. He twirled his weapon, ready to strike.

The boar charged. He leapt out of the way, and thrust down as it whipped its tusks at his leg. The creature squealed in pain as his spear pierced the back of its neck. Mara dove at the boar and sliced its rear flank. It screamed, swung its tusks around, and knocked her to the ground. The boar bounded away, howling and grunting in a mad rush.

Mara winced and hunched over.

“Are you all right?” Talis bent down next to her.

After she coughed, redness swept over her face. “It knocked my breath out…there are stars everywhere!” She coughed, getting to her feet with the help of Talis. But she stumbled and almost fell into his arms.

“You’re hurt!”

“I’m okay, really.” She waved him away and lifted herself up, breathing deeply. “I feel better now.”

He crinkled his forehead, unconvinced that she was okay.

She wobbled, then slapped her palms to her stomach. Talis grabbed her just as she was about to topple to her knees. Mara shook him off, trying to steady herself. She winced and wiped her hand across her mouth. A line of blood sat menacingly on her wrist. She stared at her hand.

“You cut your lip?”

She shook her head. “No, it just started bleeding… I think I’m going to be sick.”

Talis grabbed her arm and slung her over his back. “I’m taking you home now.” He carried her, stumbling down the bluff, ignoring her protests. A wound that caused bleeding from the mouth was very serious. After awhile he was too tired to carry her, so he rested for a bit. Even though it was almost dark, Talis could see that Mara looked paler. He had to get her home quickly to a healer.

By the time they spotted the city from afar, moonlight sent long, wiry shadows across the hillside leading up to the towering stone walls. Lights flickered from countless braziers mounted hundreds of feet higher on the upper part of the city. Naru stood ominous under the garish light of the four moon sisters. The evening gong sounded from atop a watchtower.

As Talis and Mara approached the main gates, a group of soldiers making their rounds studied them.

“Young Master Talis,” said Baratis, the captain of the barracks. “And Mara…what’s wrong with her?”

“I can’t talk now…open the gates…Mara is hurt!”

“Carem and Jorem! Help carry young Mara,” Baratis shouted. The soldiers carried Mara through the gate, massive steel shafts rising into the stone walls. Eyes blinked at them from behind murder holes as they entered. Archers ready to strike down enemies in a siege. Spread before them past the gate was the Arena of the Sej Elders, formed of gigantic white granite blocks, rising over everything in the lower part of the city. Stone towers lined the wide avenue leading up to the arena.

The soldiers’ boots clapped against the cobblestone streets as they strode past the arena, finally winding around until they reached the gates of the upper city. Up the snaking rise, they walked past merchant shops and eyes that gawked at the soldiers carrying Mara. They continued on, to the highest part of the city, beneath the Temple of the Goddess Nestria, the Goddess of the Sky. To Mara’s house, the House of Viceroy Lei and Lady Malvia, daughter of the king and second in line to the throne.

As the soldiers carried Mara towards the white marble mansion, Talis worried that her wounds were too grave to cure. Today was the worst day, and he was all to blame. Why did he have to chase after the boar? Two servants ran up and gasped when they noticed Mara, and they quickly carried her inside. Lady Malvia rushed towards them, her silver robe swirling behind her.

“What happened to my daughter? She’s so pale, why is she pale?”

“A boar…we were out hunting—”

“Gods, Talis!” She brought her hands to her face, an expression of horror paling her eyes. ”Boar hunting? You’re both only thirteen! What were you thinking?” Her face seethed with rage, and she paused a moment, breathing deeply as if trying to calm herself. “ I warned you two about hunting alone. Now go and quickly fetch the healer.”

A sick feeling wrenched his stomach as he raced out back to a small building overlooking the rose garden. It was his fault. He never should have insisted on going hunting in the first place. He vowed not to go on the hunt again—not if it meant hurting Mara.

Inside the healer’s apothecary, he found Belesia grinding herbs inside a round, wooden bowl. The room held the pungent smells of mold, fire and smoke. The walls were lined with jars of herbs, roots, dried insects and small, shriveled animals floating in clear liquid. The healer narrowed her eyes at him.

“Young master…what brings you here?”

“Mara was injured in the swamp…by a boar.”

Belesia clasped her hands over her stomach. “Is she bleeding?”

“From the mouth.”

She groaned. “How did it strike her?”

“Tusks slashed here.” He pointed at his lower ribs. ”And later blood spilled from her mouth.”

“Oh, an internal wound, this is dire…” She grabbed a satchel and hobbled outside. “We must hurry.”

As they made their way through the mansion, Talis’s heart pounded and his palms went flush with sweat.   Mara was going to be all right, wasn’t she? Belesia came from far to the west, where their magical healing powers were renowned. But this kind of injury was different, and Talis was unsure if it was curable…

Inside Mara’s room, she lay on her bed, a servant swabbing a wet cloth on her forehead. Belesia rushed to the girl’s side and pressed her palms over Mara’s forehead and stomach.

“The wound is deep…the flow of energy blocked. The fever, rising.” Belesia chanted words from a strange tongue, from the western islands, lands filled with the magic of the earth and the spirits. Her eyes narrowed to small slits, and the room dimmed as her chants grew louder.

In the darkness, the healer’s hands glowed, red like burning embers, and Mara was filled with light, as if her veins pulsed with iridescent gold. Mara’s eyes flung open, unseeing, as if she stared at something that only existed far away in her mind. Talis stepped forward to hold her hand but Belesia motioned him back.

“Will she be all right?” Talis whispered, his voice choked and sad.

Belesia raised a finger. “Her wound lies in her internal organs. My power is strong, but the healing will take some time to regenerate the organs. And I’m sorry to say, m’lady, sometimes the healing fails….”

“Fails?” Lady Malvia said, her face pale as ash. “But you will do everything, won’t you? I can pay any amount, grant you titles and lands, but save my daughter!”

The old healer cackled softly and muttered words to herself. “When it comes to magic and the gods, money means nothing. Pray to the gods, dear lady, you and your entire house. And you, young master Talis, pray to your gods also. Most of all, pray to Tolexia, the God of Healing.”

“I will…I promise. I’ll do anything—gods willing—to keep Mara alive.” Talis bowed his head and pinched his eyes shut, saying the words of prayer to Tolexia… God of Healing, God of Harmony, listen to this mortal’s plea for Mara. Fair Tolexia hear my prayer and save her life, from my heart pure and my mind full of gratitude.

       When Talis opened his eyes, Lady Malvia stared at him with a mixture of curiosity and fury. Talis trembled at her glare and found himself retreating from the room.

“I want you out of this house,” Lady Malvia said. “If she lives you’ll save your family from shame and bloodshed. For only blood will satisfy blood. And the gods may ask for your blood if Mara dies.

“I allowed Mara to hunt with you on the condition that you’d protect her, and now you bring her home like this? You always had the option to take rangers with you, yet you refused.”

She motioned for a servant with her eyes, and the man led Talis out of the mansion. Please let Mara live, please, Tolexia, please. Talis kept seeing Mara’s shining face, laughing and teasing him. She was his best friend. He’d ruined everything today by his foolishness, and put Mara’s life in danger. Her life was worth more to him than all the hunts in the world.

He stumbled down the cobblestone street, bumping into trees and people, barely able to see straight with the tears blurring his vision. It was only just a short ways to his house, the House of Garen Storm, but he almost went the wrong way. Somehow he reached his mansion and a servant ran inside to alert his parents. He lowered his shoulders and sighed. How could he face father now, after all that had happened today?

She would live, the gods were good, she would live. Talis felt it burning in his heart.

 

 

2. A FEATHER FOR A FRIEND

Father came limping down the dark hallway, carrying his hawk-headed cane as if it was a weapon. He swept aside his black silk cape, black eyes glaring, puffing on a pipe, sending smoke swirls rising into the gloomy air. The candlelight from the servant standing on the side of the room sent flickering black gashes across father’s face.

“What’s your excuse this time?” he muttered, tapping the cane to his hand. “Haldish, bring some light in here, I can barely see a thing.”

“Yes, Master Storm.” Haldish bowed, and set the candle on an long wooden table containing carved statues of the gods.

“We were out hunting…Mara was hurt by a boar.” Talis tried to catch his eyes, but father just sighed and shook his head, then started hobbling towards the fire at the hearth in the great room.

“As if we don’t already have enough trouble with House Lei.” Father sat at a plump, leather chair in front of the fire. “Now you force me to make amends with Lady Malvia…if she’ll see me. Is Mara hurt badly? Go on…sit…this is not an execution.”

Talis obeyed, feeling the leather chair warmed by the fire. Part of him wished Father was harsher, he felt guilty, he felt what he did was wrong, but he just sighed and nodded gravely. “She’s bleeding inside from a boar’s strike.”

“No…Talis, this is not good.” Father ran his fingers through his thick, black mane. “Has the healer treated her? Should I summon healers from the Order of the Dawn?”

“Belesia has cast her magic…and Mara sleeps. I’ve prayed to Tolexia.”

“May the gods favor her recovery. I’ll go visit the Shrine of Tolexia tomorrow and pay House Lei a visit.” Father frowned, disapproval spilling from his eyes. “I know you and Mara have been hunting for years, but you’re too reckless, boy… Boar hunting? You could have both been killed. Once again you disappoint me.”

Talis felt himself shrink back at Father’s words. He noticed his mother leaning against a marble column, staring sadly at him. Talis nodded and she waved back.

Garen glanced at his wife. “All that I’m saying is…be cautious, be more like your older brother…” His voice faltered and broke, and his eyes reddened suddenly. He raised his clenched fists towards the sky, face puffed and fuming. “Why, Nyx? Why did you have to take Xhan away from me?” He pushed himself to his feet, turned and tromped off, retreating once again into his study, the place where he often locked himself away from the family, in the years after Talis’s older brother Xhan had been poisoned from a fight with desert marauders.

Mother crept forward and put her arms around Talis. She hugged him for a time, and Talis could feel the worry and blame melt away from his mind.

“Come on…you can believe, she’ll be all right. Have faith in the gods. Let’s get you some food.” Mother led him into the kitchen where his younger sister, Lia, gripped her favorite white doll. “Why don’t you rest with your sister, she’s been worried about you.”

“Why was I so stupid.” His voice cracked and he placed his hands over his head. He felt somehow that he was to blame for the way Father acted since Xhan’s death. Maybe Father was right, if he was more careful, Mara would never have been injured by the boar. His mother sat next to him and he told her what had happened in the swamplands.

Lia squeezed his hand. “Mara will be all right…I just know it.” His sister was so delicate and feminine, and her eyes held certainty and innocence, with a wisdom beyond her seven years.

“Darling,” his mother said to Lia. “We should make an offering to Tolexia tomorrow for Mara.”

She nodded, her face beaming, and she glanced concerned eyes at Talis.

“Can you eat something? Or perhaps some soup,” his mother said.

Talis shook his head. “I couldn’t eat a thing…my stomach feels sick.”

“Then go to bed… There’s nothing you can do right now, except perhaps beg favor from the gods.”

He bowed his head, and once again prayed to Tolexia for Mara to return to health. He turned and shambled outside and up the stairs to his bedroom loft. Before going inside, he gripped the rail and stared out over the city of Naru, lit with the pale light of the four moon sisters. Thoughts of Mara and Lady Malvia and Father raced through his mind. And Xhan…his older brother, he couldn’t even picture his face anymore. Did the power of death do that to memories? If Mara died, would he forget her face as well?

 

After several days of worrying about Mara’s condition, with no reports from Father or Mother, and Lady Malvia’s refusal to allow his access, Talis thought of a way to find out how she was doing. That afternoon, he slunk behind a tree near the side door of Mara’s mansion, waiting for the healer, Belesia. She usually ran errands in town around this time, and around twilight, the wooden door creaked open, and Belesia stepped out onto the cobblestone street. She wrapped her shawl over her shoulders and strode away. Talis followed her from a distance, past the royal mansions, past the merchant’s houses, past the upper markets and their sweet smells of bread and cakes and ale, until they reached the dingy lower part of the city.

All Talis could think about along the way was whether Mara was all right. Would Belesia be under orders forbidding her to tell him anything? But he couldn’t believe that, the healer always did what she wanted, valuing the gods and friendship more than anything else. She was a friend, wasn’t she?

When they entered Fiskar’s market, Belesia stopped at a stall where a man with a twenty-pound tumor in his neck sold mushrooms. Belesia haggled with the man for a bit, clucking disapprovingly at the price, then finally handed him a few coins and clutched the bag under her arm and left.

Talis jogged up and Belesia turned her head, as if knowing he was there. “I’m surprised you didn’t follow me sooner.”

“I tried to respect the wishes of House Lei.” He didn’t want to get in more trouble than he already was.

“People say things they don’t mean when they are angry.” Belesia took his hands, her skin felt warm and leathery. “Your friend is close to recovery.”

“She is?” Talis couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his face, and he felt the tension go out of his shoulders, as if he’d released a heavy pack. “And is Lady Malvia still upset at me?”

Belesia rubbed her hands together. “Time heals foolish actions…and your father knows the right words to sooth Lady Malvia’s fire. You may not know it, but they were once close friends like you and Mara. That is until Lady Malvia decided to marry your father’s old enemy, Viceroy Lei.”

Father and Lady Malvia? “I didn’t know…Father talks little of the past…save for talk of Xhan.”

With that, Belesia came close and placed a hand on Talis’s cheek. “The living sometimes suffer more than the dead. Give your father tenderness. His heart still bleeds.”

She turned and strolled away, her words still lingering in his heart, and Talis pictured Father after news of Xhan’s death had reached him. He had suffered and Talis realized he hadn’t been there to comfort Father when he needed it. Maybe there was more he could do.

A laughing couple tramped by, the girl bumping into Talis. She bowed her head in apology and giggled as they strode off. Talis glanced around at the merchant stalls, thinking of Mara again, and decided he should find a gift for her. The air in Fiskar’s Market smelled of roasted venison, pork, chicken, and sweet pies from the baker’s oven. He sauntered around, scanning the vendors hawking their goods: sacred charms, shrunken heads, colorful jewelry studded with precious stones, Orbs of the Sun and Eyes of Death, and prayer beads sold by gold-toothed monks. Fiskar was long dead, but the name stuck. He was smart enough to set up business and sell in front of Shade’s Gate and next to the Temple of Nyx, the God of War.

Talis discovered a merchant who claimed to have recently purchased amber feathers with white flecks, plucked from a rare bird found along the Southern coast of Galhedrin. Mara was crazy about collecting feathers and would adorn her hunting hats with them. So he bought a particularly beautiful feather for her using money saved from pelts he’d sold from hunting in the swamplands.

Out of the corner of his eye he spotted Nikulo, a boy he knew from the Order of the Dawn, where they both studied magic. Nikulo studied the healing arts, and Talis studied elemental magic, although his success was limited to magic done in training dreams. He’d never managed to produce magic like the other apprentices and felt very frustrated at his many failed attempts.

Nikulo was off in the back corner of the market buying something from a merchant Talis was sure sold poison and other black arts supplies. As if afraid he’d be seen, Nikulo glanced around several times, and marched down near the stall where Talis stood.

Talis tried to hide behind a bunch of feathers, but Nikulo stopped, and glared at him.

“Cowering already? You know you don’t have a chance of winning the Blood Dagger.”

The Blood Dagger competition. Talis thought of the sparring competition held once a year, and froze, realizing he’d forgotten all about it. Wasn’t it only a few days away? With Mara injured, they’d moved the date, but Talis knew that House Lei and House Storm would never allow Talis and Mara to forfeit to the likes of Nikulo and Rikar, his sparring partner. Claiming rights to holding the Blood Dagger for a year meant far too much to the royal houses, especially since their Royal Houses had lost claim to the victor’s rights over the last few years.

Nikulo’s coffee-brown eyes sparkled as if he was eager to tell a new joke. He waddled close to Talis, holding a porcelain jar in one hand, and he yanked up silk pants that kept falling below his protruding belly. He scratched his curly hair and released a smoky fart, blowing the fumes in Talis’s direction. Talis coughed, retreating quickly. Nikulo never should have swallowed that last potion he concocted. All his farts smelled like sulfur and mustard and spoiled onions.

“Thanks for that, just what I needed.” Talis rubbed his stinging eyes. “What are you doing slumming in Fiskar’s Market? Finding more disgusting ingredients for your potions?”

Nikulo moved the jar away from Talis. “No…nothing of the sort.” He frowned, pursing his lips. “Why are you holding a feather?”

“It’s for Mara. Why are you hiding that jar?”

“Oh this?” Nikulo glanced around at the jar he was holding. “Just ingredients.” He fidgeted, constantly glancing towards Shade’s Gate, the way to the upper part of the city where Nikulo lived.

“Ingredients? What for? Weren’t you at the poison merchant?”

“Poison?” Nikulo coughed out a laugh. “Why would I want anything to do with poison. You know it’s not allowed for students of the Order.” Nikulo narrowed his eyes, studying him, as if trying to decide if he could trust him or not. “When is Mara supposed to get better? Rikar and me are getting tired of waiting to fight you guys. If you don’t compete soon, the Blood Dagger will be ours.”

“You know that’s not going to happen. You’ll taste our blades soon enough. Are you so anxious to have your blood spilled? Mara will be better quite soon, just you see.”

Nikulo chuckled. “You’re lucky that House Lei hasn’t sent an assassin after you.”

Talis waved him away, as if the idea was ridiculous. “I’ve got to go. Be careful with that poison… Another failed alchemy experiment and you’re likely to kill someone.” But then maybe that was Nikulo’s idea, poison merchant after all…

 

The next morning Talis awoke to spindly shadows dancing across his blanket as the wind knocked the shutters back and forth. He hated waking this way. His cat, the yellow and white Tobias, pounced on his bed, tail jerking crazily, staring above at the amber feather flipping in the breeze.

Talis had mounted the feather on a strand of leather tied to a wood beam that spanned across the ceiling. But the cat leapt anyway, trying to swat the feather, but missed it by a few inches.

“You little devil.” Talis tried to scoop up Tobias, but the cat darted about the room as if possessed by a ghost. “You can’t have Mara’s feather, it’s not your toy to play with… I’ll get you a duck feather or something. Come on now.”

The shutters slammed suddenly opened and Talis spun around. Mara was perched on the windowsill, grinning viciously at him.

“Miss me?” She jumped inside and dove into his bed, wriggling under the covers. Her hands were uncomfortably near his pants. Tobias immediately pounced on the bed, leaping high into the air every time Mara moved. The cat meowed, a complaining meow, and Tobias stared, as if trying to figure out what was going on.

“You’re all better!” Talis sighed, relieved to see her healthy and so active.

“Way to state the obvious. No”—she coughed and clenched her stomach, falling back to the bed—“I’m about to keel over and die.” She laughed maniacally and pulled the blanket over her head.

“Be serious, I thought you really might die. We were all so worried! I prayed so many times to Tolexia…”

“You can’t kill a cat that easily. Though you sure did try!”

“Me?”

“Just kidding!” She stretched her arms wide. “Somebody is so in love with me. I bet you couldn’t stop thinking about me, right?” She looked up at the feather. “Is that for me?”

Talis nodded, then jumped up to grab the feather.

Mara squealed when he handed it to her. “It’s gorgeous! I bet it cost a small fortune… It’ll look great in my green hunting cap. I can’t wait to wear it.”

He smiled, and braced himself as she flung herself onto him, giving him an enormous suffocating hug. From the look on her face, it was worth every silver piece getting her the feather.

She motioned towards the window. “Why aren’t you offering to take me to breakfast? Can’t you see I’m hungry?”

“I’m so glad to see you… Whatever you want, it’s my treat, thank the gods you’re all better.”

“Well, if you want to know, I’m craving dumpling soup from Fiskar’s Market. Hurry up, already.” She pulled her cloak over her head and jumped out the window.

 

 

3. A DEMON’S EYES

Usually royals never went down to shop or eat in the lower part of the city. That’s why Talis and Mara almost always went there, to escape prying eyes. Especially now that if they were seen together, it would mean trouble for them both. Mara informed Talis that her mother was still furious at him.

Mara ran ahead, as if daring Talis to catch her. She took the traders’ way to Fiskar’s: around the upper shops, down an alleyway stacked with crates, inside a warehouse door, past workers loading crates, until they reached the dark corridor winding down to the lift.

The workers always averted their eyes from Talis and Mara when they used the lift, as if they thought it wasn’t their business to notice a few royal children skulking around in the darkness. Talis and Mara hopped on the lift, and Mara grabbed Talis’s hand as the lift jolted, and they started their descent several hundred feet down, until the way opened up to Shade’s Gate, next to the upper part of Fiskar’s Market.

Today was Hanare, sacred day of the Goddess Nacrea, the eighth day of the week, a day free from study and work. At least for the royals. In Fiskar’s Market, most commoners still toiled, preparing for Magare, first day of the week and market day. But still, children chased chickens lazily through the market stalls, and old men played Chano, staring at the chipped granite pieces as if waiting for a mystery to be revealed. Old women gossiped, casting curious eyes at Talis and Mara as they sat at a flimsy table next to a boiling pot of dumpling soup. The broth smelled of garlic and chives and roasted hare.

Talis handed the cook a copper coin, and he stared at it suspiciously, then grunted and filled a ladle full of cabbage, bits of meat, shimmering dumplings, and piping-hot clear broth. Talis salivated as the man placed Mara’s soup on the table.

“Can I start?” she said, dumping so much chili sauce in her soup it turned red.

“Torture me…”

She slurped the soup and made a face of pure joy.

“Can I have a dumpling?” Talis’s stomach grumbled.

“Yours is coming soon enough. So impatient!”

The cook scowled at Talis, as if contemplating serving him or not. Finally, he slopped the soup into a bowl (skimpy on the dumplings and meat) and plopped it down in front of Talis.

“I’ve got news.” Mara held up her spoon like a professor giving a lecture.

Talis slurped the soup, wincing at how hot it was.

“Mother wants me to marry Baron Delar’s son—”

Talis spewed the soup onto the ground and coughed. Him? Baron Delar’s son was twenty-eight, how could she marry him?

“The soup is hot, you should be more careful.” Mara lifted an eyebrow, smirking at the look of horror that must have been on his face. “Don’t you approve of the engagement?”

“I don’t know…I guess it’s good news. Congratulations?”

“You idiot! Are you kidding me? I’m not marrying that pig-faced, smelly old wart-hog. He wears frilly silk blouses, a man dressed like a pampered child!”

“But all the lands he owns, and the trading routes, titles…”

“I can’t believe you actually think it’s a good idea.” She drew in the stares of the cook and many others nearby.

“Settle down,” he said, softening his voice like he was speaking to a baby. He smiled at her. “I never said it’s a good idea. Eat your soup, will you? You can’t be married until you’re fifteen anyway.“

“It’s two years away! Besides, engaged is as good as being married…it’s like prison. Nobody breaks their engagement—well there was Lady Macela—poor thing, never got married, all on her own. But to that old pig? What are my parents thinking? I hate them.”

“Just tell them you don’t want to marry him.”

“I already did. You know they never listen to me. They claim they know what’s best for me. I’d rather run away than marry him. I simply won’t do it.” She cast a venomous glare at her soup, then sighed and looked up at Talis, raising a finger as if she had an idea.

“Let’s win the Blood Dagger competition. If we win, I’m allowed any wish I choose. That’ll keep me away from that ridiculous man.”

“But Rikar and Nikulo are undefeated…they’re brutal—”

“I don’t care! We can do it, I know we can. Ever since that old witch made me drink all her potions and tea I feel strangely powerful…like I can do anything.”

“We’ve had a string of bad luck, though. We lost two times in a row at the training arena, and then you almost got killed by the boar.” Talis lowered his voice to a whisper. “It’s like the gods are angry with us.”

“There are rites of initiation we could try…a blood oath.”

“A blood oath?” Talis swallowed, not liking whatever was implied by her suggestion. “Would that be with the Temple of Nestria or Nyx?”

Mara glanced towards the vines that covered walls surrounding the Temple of Nyx, the God of War. “I know what we have to do. We must pray to Zagros, who favors the weak and fallen.”

Zagros? Why would they pray to the God of the Underworld? “I’ve not been beyond Nyx…”

“Listen, we know the rites of initiation. We’ve been trained, right? What are you afraid of?”

“The Temple of Zagros is for those bringing the dead…or those who worship dark magic. Why would we go there?”

“I’m not marrying Baron Delar’s son. We’ve prayed to the other gods before previous matches and we still lost. What have we got to lose?”

Talis imagined they’d have quite a bit to lose. “Oh let’s see, I can think of many reasons why it’s a bad idea. Demons. Curses. And just purely the wrong kind of attention!”

“You owe me. It’s not like it’s the first time in history people have performed the rites. We both read the books and were trained by the same priests. Many heroes in the past have done the rites of initiation to ward off death’s touch. We’d be doing it for victory.”

Glancing at the twisted black oaks marking the entrance to the Temple of Nyx, Talis frowned, but gave in anyway, despite feeling this was a terrible idea. Mara caught his eyes, and held out her thumb to touch his. They sealed the vow with this act. Now they could do nothing but follow through until they completed the Rites of Zagros.

After they finished their soup, Talis and Mara stepped hesitantly towards the blackened iron gate of the foul-tempered God of War. Once inside, the air seemed to darken, either obscured by the oaks or frightened by the shadow crows alive in the quavering branches above. Talis forced himself on, and Mara yanked his hand, leading him around the sword-shaped temple, through the onyx gravestones marking fallen war heroes.

The air reeked of sulfur. Mara puffed out her chest, eyes squinting, and faced a wall of tangled and twisted vines. She chanted words of passage to the realm of Zagros: “For there were four winds racing from the four corners of the world, four spirits and four demons, consuming all life in their path. Grant access to your dominion, yet hold your devouring fire till old age.”

With that the choke vines moved, loosening and untwisting, making a narrow path before them. Mara and Talis squeezed their way inside, where the power surged in the air, the power of dark magic, the power of death. The sky collapsed to a whorl of gray and black, tiny scintillating bolts forming an electric mesh in the sky. A barren ledge stood before them, with the Nalgoran Desert stretching across the sky. The wind rushed at their faces as they entered the ledge, the ledge where many chose to plummet to an early death.

Talis stepped gingerly towards the edge, mindful of the lack of railing, wishing he’d never agreed to perform the Rites. “All powerful Zagros, finish the deed, grind all matter to dust, from the remains the seed springs to life.”

He stared out over the vast expanse to the east, the Nalgoran Desert, with nothing but sand and whirling wind for hundreds of miles.

Mara tugged at his hand, pulling him to the left towards a cave set inside the massive granite cliff.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” he whispered.

She frowned. “You vowed. Just whatever you do, don’t stare into the statue’s eyes for too long.”

“I know that already.”

“I’m just saying…people have died that way.”

Talis swallowed hard, and followed her inside the cave. Farther in, the darkness was suffocating. He knew he had to walk boldly to survive the initiate’s test, but as soon as he stepped onto a wet stone, the feeling of snakes slithered at his feet. Hundreds of spiders crawled along his shoulders, and cold, slimy hands grasped at his legs. He wanted to kick them away, but he had to keep going. When he tried to breathe, he couldn’t. It was like there was no air in the cave. This was an illusion…part of the Rites. He controlled his desire to gasp like a fish caught out of water. After he pictured the morning sun, the vision calmed himself, and he took deeper breaths.

Around a razor-edged corner came the glimmer of an eerie green light. Talis stopped, his heart thumping hard. Two shimmering orbs hovered in the darkness. In between stood a statue of the terrifying Zagros, in a battle-stance, wielding an executioner’s blade in one hand, and in the other he held hundreds of tiny, severed heads tied together by a string. The onyx statue of the Lord of the Underworld. His mouth was open wide, tongue stretched out. Talis felt the hairs stand up along the back of his neck. The statue was revolting.

A cloaked figure knelt before the statue, mumbling prayers. Mara grabbed Talis’s arm, and they hid behind the corner and bent down, straining to listen.

“…I vow,” the figure said, “my father, his soul find respite—the endless war of Nyx—spare him, oh great Zagros.”

Mara leaned close to Talis. “It’s Rikar,” she whispered.

As soon as she spoke, Rikar whirled around and glared at them. “You dare violate the sanctity of this temple?”

Mara and Talis stepped out from the shadows, bathed in the violent green light hovering above the statue. Rikar raised a hand and Talis felt a sickening energy creep up his legs and into his stomach, squeezing hard until massive bursts of pain shot through his body.

“Stop it.” Mara glowered at Rikar. “Leave it for the Blood Dagger competition.”

Talis gasped out as the pain diminished. He balled up a fist and started to charge at Rikar but Mara held him back.

“I won’t even need to use a drop of magic against you pathetic runts.” Rikar shoved Talis aside. “Nice to see you’re all better, Mara. I look forward to using my sword to make you ill again.” He chuckled, pulled his cloak over his head, and stormed out.

“What was that all about?” Mara shook her head. “Why is he in here, anyway?”

“I really don’t want to know…Rikar is in a very bad place, since his father died.”

Mara shuddered, but took a deep breath and faced the onyx statue. “We must complete the rites of initiation.” She beckoned him towards the shrine, and knelt on the outer ley line.

Talis studied the deep crevices of the god’s face, and approached the statue, eyes fixed on the dark lord. He had to remain fearless, else a dark entity might take possession inside him. As he steadied himself, he thought of his brother, Xhan, dead many years ago. He was free now, free of the heavy burden of life. Xhan rested with loved ones, along the fair seas…

Closer to the statue, Talis stretched out his hand. The god’s tongue was cold and wet as Talis touched it, and soon the feeling of a dank fire slithered down his arm. In an instant, a vision possessed his mind. A dimly lit cave filled with vines. A green fire. Eyes hard and ruthless, staring at him in the chamber.

Mara was wrong, worshiping Zagros didn’t bring them favor; worshiping the God of Darkness only brought a demon’s attention upon them.

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