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The Battlemage, Page 2

Taran Matharu

  For now.



  THE ZARATAN SWAM ON as the sky began to darken, pausing only to chew on the occasional patch of river weed that floated by. It swam with new purpose, and they ate up the distance quickly, even if their surroundings looked much the same. Every minute that ticked by was a blessing, for it meant they were going farther and farther away from the orcish part of the ether, where the orc shamans and the Wyverns they rode would undoubtedly have already begun their pursuit.

  As they waited for the swamps to end, cold became their greatest enemy; the damp air sucking the heat from their bodies to leave them shivering against the faint warmth of Lysander’s downy sides. Fletcher left Ignatius draped around his mother’s shoulders, while Athena curled up in her lap. Alice twisted her fingers absently through Athena’s fur, a distant smile playing across her lips as the Gryphowl purred and chirruped.

  A dull lethargy began to take hold of them as time passed by—and Fletcher could barely muster the energy to move at all. He wondered if it was the aftereffects of Jeffrey’s darts … or the ether’s poison slowly taking hold.

  As night fell, they produced a small wyrdlight and ate the last of their supplies from the mission—salted pork from Briss’s kitchen and bruised bananas harvested from the jungle. It was simple fare, but Alice wolfed down the pork with feral jerks of her head, as if she had not tasted meat in years. Fletcher gave her his own portion, and he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as she sat back with a mindless groan, clutching her distended belly. Moments later she was almost asleep, her head resting on Fletcher’s shoulder.

  Fletcher’s vision of his mother, for the brief time he had known her as Alice Raleigh, had been of a gentle, beautiful woman, full of love for her only child. Now he found himself the caretaker of a lost soul with a broken mind and no memory of even herself, let alone her son. Yet, as he gently wiped the oily stains from the corners of Alice’s mouth, he found his heart breaking for her. How could he hold his disappointment against her, after all she had endured? He loved her just the same.

  They used the last light of dusk—if you could call it that in this alien world—to check their supplies. They even had some spare dry clothing, which they changed into surreptitiously, using Lysander’s body as a makeshift wall between boys and girls.

  To Fletcher’s surprise, they discovered that they had kept all of their weapons, though most of their gunpowder had become soaked in the water. Sylva’s arrows had all been lost, but Fletcher had some to share, and Cress had seven remaining crossbow bolts too. Yet, in this environment, they all knew that it was their demons that would be their most useful tools, and Fletcher felt a pang of pity for Sylva. She had no demon or mana anymore.

  As they sheathed their weapons and settled for the night, Fletcher turned his mind to the petals. There were roughly one hundred in the sack Cress had managed to save, though in the dark it was hard to count. And even as he counted under his breath, Fletcher could sense their effects waning, the strange lethargy they were feeling building with every minute. Soon each breath became labored, until it felt like he had just climbed Vocans’s west staircase. He had not expected the effects to wear off so quickly, and suddenly their small sack seemed a pitiful number.

  Seeing the others dozing, Fletcher realized it was too dangerous to sleep—he might never wake up if the effects wore off in the night.

  “I need another petal,” he panted.

  “I didn’t want to be the first to say it,” Cress sighed, cracking open her eyes and plucking one from the sack.

  Sylva and Othello followed suit, and even Alice allowed Fletcher to place it in her mouth without complaint, swallowing it down when Fletcher gently rubbed her throat.

  “What was that, five hours?” Fletcher asked, instantly feeling strength returning to his body.

  “More or less,” Othello agreed. “That’s almost five petals a day, each. At least in our world’s time—I know the cycles of night and day vary in the ether.”

  “Do they? I should have paid more attention in class,” Cress grumbled.

  “Don’t worry, we learned this in second year,” Othello continued. “The ether’s days are around ten hours in winter and forty hours in the summer, but our years and seasons are the same length. That’s how we’re able to predict the migrations that pass through Hominum’s part of the ether. It’s winter now so … we should probably get some shut-eye; it’ll be light in five hours or so.”

  Fletcher listened intently. He was a year behind Othello, and with his focus on the tournament, had forgotten much of what he had learned in his demonology and etherwork lessons.

  “You’re missing the big picture,” Sylva snapped, her voice cutting through the darkness and making Fletcher jump. “We’ll go through five petals every five hours. How long before we run out and are slowly poisoned to death? There can’t be more than a hundred petals in that bag. That’s one hundred hours each. Ten day-night cycles in the ether.”

  Fletcher’s mind raced. That came to a little over four days in real time. Four days until they lost the use of their bodies and eventually … died.

  “Well, surely there will be some of those flowers around here,” Fletcher suggested, but already his heart was sinking.

  “Do you see any?” Sylva asked, motioning at the submerged bushes around them. “I’m sure the flowers exist in the orcish part of the ether somewhere; it’s the only way they would have so many of them. But not here. These swamplands must be on the very edge of their territory—it’s probably the only reason the orcs haven’t found us yet.”

  “Well, does it really matter?” Cress muttered.

  “What the hell do you mean? Of course it bloody does,” Sylva retorted.

  Fletcher frowned. It wasn’t like Sylva to curse.

  “Guys, take it easy,” Othello said nervously.

  “No, I want to know,” Sylva growled, shaking off Othello’s hand as he tried to calm her. “I want to know why she thinks the only thing that’s keeping us from keeling over, foaming at the mouth and spasming and twitching to our deaths doesn’t matter.”

  “It doesn’t matter because we’re all going to die here anyway!” Cress shouted. And then, to Fletcher’s astonishment, she burst into tears.

  “One hundred hours, two hundred hours. Who cares,” she sobbed, hiding her face in her hands. “There’s no way back.”

  Sylva froze, her angry retort dying on her lips.

  “Hey,” Sylva said, shuffling closer to her. “I just … with Sariel dead and now the petals … I was lashing out. I’m sorry.”

  She wrapped her arms around Cress and buried her head in the dwarf’s shoulder.

  Despite their circumstances, Fletcher and Othello smiled at each other. After all of Sylva’s suspicion and distrust, she and Cress could finally let their defenses down and see each other for who they truly were.

  Fletcher let them hug it out a few beats longer but knew he could not leave it at that. They needed a plan, or even just a sliver of hope. He cleared his throat.

  “It’s not a hundred hours until we die,” he said, lacing his voice with confidence he did not feel. Sylva pulled away from Cress, and he saw her face was also damp with tears.

  “What do you mean?” she said.

  “We just have to find some more petals,” Fletcher continued. “That’s all. Think about it—the flowers must exist in both Hominum’s and the orcs’ part of the ether, so it’s got to be a common plant. I bet Jeffrey’s journal has all the information we need on what they look like and where they grow.”

  “Okay,” Cress said, her voice barely above a whisper. “So we search for them. But … what about getting home?”

  “We aren’t able to create a portal back to our world from here, not without some sort of new keys,” Othello said quickly. “Or another part of the ether for that matter; it’s been tried before.”

  “Great,” Sylva said despondently.

  “But … we can go back throug
h a portal that someone in our world has already created.”

  “So what are you suggesting?” Cress muttered. “That we somehow turn this Zaratan around, make our way back to where we started, avoid the Wyverns and shamans, find a portal they’ve just opened, jump through, fight our way out of wherever we end up and then hightail it through the jungle to the Hominum border with half of orcdom in pursuit. No thanks.”

  “You’re right,” Fletcher said, holding up his hands in surrender. “We’re definitely not doing that. We’re going to get as far from the orcish part of the ether as possible.”

  “Then what?” Othello asked. He and Cress looked confused, but Fletcher could see the beginnings of a smile playing across Sylva’s face. He took a deep breath.

  “We’re going to get out of these swamps and traverse the ether—until we find Hominum’s part of it.”



  FLETCHER WOKE. He heard a soft thud and rocked to the side. Another followed, and he rolled against Lysander’s belly.

  “Wuh—” he managed, cracking open his eyes.

  There were trees around him. Real trees, with dangling branches like willows shading him from the pale skies. Cress’s face swam into view, a bright grin plastered across her face.

  “Sheldon’s walking,” she said, tugging at his jacket.

  Fletcher sat up, wincing as his back twinged with pain. It had not been a comfortable sleep, and far less than he would have liked.

  His first thought was of Alice. She was awake and chewing on a petal, sitting near the Zaratan’s tail, staring vacantly at the trees above.

  There was a flake of yellow resting on her upper lip. Fletcher wiped it away gently and tugged the jacket close about her shoulders, taking care not to disturb the still-sleeping Ignatius. Athena was alert but had not moved from Alice’s lap. He could sense a great melancholy from the Gryphowl and knew that she loved Alice as much as his father had. He rubbed her head and left the two together.

  “Sheldon?” he asked, Cress’s words catching up with him.

  “Our Zaratan—we decided to name him,” Sylva said, holding out a petal for Fletcher to eat. “Eat up, it’s been five hours, or at least, that’s what Cress’s pocket watch says.”

  As he munched on the tart garnish, he saw Sylva was busy counting the petals in the sack, stacking them carefully between her thighs.

  “How do you know it’s a him?” Othello said, still sprawled across the front half of the shell, his eyes closed.

  “I checked,” Cress said, her cheeks flushing red.

  Fletcher chuckled and crawled to the front of the Zaratan. Sheldon turned to look back at him, blinking his golden eyes ponderously. He was a handsome creature, with a smooth yellow beak and a long, agile neck. His pace, though deliberate, was faster than it seemed, the long strides eating up the ground beneath his splayed, claw-tipped feet.

  For a moment Fletcher considered whether the demon might be worth harnessing. But it was a level-fifteen demon—far too high for Sylva.

  “Ninety petals,” Sylva announced, interrupting his thoughts. “Just as I thought. Ninety hours left.”

  Fletcher’s eyes flicked to the ground around them, searching for even a hint of yellow. Yet it was all a mess of greens and browns, with nary a demon or blossom in sight.

  “We should stay with Sheldon,” Fletcher suggested, looking ahead to where the ground was still swampy but already beginning to dry out, with the occasional patch of coarse grass making an appearance. Beyond, the trees became taller, though the area was obscured by the deepening shadow of the canopy.

  “I agree, he’s faster than we would be on foot,” Sylva said. “Plus he’s not completely defenseless—his claws and beak look sharp enough.”

  “We can stay on the move while we’re sleeping too, if one of us keeps watch,” Cress agreed, scrambling over to join Fletcher.

  She reached out to pet Sheldon, and Fletcher grinned when the Zaratan rumbled with pleasure as she scratched the root of his neck. The gentle giant would be a formidable ally in the coming days.

  A squawk cut through the air, followed by a cry from Sylva. Fletcher turned to see Lysander had finally recovered—but he was advancing on Tosk with his hackles raised, stalking him like a lion would a gazelle. His eyes were different somehow, the pupils dilated and empty of the intelligence that had shone there before.

  “Lysander, what are you doing?” Fletcher shouted. He knew Lysander hadn’t eaten since being paralyzed, but this was more than hunger.

  “His bond with Lovett was broken when the portal closed,” Sylva said, horrified. “He’s becoming wild again.”

  Lysander took another step closer to the terrified Raiju, whose blue fur was standing on end. Tosk’s squirrel-like tail arched, crackling with lightning. In response, the Griffin opened his beak wide and unleashed a roar, the timbre rising until it ended in a screech.

  “We need to do something,” Othello shouted, half-obscured by the prowling Griffin. “He’s going to kill him!”

  Fletcher’s mind raced. Lysander’s summoning scroll was stuffed down the side of his pack. The only problem was, the pack was underneath the Griffin’s belly.

  “I’m not letting him hurt Tosk,” Cress said, and suddenly her crossbow was armed, the tip centered on Lysander’s head.

  “Fletcher, any ideas?” Sylva yelled.

  Sylva. Without Sariel, she might be capable of harnessing a level-ten demon like Lysander. Two years ago, she had a summoning level of seven.

  “Get ready,” he said, lowering himself into a crouch.

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Sylva hissed. But there was no time to explain.

  “Athena, now!” Fletcher shouted, sprinting up the incline of the Zaratan’s shell. He skidded beneath Lysander’s belly and thrust his hand into the side pocket of his satchel. The world above brightened as Lysander leaped for Tosk, only to find his prey snatched away by the swooping Gryphowl.

  “Read it!” Fletcher bellowed, hurling the scroll into Sylva’s bewildered hands.

  “What…,” Sylva began, but then, “Lo ro di mai si lo.”

  Lysander screeched and spun, his talons scraping on the surface of the shell. His eyes bored into Fletcher’s with a deep, animal hunger. It was all Fletcher could do not to scramble away.

  Ignatius was circling the pair, woken from Alice’s neck by Sylva’s scream. He waited for an opportunity to strike, but Fletcher ordered him to hold off. They needed time; an attack from Ignatius would just force a confrontation too soon.

  As if Sheldon could sense the commotion, the shell shuddered beneath them. The tremors gave the Griffin pause, and he widened his stance, spreading himself like a bear crossing a frozen lake. Already white threads were beginning to appear between him and Sylva, twisting together to form a cord of glowing light.

  “Hurry up…,” Fletcher whispered under his breath, willing Sylva’s chanting on as it swirled around them.

  Lysander took a faltering step, his fierce beak hanging open to reveal a pink maw within. He was struggling, his bond with Sylva growing with every word that she spoke. Fletcher remained still, knowing that any sudden movement might set the Griffin off.

  Another step, and now Fletcher could feel the panting Griffin’s hot breaths, moist from the demon’s gullet. Fletcher closed his eyes.

  The cold, hard beak grazed his cheek, and then he felt the soft ruffle of feathers as the demon nuzzled him, burying his great head against Fletcher’s chest. Sylva’s chanting had stopped.… Lysander was back.

  Fletcher wrapped his arms around the Griffin’s neck, but seconds later they were empty. He opened his eyes and saw the Griffin was dissolving in a haze of white light, with Sylva holding a summoning leather beneath him.

  As the last of the luminescence flowed into her, she sat back with her fists clenched, shuddering with the euphoria of infusing a new demon for the first time. Finally she lay down, a gentle smile playing across her lips.

  Fletcher coll
apsed onto the shell beside her, and then Ignatius knocked him onto his back, chirping with relief. It was strange, but the demon seemed heavier somehow. He gave Fletcher a remonstrative nip on the ear for scaring him and promptly enveloped Fletcher’s neck.

  “Right, someone has to tell me what the hell just happened,” Cress growled.

  Fletcher turned to see her stomping across the shell toward them, Tosk’s round, black eyes peering out from where he had hidden within her jacket.

  “It happens when demons lose their masters,” Othello explained, rubbing the back of his neck. “I should have remembered; we learned about it in second year. Demons only become truly sentient when they are captured and harnessed by a summoner; before that they’re no more intelligent than any other animal. Without the bond, they return to that state until they bond with a new master and remember who they were. We’re lucky that Lysander was paralyzed for so long—it usually happens very quickly.”

  “It’s true,” Fletcher said, his mind flashing back to Athena’s memory of the night he was left outside Pelt’s gates. How she had felt the wild call of the ether, tugging at her very essence.

  “Well, you could have bloody warned us,” Cress grumbled.

  Fletcher stood and tried to extricate himself from Ignatius’s embrace, but the demon refused to budge. He sighed and scooted down the shell’s incline to Alice, who was sitting cross-legged, staring vacantly ahead. She had not moved, not even when Lysander had roared. It was only the occasional stroke of her hand across Athena’s back that gave him any hope that she might one day recover.

  Fletcher had lost his birth father, Edmund. But he would not lose his mother again. Not now, when they spent so little time together. There had to be a way.

  He gazed out at the wasteland, searching for some semblance of hope. But there was no food, no flowers, just mud and drab plants.

  “Don’t worry, Ali—Mum,” Fletcher murmured, the word sitting strangely in his mouth. “We’ll get you home. I promise.”



  THE LIGHT OF THE SKY changed quickly in the ether, going from golden morning sun to clear gray sky in the space of an hour. The area around them remained desolate, the only sign of life coming from a lone Kappa: a scrawny, green-skinned humanoid that slipped into a pool of murky water as soon as they neared. Fletcher had just enough time to identify it, and see the strange, bowl-like indent on the top of its head, where it stored water when it traveled on land.