Authors: Alexis Lampley
"No way." She couldn't see the back of his hands well from this distance, but he seemed to be unmarked, like her. Like Tehya. "A Drawer?"
Tehya's confusion was understandable. Ariana only recognized his race because she'd read about them during one of many searches through her father's library for information about what made her own race so rare. Of course, that was back when the library had still held books, not just dust and thwarted dreams. "He's Tieren, Tey. Tieren
. As rare these days as she. Lucky thing, then, that he had yet to get his mark. "He's one of the Hunted."
Tehya's eyes widened with excitement, then fear. "Then why in the Nine is he standing out in the open in the middle of Rockwood Pass?"
"Apparently, he has a death wish," Ariana edged closer to the tree line, straining to pick up his words. His accent was strange and hard to place. There was something wrong here. Why
he in the Pass? The toned muscles beneath his strange, short-sleeved shirt were relaxed, as if he was unaware of any threat. But anyone from Ladria—really, all of Ionia—would have some sense of the danger. Unless they were already in league with the Huntsmen, already enrolled in Lockden.
“We have to warn him,” Tehya whispered. Her friend's thoughts were clearly not taking the same turn as Ariana’s.
“Tey, wait. I don’t—” Ariana cut herself off. Tehya had already slipped through the last stand of trees. Ariana bolted after her, hoping to catch her arm and pull her back before he noticed.
But Ariana’s sudden movement spooked the Mustang. It jerked its head back, its eyes wide and wild.
The boy whirled, his pale olive eyes locking on the girls with confusion and surprise.
“Hai! We—” Tehya began, stepping forward as she spoke.
The Mustang backpedaled, then reared.
"Look out!" Ariana's cry came too late
There was a hard, muffled thud as the Mustang reared, its hoof catching the boy in the back. His mouth formed an "O" and then he flew forward, slamming into the trunk of a large tree. He slumped, facedown and unmoving, onto the leaf-strewn ground.
The girls gaped. The Mustang took off running and disappeared into the trees.
The surprise kept them frozen until the sounds of hoof-beats were no longer distinguishable from the pattering of rain on the canopy above. But as soon as reason returned, Tehya darted over to the boy. Ariana started toward him too, but what lay on the edge of the packed gravel road caught her eye.
Near an open canvas bag, which sat half-buried in leaf litter, aged papers poking out its top, was a book. It was worn and tattered and splayed open, revealing a page filled with ancient, cryptic-looking symbols.
She snatched it up, hardly daring to believe her luck. Elder Script. The dying language of the Masters. The language that only she and a handful of others in all the Nine, truly understood. The language of the portal books. A sudden, startling possessiveness took hold of her. This was a book her mother would never know about. And even if she did, she couldn’t take it away because it wasn’t hers. Borrowing had never been an option; there were so few left in this world. But now… Now it was possible. She had to ask him for it. However he’d obtained it, she had to have it.
With that thought, she tucked the book in her coat pocket, closed the distance and dropped to her knees beside her friend, who was helping the boy unfold himself and sit up.
He blinked slowly, cringing as he stretched and rolled to his back. His groans were rough with pain.
“Are you… alright?” Tehya asked tentatively. “We’re so sorry we spooked your horse.”
The boy pinched his eyes shut and slowly shook his head. “I’m… it’s… I’ll live.”
“For the moment,” Ariana said, taking in the full extent of his strangeness. “What were you thinking being out on this road?”
ed. “What she means is: Hallo. Glad you aren’t seriously injured. What’s your name?”
he boy’s eyes lingered on Tehya, Ariana could see in his face how her friend’s wild, fiery beauty was already drawing him in. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
A soft rumble of thunder sounded as he answered. “Hunter.”
Ariana bristled, anxious, her grip tightening on the portal book. “I’m Ariana. This is Tehya. We need to take this conversation into the trees.”
Tehya nodded. “She’s right. It’s not safe here.”
“Which brings me back to what you were thinking being out here in the first place,” Ariana looped her free arm under his armpit. “Think you can stand?”
Hunter seemed genuinely confused and concerned by the news that he was in danger. He pushed himself quickly to his feet, hardly relying on the girls' help. “I just—” he looked around, his eyes unreadable as he searched the ground. “I was… walking,” he cringed between words, the effort of speaking apparently increased by his injured back. “And… the horse showed up… knocked my bag out of my hands.”
Ariana knew he was hurting, and possibly confused, but she couldn’t help feeling he was lying. His accent was wrong. He wasn’t from Ladria, or the surrounding provinces. And he had a portal book. If Huntsmen caught him with it, he’d be killed. He would know that if he was from any of the worlds the king had conquered, or was in the process of taking over. And yet, here was this book. Something didn’t add up. The answer itched at the back of her mind. But she couldn’t reach it.
Thunder rumbled again, louder and closer this time.
Ariana tensed. Tehya stiffened beside her.
Not thunder. Horses.
Tilting her head, Ariana
sniffed the air. Wet foliage, damp moss, decaying leaves, and—her heart skipped—smoke. With the tang of Fyrennian fire.
“Huntsmen,” they said as one.
“What?” Hunter asked, his voice cracking unmistakably with panic.
“They’re close,” Ariana whispered, her eyes meeting Tehya’s. “Come on.” She grabbed Hunter’s wrist with her free hand and she and Tehya started to run.
Hunter held his ground, his weight jerking Ariana back. “Whoa. Wait a minute,” he said, too loudly.
A chill raked her spine. She glanced at Tehya, who had stopped at the edge of the tree line, waiting, panic in her eyes. “Hunter,” Ariana snapped, her voice trembling. “If you want to live, you’ll follow us. Right. Now.”
“But my bag…”
Her skin grew cold. Iciness crept into the corners of her eyes. “Forget it.” She dropped his wrist and turned away. “We aren’t dying for you.” She turned to Tehya. “Go,” she said, and both girls leaped off the path.
Lawks, could he be any louder
? He crashed through the underbrush with the grace of a drunken bear.
The tree trunks quickly choked the space they needed to run, so they scrambled over a group of rocks toward a large boulder several strides ahead.
Tehya ducked behind it and yelped.
Ariana’s blood ran cold. She sped up, diving around the boulder, fearful for her friend. The salty scent of seawater crashed into her as just a body-length away, past a pair of thick trees, the ground disappeared. Ariana dug in her heels. Tehya grabbed her arm, stealing her momentum and jerking her violently back toward the rock.
They’d reached the Widow’s Descent, a three-hundred-stride sheer rock wall that faced the Ladrian Sea.
A moment later, with the rumble of the horses growing louder, Hunter rounded the boulder. Both girls lunged, grabbing at him, pulling him to a stop.
“What are you—?” He stopped, his eyes finding the sea, then whirled on them. “Is that a cliff right there?”
“Shh!” Ariana clapped a hand over his mouth as Tehya shoved him to his knees. “They’re coming."
Hunter squeezed between the girls, standing to peer over the boulder as a streak of white light collided with a sapling at the tree line. Dazzling blue-gold flames chased up the limbs, emitting the noxious smell of over-heated rubber.
Tehya sucked in her breath beside him as five men rode into view. Their tall, brutish black horses were covered in silver-white armor, including a horn that protruded from each of their foreheads in a malignant echo of a unicorn.
His throat knotted itself. The riders were disturbingly similar to the men he’d escaped in Kansas. Red stripes and insignia spread like bloodstains across their pristine white uniforms. They were the villains from his childhood stories, come to life in this dream-turned-nightmare.
Both girls tensed. The riders came to a halt where they’d been standing.
The lead rider slipped off his horse and turned in a slow circle, surveying the ground. He stopped, his eyes on something out of Hunter’s view, and stooped. When he stood again, Hunter’s heart sank. His backpack hung by its strap in the leader’s large, lethal hands.
“What have we here?” The man's voice was silky and powerful.
Drop it. It’s nothing,
Hunter willed him, feeling desperate and impotent.
Tehya’s hand gripped his shoulder with more strength than he'd have imagined from their small size. Clearly, these were dangerous men. Too dangerous to confront. He would just have to hope that they left his things and moved on.
The leader stuffed his arm in the bag, pulling out a tin box. Hunter groaned as the money inside rattled.
The man pried open the lid and peered inside. A vicious grin spread across his face. “Seems we’ll be getting paid early,” he said, handing it to the rider at his left, whose bulk seemed to threaten the breaking point of his horse’s sturdy back.
Bulky took it and grunted appreciatively. “For the next two seasons.” His voice was so deep it seemed to occupy all the room in his mouth. “There’s got to be…” he started counting, prodding the money with a stubby finger, “ten thousand Scales in here.”
, Hunter corrected bitterly, a memory boiling to the surface of his mind.
These should buy you a few years,” his grandpa said as Hunter picked through a handful of various beautifully crafted coins
boults, they'd been called in the stories
and a dragon scale, the latter he studied closer, tracing the intricate details of the D-shaped disk with his thumb, his heart full of wonder.
“Gruon,” the leader snapped.
The memory shattered, replaced by an ache that settled in his gut and threatened to drop him to his knees. He swallowed hard and stuffed the feelings into a dark corner of his mind. The old man was gone. There was no saving him. No going back, even if it
possible. Nothing would change what happened, and now was not the time to mourn.
dropped a handful of shimmering blue Scales back into the tin.
“Commander,” said the rider second in line. He was leaner and darker than the others. “If Gruon is speaking true, there are more Scales there than any citizen’s allotment.”
The Commander cocked his head.
“It’s far more likely that whoever this belongs to is on the run.”
“What are you saying, Marek?” the Commander pressed.
“Could it be the boy’s, sir?”
Hunter choked on a gasp. Ariana elbowed him in the ribs. He turned to meet her accusing eyes; ashen swirls clouding over deep pools of dark sapphire. He gave her what he hoped was a confused, innocent look. But the rough surface of the boulder slicked beneath his palm as he did. He turned away from her, swallowing his panic. Maybe he was a fool for thinking he could hide here.
“In Ionia?” the Commander scoffed.
“Yes, sir,” Marek answered. “He certainly had access—”
“The boy was accused of murder,” the Commander said.
Ariana leaned away from him. He shivered, the air suddenly colder, though he'd felt no breeze.
He gritted his teeth. Those men in Kansas had murdered his grandpa and would have done the same to him had he not used that book at the last second. He was being framed for their crime, marked as a danger to the public in Ionia or any other world he could have been transported to. He’d have difficulty hiding. Or gaining anyone’s trust.
He glanced at Tehya. She seemed unsettled by the riders' presence, but unconcerned by what they were saying.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ariana glancing between him and the riders. Her eyes were as pale as birch bark; he could have sworn they'd been an azure color just a minute earlier. There was an unnerving chill emanating from her side as well. He reached toward her, meaning to assure her, but she shrank away, eyes narrowed in distrust. Before he could say anything in his defense, the Commander caught his attention. He was holding up one of the pages from the bag, inspecting the scrawl Hunter had not been able to decipher. Did he know how to read it? Could he see the secret to finding his parents in those pages?
“Written in code,” the Commander said.
Or Elder Script,” Marek suggested.
The Commander stared at the symbols on the page. Maybe he would write them off. Maybe he’d leave them be, ride away without—
The page caught fire in his palm.
“No!” Hunter stood, unthinking, his blood free-falling to his feet.
Five sets of eyes locked on him as the blackened remains of his future fluttered to the ground. The girls ducked away, out of view.
,” Ariana hissed. “You’ve killed us all.”
Hunter frowned, felt his eyes shift toward Tehya in remorse. He didn’t want them to kill anyone. What he wanted was to still be hiding.
What did I just do?
The Commander’s eyes went wide. Then his dark face split with a cruel grin. “Well, well.” His smooth voice slithered across the space between them and coiled around Hunter’s throat. “I believe the king is looking for
His feet itched to run, his eyes searching frantically for ways to escape. Backward was not a survivable option. But the trees to his left and right were so dense, even if he
run through them, the men would be on him—and the girls—in seconds. That left only one option.
He didn’t like it.
But if these men were truly like the ones he'd encountered earlier, and the Commander
recognize him, they would’ve tried to kill him already. Maybe he'd been mistaken for someone else. Maybe it was worth the risk. Even if it wasn’t, keeping the girls from harm was.
He would just have to channel the bravery and authority of the boy he was in his dreams, and hope he could be convincing enough.
He took a breath and stepped away from the boulder.
Ariana spewed whispered curses at him—"
gorse it, you flaming blocker
"—as he forced each foot in front of the other.
“I expected more fight from you,” the Commander sneered, his high cheekbones intruding on his narrow eyes.
Hunter kept his chin high, his back straight. He marched purposefully toward them. As he came closer he could see that the man had a severe widow’s peak, his hairline dead parallel to his angular brows. Combined with his thick neck, he looked more panther than human. Dark and menacing.
The Commander’s sneer slid off his face. “Who are you?”
Hunter halted, surprised. The trees swayed above him, pulling a faint, salty sea smell into the air. “You don’t know?” he asked, feigning bored condescension and hoping his confusion didn't show through.
The wind blew harder, an ethereal scream of air squeezing through the timber. Rain thrashed the tops of the trees.
The Commander lowered the bag and aimed the palm of his free hand at Hunter’s chest. “Your disguise is good. Up close.”
“What disguise?” Hunter asked, keeping his voice even. The mass of dark horses and riders loomed to his right, pressing in on the open space of the road.
The air felt thinner.
Breathe. Think. Focus. You can survive this. You just need a way out.
The only obvious escape was to the left, if he could call it one. He’d be run down in a heartbeat.
“He’s an impostor, Commander,” one of the men growled.
The woods on the other side of the path were thick, but not as dense. Perfect for running. If he could get past the Commander—a substantial "if"—he could lose them there, he was sure of it.
“Real or fake, it makes no difference,” argued another.
“Indeed,” the Commander drawled. “For the murder of a royal family member, or for impersonating the son of the king. Either way, the boy will die.”
Before Hunter could replay the conversation he’d only half been listening to, the Commander’s fingers spread wide. From the center of his massive palm a spark, then a tiny flame—as blue as a summer sky—erupted and bloomed to his fingertips.
Hunter stood frozen, his eyes locked on the flame. He’d have been safer staring down the barrel of a gun.
, you raving prag!” Ariana’s strained voice shattered his trance.
The flame surged toward Hunter’s face. In that instant he heard a
, followed by a deafening roar.
Something ice cold slammed him on the head.
He staggered in shock, blinking water out of his eyes.
Water. He was drenched, his eyes stinging. A salty taste seeped into his mouth as the rain hammered on him. It was as if the sea had been diverted into the clouds.
Blinded by the downpour, h
e wiped at his face. But it didn’t help. So he cupped a hand to his forehead and peered at the Commander, who was distracted by the rain. His grip on the bag had gone slack.
Hunter lunged, threading his arm through the strap, his momentum stripping the bag from the Commander’s hand.
He launched himself into the trees, adrenaline coursing through his body as he wove between the timber. Sharp, slimy bark scraped the skin off his wrists and hands when he slung himself around the trunks. Flashbacks of the attack at his home goaded him forward. Never breaking pace, he sought out the natural paths between the trees and sprinted down them.
Two escapes in as many days? His luck
to be wearing thin.
He ducked under branches and leapt over roots, sliding on the slick layers of fallen and rotting leaves. Twigs clawed at his face and bark tore at his hands as he made an effort to keep his footing. His heart beat wildly in his ears. The trees blurred together. His scraped flesh stung, and he wondered if he was leaving a trail of blood. But his brain and lungs screamed for air he had no time to give them, and any thought but staying ahead of the Huntsmen—staying alive—was fleeting. He couldn’t let them take him. Of all the things he’d wished in his grandpa’s stories to be true, the Huntsmen and their Institute were not among them.
He careened into a clearing, but his sprint across halted. His foot tangled on a vine in the overgrown grass. He pitched forward.
The knobby branches of a bush connected with his chest and throat as he hit the ground. He yelped and rolled to his side, clutching the impact points, his eyes welling, his rattling gulps of air just short of futile.
A shadow moved over him.
He stopped trying to breathe and blinked, bringing the face into focus with dread in his heart. He hadn’t even heard them behind him.
An almond-colored face, piercing sapphire eyes, white teeth set in a snarl.
,” Ariana growled. “What were you thinking?”
Hunter’s mind reeled. “I—”
did you approach them?”
“I—” he forced the words out in a wheeze. “I was trying to—” speaking was painful— “escape.”
Her eyes, a tumultuous swirl of blue-grey, mirrored the sky above her. “Who are you?”
Hunter coughed and caught some semblance of breath, rolling onto his back. “I told you. My name is Hunter Woodworth.” The knobby bush dug into his side.
“Are you sure it isn’t Prince Fyrenn?”
“Yeah. Absolutely.” By her face, he wasn’t sure she believed him. But he definitely wasn’t a prince.
“Then why would you approach Huntsmen like that? Do you have a death wish?”
He winced. “I wasn’t thinking.” His breath wheezed as he inhaled.
“That much is obvious,” came Tehya’s voice from somewhere behind Ariana.
“He was burning my stuff,” he petitioned, seeking her out, unable to spot her from his position.
Ariana shook her head, but the stormy expression softened. Slightly. She looked over his shoulder, then back at him. “You making sure the rest’ll never take a flame?”
Hunter craned his neck to see the documents scattered on the wet grass, the inked letters distorting.