DANIL PUSHED THROUGH the ferns, his homespun tunic damp with cold as a slow drizzle swept down from the Amasian mountains.
A stream led him east, where trees grew thick and wild. Danil could hear the steady drip of water echo deep within long abandoned mine shafts as he passed their entrances. He took care to step clear of the unstable shale fields covered with newly grown moss and lichen as a force he didn’t understand, but was compelled to follow, drew him forward.
An abandoned hut emerged from the early morning gloom, its door askew and mud walls overrun with vines. More huts sat amongst the sprawling trees and thick undergrowth, marking where the village of Farin and its people had once eked out a harsh existence on the edge of the deadlands. Danil paused at a blackened mound, bile rushing into his mouth as he was assaulted with memories of what lay beneath.
He could never forgive the magi of Roldaer for what they had done in their quest to awaken the halfbreed, Kaul. The promise of kiandrite crystals, the source of the magi’s waning power, had seen the Roldaerians cut a path of destruction through everything Danil had once held dear and forced him to become a traitor to his people to prevent a catastrophic war. In the process, Danil had discovered a connection to the deadlands not seen since the Great War, and his life irrevocably changed.
Danil felt a soft hum beneath his feet, a gentle whisper of comfort wrapping itself around his mind. As he watched, a single flower pushed its way through the blackened soil. Petals of shimmering blue peeled open as though to embrace the awakening day. Balance was returning.
Breath pluming, Danil continued deeper into Farin as a force that had been calling him for days beckoned him closer. He paused in the town square, recalling better times when a troupe of acrobats had performed, and the once vibrant streets had been filled with laughter. Instinctively, Danil crouched beside a ring of mushrooms and pressed a hand to the wet soil. A soft murmuring filled his mind as magic pushed up through the ground. He waited.
There, burrowing its way out of the dark mud, was a kiandrite crystal. No larger than his forefinger, it changed from silver to blue as Danil gently wiped away the remaining dirt. The Corros House glyph on his palm glowed as if in greeting, and he felt a surge of warmth when the crystal momentarily turned gold to match.
An oversized red wolf trotted out from the undergrowth and padded toward Danil with a confident swagger. Danil buried his hand in the fur before scrunching his nose as the wolf snuffled happily in his face. The wolf gave him a grin, tongue lolling to one side in amusement. Spying the crystal, the wolf tilted his head curiously and nosed at it. The air shimmered, and suddenly Hafryn crouched beside him, green eyes reverent.
“Your first crystal as custodian, Danil,” he murmured in awe.
Turning it about to catch the weak morning light, Danil said, “It’s beautiful.”
The heart of the crystal brightened to emerald.
Hafryn snorted. “It knows it has admirers.”
Danil grinned. “I guess so. Though I didn’t expect to find it in Farin.” An old ache settled in his throat as he glanced once more at the decaying buildings around them.
The wolf shifter shrugged. “You grew up here, no? Perhaps it chose this place in honor of your custodianship.”
Danil supposed Hafryn had a point. Only two months had passed since the failed magi plot. It was his duty now to ensure that the magic that had been trapped for centuries by Kaul’s desire for domination was able to grow across the land as originally intended.
“Should I keep it?” Danil asked. The crystal sent a warm, buzzing vibration up his arm.
“It would be an insult not to, fala. We can’t leave it here, in any case. Roldaer isn’t the best place for kiandrite.”
Danil grunted. Any magi who came upon the crystal would grind it up for spells and curses. “We shouldn’t be here in any case—Elania and Blutark won’t like that we’ve left the deadlands.”
Hafryn winked. “Your tutors are probably wondering why you’ve skipped out on a lesson.”
Groaning, Danil said, “As long as they don’t make me create magelights, I’ll do double.”
“Magelights aren’t so difficult.”
“For Amasians, maybe,” Danil groused. Most days, even the simplest enchantments seemed beyond his ability to master. Magelights were one of the enchantments taught to younglings just coming into their gifts. He eyed Hafryn. “I’ve never seen you make one.”
Hafryn rose to his feet and stretched his arms above his head to expose his lithe belly. “I have other talents.”
“I’m aware,” Danil replied dryly.
Hafryn’s grin turned rakish as he gripped the fabric of Danil’s tunic. Danil let himself be tugged up and close until the full length of his body pressed against Hafryn’s. The shifter’s green eyes brightened. “I suppose you are, fala.”
Suddenly, the crystal in Danil’s hand burned angrily, and he stepped away from Hafryn in alarm. “Why is it—?” Danil stopped at the crunch of footsteps in the leaf mold.
They whirled as six Roldaerian soldiers stepped out from behind the fernery. Swords drawn, they crowded close.
The crystal in Danil’s fist darkened.
Air rippling, Hafryn transformed back into a snarling wolf. He pushed in front of Danil, hackles bristling as he bared his teeth. Danil gripped his ruff and buried the crystal in his pocket. Hastily he drew the dagger at his waist. Beneath him, the leylines stirred in agitation.
A middle-aged woman stepped between the soldiers. Finely dressed in red robes and fur-lined cloak, she bore an officious silver crest on a long chain about her neck. Her pale hair was held back by a jeweled clasp, her dark eyes mild as they swept over Danil and Hafryn.
“How momentous to find you here,” she said, drawing closer. Her robes rustled over ferns and detritus.
Hafryn’s growl deepened. He pushed back into Danil’s legs, propelling him away from the Roldearians.
Pausing, the woman pressed a hand to her chest. “Oh, there’s no need for alarm, Amasian,” she said, eyes wide. “I bring you no ill will.”
Danil eyed her and the soldiers critically. “Then why are you here?”
She curtseyed, making the jewel in her hair twinkle. “I am Arlyn Nera, an emissary of King Liam of Roldaer.” Straightening, she smiled. “I have been tasked to make contact with the High Council of Amas. We wish to parlay for peace.”