Shadow's Pursuit

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Chapter One

A SCORPION SCUTTLED away into a hole in the sand, feeling the thundering of the many hooves that advanced towards it. The cries of nocturnal birds pierced through the silence of the night, reminding them all that life did indeed exist and thrive in the vast emptiness before them.

Raine pulled the collar of her coat tighter around her neck, doing her best to ignore the cold that ached in her bones and clutched at her core like a wraith with talons of ice. She looked sideways and Troy returned her gaze, nodding his head and smiling pleasantly despite his red nose and watery eyes. She could see that he was just as cold as she was, but was clearly trying to ignore it.

“How much longer?” came a pained voice from behind her, and she couldn’t help the wry smile that twitched at the corner of her lips at Hammond’s question. The Fire Mage held a small ball of flame above his open palm, his other hand lazily gripping the reins of his horse. “This damn cold is unbearable.”

“Like you have any right to complain,” Chelstra muttered from Raine’s left. She had pulled a scarf around her head, but loose strands of vivid orange hair had managed to poke their way through the garment. Her voice came out as puffs of warm air. “You have fire. Think about the rest of us who don’t have that particular element.”

“I thought you agreed to share that with us?” Troy added, his tone darkening considerably.

“Would you like some now?” Hammond asked mildly. “I’m sure that your horse would enjoy the extra heat as well.”

Raine decided to stay out of their argument, focusing instead on their environment. Lieutenant Sage Preston had told them that there would be no hostiles, but it could never hurt to be sure. There was always the possibility of fighting between the desert clans, after all.

Her horse moved along calmly, seemingly unfazed by the coldness of the night air and the bleakness of the land around them. It remained silent, awaiting her next command and ready to oblige at any given moment. It was highly trained and uniquely so- just like her.

“You’re very quiet, dear Raine,” Troy said from beside her after a moment and she turned to look at him. The Air Mage moved a hand through his honey-blonde hair, looking at her with bright blue eyes that somehow still managed to shine in the darkness of the night. “What are you thinking?”

“Nothing,” she said quietly, giving a small smile. “I’m just keeping an eye out on our surroundings, that’s all.”

“Working, as per usual,” Hammond muttered from behind her, his tone as monotonous as always. “Clearly heading towards that promotion.”

“You have nothing to worry about,” Chelstra said, ignoring him. “Sage Preston said that there’s almost no chance of us being attacked, right?

“Not only that, but we have members of the Mounted Companies coming with us!” Troy added, his voice light. “They’re here to protect us whilst we cast our techniques. Nothing to be worried about.”

“I’m not worried.” she said. “There’s no harm in being vigilant, is there?”

“Told you.” Hammond said.

“I can understand you being cautious, though.” Chelstra said, and this time worry was evident in her tone. Raine looked over at her, and the young girl was frowning. “A sandworm? I didn’t even know such things existed.”

Troy sighed theatrically. “I too thought that Haren Verlictam, the Fanged Sandworm, was naught but a myth, but that seems not the case. They say that it very rarely emerges though, so I wonder what has caused it to stir?”

Raine thought back to their briefing, but nothing that their platoon lieutenant had said had eased the ripple of discomfort that had passed over all of them. It’s a fairly intense mission for a platoon of recently promoted soldiers, she thought. We were only just recruits a few weeks ago.

She resisted the urge to sigh as she considered her position- being so far from the capital meant that little information could be gained from her environment. The only thing that she could relay to her Treston masters was that the political standing between Avendan and the tribespeople of Kreshna Desert was going to improve from their actions. She doubted that Grandmaster Kyushu, and indeed, King Desmond himself, were going to care much for such things.

I’ll bet Damien will be gaining plenty of information from his position…

The thought of the bright-eyed, dark-haired young man brought a sour taste to her tongue, so she pushed it from her mind and concentrated once again on her surroundings. She had much to do as an Avendan Water Mage, even if they were not her own people.

THEY REACHED THEIR destination just before sunrise- an area of desert known as the Empty Stretch, as Troy had informed her. They used the day to sleep and rest beneath tents and covers, attempting to protect themselves from the blazing heat and light from the sun. They had spent enough time in the desert to learn that the massive white orb was their greatest enemy in the vast expanse of white sand, and many a soldier had collapsed from heat stress and dehydration despite the presence of Water Magi. Chelstra was often summoned from the resting place of the female soldiers to various locations around their campsite, as it was her duty as a Life Mage to heal those who were ill or injured.

Raine did not envy her, for the heat was crippling enough even as she lay on her back beneath a canopy, the fabric glowing pale yellow with the direct sunlight. She had removed her boots and cloak and pulled up the sleeves of her tunic and ends of her leggings, but it did little to ease her discomfort; her clothes still clung to her like a second skin. Her dark, straight hair was damp against her neck despite being tied up in a horsetail like fashion, and loose strands of her fringe stuck to the sides of her face. Raine almost wished that they were in the mountains again, for the biting cold had been something that she had experienced before, but such thoughts did not help her now. She did her best to rest despite the heat and her nervousness, knowing that their mission would start once the sun had fallen. She knew the formations and the battle plan word-for-word and could envision the motions clearly in her mind, but it still did little to comfort her. How can we possibly beat something like that with magic and spears? What will it even look like?

Sleep came in small pockets, her dreams filled with unpleasant scenarios that forced her to wake again, feeling as though her whole body was being consumed by flames.

WHEN SHE WOKE once more, the sun had finally set and the sky was a deep ultramarine blue, littered with white stars that shone down on them with cold indifference. Raine pulled herself upright, shivering as her clothes, now cold and damp with her sweat, moved against her thin, small frame.

She rushed to dress herself. Chelstra was already up, sitting on her bedroll beside her and looking out into the desert plains with a serious expression on her face.

“We’ve been ordered to move into position, Raine.” she said, just loudly enough for her to hear. “The Earth Magi are altering the landscape as we speak, forcing it towards us.”

Raine decided to say nothing as she pulled on her boots, shaking them first to ensure that nothing had decided to crawl inside of them. The air was thick with tension and it transferred from one person to the next like a plague, filling the soldiers with unease and trepidation. No one knew what to expect.

“Do you think we’ll be fine?” the girl continued, turning to look at her with blue eyes filled with worry. “Do you think many of us will die?”

“The lieutenant seems to know what he is doing,” she said, unsure of what to say to comfort the Life Mage. “I’m sure that this is the best plan of action that we can take. If we all just do what we have been ordered to, we should be fine.”

“I can’t get my mana vital to stabilise,” Chelstra continued, as though she had not heard her at all. “I’m too nervous. I’m worried that I won’t be able to heal everyone.”

“You’re not the only Life Mage here, Chelstra.” Raine said gently and patiently. “There are plenty of others that can heal.”

But the girl could not be consoled, so Raine packed up her gear and headed out into the desert night to line up with the rest of their platoon.

HAMMOND NODDED AT her in greeting as she approached, uncharacteristically on time. His blonde hair, nearly at shoulder-length, was a dishevelled mess, an obvious sign that he had been sleeping, and his green eyes were glazed over with his usual expression of boredom. In stark contrast, Troy Claybrook had patted down his hair and neatened his mage uniform, and was now currently ensuring that his collar was set straight against his neck.
“Where’s the girl?” Hammond asked her as she fell in line with the others, all dressed in the same blue and gold uniform of an Avendan mage. “Healing some poor sick animal?”

“She’s on her way,” Raine said, well-used to his dry tone. “She’s a bit nervous about the battle.”

“Aren’t we all…” Troy muttered. “I could barely sleep.”

Then he narrowed his eyes at Hammond. “Didn’t help that he was snoring next to me the whole time, either.” he added. “Being stuck in a tent filled with horrendous males is the worst kind of torture.”

Hammond shrugged and Raine couldn’t help but smile.

Chelstra then joined them, and any possibility of further conversation ended when Lieutenant Sage Preston approached the group from the darkness, coming to stand before them with his hands behind his back. Raine could not see him well in the poor light, but she knew that he was watching them with his fierce, sharp eyes, his expression as stern and serious as the tone of his voice. Captain Sedley, their company captain and the one in charge of the entire operation, was moving about behind him, speaking to other soldiers.

“The Earth and Life Magi have detected the approach of the sandworm, some twenty or so miles to the northwest of our position.” Preston said, his even voice cutting through any remnants of discussion. “We are to move into our formations as discussed in the briefing and prepare for the attack. Remember what you have been taught to do- there is no reason why we should fail here.”

Hammond gave a quiet snort beside her and Raine looked up at the thin Fire Mage to see that scorn and distaste had spread across his face. She was not surprised- she had seen him give that same expression almost every time he looked at Preston. She was still curious about it, though.

“Are there any questions?” Preston asked, clearly not hearing Hammond’s sound of displeasure. Silence reigned, though Raine could see looks of unease and confusion on many of the faces of the newer magi. The more experienced ones, those that had been sent to join them from First and Second Platoons, were in much more control of their emotions.

“Very well. Follow the orders of your section sergeants. You are dismissed.” Preston said, and he abruptly turned away. The silence he had left in his wake was rapidly consumed by nervous chatter and the bold orders of their section sergeants. Raine automatically looked for theirs, hearing Hammond sigh deeply as she did so.

“We don’t have much time,” Chelstra said, her voice higher than usual. She turned to look at her, and Raine was surprised by how pale she had become. Troy placed a hand on her shoulder, a sympathetic look on his young face.

“You can sense it?” he asked softly, and the girl nodded fiercely.

“It’s far away, but its life energy is massive.” she said. “Its élan vital… it’s so hungry…”

Raine looked away at the horizon, deciding against using her Shadowsight to see the approaching beast. Those around her were not able to sense her use of the technique, but rumours had travelled around the party of a mysterious Illuminator who had randomly decided to join them in their journey across the mountains. She would not run the risk of being detected by one specifically trained to kill her kind.

“We need to move.” Troy told Chelstra calmly, pulling her from her thoughts. “We have to collect our horses and get into position.”

IT DIDN’T TAKE long for them to move into place, their movement encouraged by a new sound that travelled from the northwest- sounds of rumbling earth and of rock being shattered. Raine looked around, watching as orders were being shouted into the night and men ran to get into position, horses snorting with barely controlled fear. Only the sky seemed placid, the moon watching them calmly.

They were at the back of their formation, behind a dozen or so lines of magi. Earth Magi remained at the front, continuing in their efforts to draw the sandworm towards them. Their hands were extended as they attempted to compress and strengthen the earth before them, faces contorted with fierce concentration. If all went well, the sandworm would have no choice but to emerge from the sandy depths, and that would be the moment of attack for the cavalrymen and other magi. Raine knew what needed to be done; they had all been briefed by Preston, but that knowledge couldn’t prevent the fear and anxiety that grew in her chest. She had only been trained to kill people, not behemoth, fanged creatures.

They had barely been waiting for five minutes when the earth underneath them began to rumble in huge vibrations that shuddered up through their bones. Raine could hear the smashing of rocks as the monster forced its way through the ground, the sound growing as it reached the surface. Gripped by a dark curiosity, she couldn’t help herself as she craned her neck to look past the magi in front of her.

The earth shifted as Haren Verlictam ascended from the sands and soared into the night sky, its body arching as it dived back into the sands again like a giant, earthbound whale. Like the others, the first thing Raine saw was the front of the creature. Eyeless, it didn’t seem to have a head; rather, its body simply split open into a mouth, dripping with thick, translucent saliva. Inside, rows and rows of teeth spiralled around to unknown depths.

As if finally able to breathe, the sandworm let out a shattering roar from deep within its core. Its rage was powerful but short as it soared back down to earth, smacking into it with bone-breaking force and pushing its way underneath. Raine saw the thick layers of armoured skin that covered the worm, plated in circles around its thick body and adorned with large spikes. Any finer details were hidden by the silhouette it made against the moonlight, it was so ridiculously large.

If it weren’t for the whinnying of the horses, which felt far less inclined to observe the creature, the soldiers of Avendan probably would have stopped and simply stared in fear and amazement at the sandworm. They pressed on, moving into the formations that had been drilled into them. The Earth Magi continued to work furiously, literally pushing the worm back up to the surface by compressing and shifting the earth around it. It was a painfully slow process and Raine could only sit beside Troy, Hammond and Chelstra, bracing herself for the inevitable battle. The other magi and infantrymen had no choice but to wait, uncertain as to where the creature would rise.

Then, as Raine heard the sands shifting and the worm’s deep rumbling increased in volume again, the Earth Magi stumbled backwards on their horses with sudden yells of alarm.

The sandworm rose into the air, launching itself forward at an incredible pace, and it descended down on one of the fleeing Earth Magi, its mouth of blades consuming both him and his horse whole. It landed heavily in the sand, its sheer weight and force sending tremors across the ground. The mage managed to scream once before the monster tensed its muscles and flicked its head back up into the air, and both mage and horse disappeared behind a curtain of teeth.

Chelstra screamed but the trained soldiers were already advancing as the worm rolled about on the surface of the sand, infuriated. Troy looked away as it flicked itself around, feeding on a helpless horseman that was too slow to get out of its way and Raine could see from the look on his face that he was desperately trying to control his shock and fear. She too was doing her best to think logically despite the fear racing through her system as their line advanced, but it was difficult. Their goal was to give the Earth Magi sufficient cover to continue strengthening the earth, preventing the worm from retreating. She tried to mentally recite the Shadow mantras of calm but she simply couldn’t do it- her previous training with Damien had all but disappeared from her mind.

At last, the order to move was called and Raine urged her horse forward as they circled the worm in a wide berth, attacking it from all sides. The earth was finally too compressed and solid for the creature to break through and it now focused its energy on lashing out and roaring at an eardrum-shattering volume and pitch. Its tail-end was wedged firmly into the ground, no doubt kept there by the collective efforts of the remaining Earth Magi.

Some of the horses struggled, their instincts screaming at them to flee but Raine’s, Shadow trained, sat quietly and obediently underneath her. As they approached, the Mounted Company remained at the frontline with weapons drawn, trying to pierce through the worm’s intense armour and keep it away from the magi. Not all of them succeeded, however, and many were consumed or simply crushed, unable to predict the monster’s powerful and sporadic movements. More than once it lashed out toward their circled ranks, killing many magi with each attack. They would retreat each time, trying to remain out of its range.

Unable to retrieve the dead or wounded at such proximity to the worm, corpses were left to litter the pale sand, cries of anguish from both the wounded and the survivors filling the air. Raine tried to focus her thoughts as she hurled a relentless stream of water attacks at the worm but they were just bouncing straight off of it, as ineffective as the spears and arrows of the cavalrymen. The knights approached it fearlessly on their pedigree horses, moving the animals about with impressive skill and speed, but even their heavy weapons did little but crack the armour. It was all they could do to stay out of the worm’s gaping mouth and attack at the same time.

“Earth Magi!” someone yelled, enhanced through a wind that suddenly swept past all of them. Raine turned her head to see Preston on horseback, quickly moving in front of them to face the worm alone. In response to his cry, the remaining Earth Magi advanced quickly. The others continued to distract the monster as best they could, but its anger and its energy was relentless. The Earth Magi, about twenty in all, focused their energies and shifted the earth around them with sweeps of their hands and arms. Massive pillars of rock shot out through the ground on all sides of the beast, as loud as the thundering of the worm. It smashed through the first wave of layers easily by twisting and spinning crazily but they continued for a time, further dragging back its momentum and slowing it down. The rest watched on as it kept going, swinging its body powerfully to shatter the walls. At last, a huge earthen square surrounded it, trapping it.

“Keep at it! Water and Air Magi!” Preston bellowed. Encouraged by the success of the Earth Magi, the next line of magi trotted forward on their horses eagerly. Troy nodded at her briefly as he tapped his own into movement with his feet and Raine followed him, her hands shaking as she gripped the reins.

Together, the mass of magi worked to combine air and water to freeze the worm, as part of the plan. The air already being intensely cold, it wasn’t difficult to get the temperature to freezing point; Water Magi soaked the worm whilst the Air Magi cooled the air around it enough so that ice formed on its skin. Raine, sitting astride her mare beside Troy, focused all of her energy and drew deep into the lake that made up her mana vital. With swirls of her hands, she summoned large balls of water that she dropped upon the creatures’ armoured skin. She could sense the magic from the other magi around her as they too drew deeply from their mana vitals; the sense of unity was almost overwhelming.

But it was a very slow process. The layers of ice that formed on the creature were continuously broken as it writhed and rolled in its rocky prison. It had boundless energy, enraged by the constant sight of its prey and its inability to move and in contrast, the mana vital of the magi was not infinite. The Earth Magi grew weaker, their walls thinner, their arms flicking and moving with less strength. The struggle felt like hours and Raine felt her mana vital flow from her, draining out as she continued to summon water from it. She felt empty inside and completely devoid of energy, her senses dull. Colour faded from everything around her, the distinct lines making up the shapes in her vision blurring and crossing. She could feel her consciousness dimming, like a flame on the end of a wick. She closed her eyes.

“They can’t keep this up- it’s going to get out!” Chelstra whispered from behind her, voice fearful.

Then, as her hope dwindled, Raine felt an intense rush of magical energy coming from someone in front of her, and she opened her eyes. The magical pressure was so fierce that it almost crushed her, and she had to force herself to breathe as she watched on. The one source, the one sage, was controlling both the air and the water around the worm at the same time, forcing it to freeze with his indomitable will. Ice crystals were forming in the air, hovering in front of the worm. They rapidly expanded, growing like crystal flowers and intertwining with one another until they made a thick wall. Raine could hear the crunching as it condensed and compressed, strengthening, until it moved across and onto the sandworm. It continued to spread, an airborne ice plague, growing along the surface of its skin and down towards its end. The monster roared its rage, trying to move its body but finding that its lower half was fused with the ground through a solid hand of ice. It was incredible to watch- the air thick with magic, the combined power of the many magi being funnelled into the one single command.

Preston sat before them astride his horse, both his hands held up in front of him. Even from where Raine was sitting she could see that he was shaking from head to toe. She automatically fell back into line with the others, moving away from the giant creature.

“That’s… that’s Preston’s doing.” Chelstra breathed.

Hammond, who had been silent until now, looked down at the Life Mage. “Of course it is.” he said dryly, and Raine couldn’t help but frown at the strangeness of his statement.

“I can see it, and I can feel it…” Chelstra continued, having not heard him. “His mana vital- it’s so powerful, it’s immense…He’s glowing…”

Hammond scoffed and looked away.

“But…” she added slowly, “He won’t be able to do it much longer; it’s going to damage him.”

The Earth Magi took the opportunity to draw from the rest of their mana vitals and summoned up wide, thick walls that pushed towards the monster. Encouraged by Preston’s incredible display, Raine cast aside her fatigue and called on her mana vital for just a little longer as both Air and Water Magi continued to fill the box with ice.

The worm could do nothing. Frozen and trapped, it’s piercing roars faded away as its open mouth filled with freezing water and its body solidified, unable to move.

Through the combined efforts of the Earth and Air Magi, a large slab of earth was lifted from the ground and placed atop of the box, enclosing the worm in a coffin made of rock.

Life Magi moved forward, Chelstra included, watching and waiting, sensing the élan vital of the worm inside. The other Magi stopped their summoning but waited on baited breath, ready to cast again.

A man, previously lingering on the outskirts of the battle, dismounted his horse and approached the box alone, his boots crunching through the bloodstained sand. Raine watched him with fierce curiosity despite her fatigue, taking in his small, hooded appearance from between the heads of the magi in front of her. All she could see was brown hair that nearly reached his shoulders, and round glasses that reflected the pale moonlight. She did not know who he was, but the sudden shiver from Chelstra told her what she needed to know- he was a Death Mage, one skilled in the art of inducing death and causing disease. Her thoughts were confirmed when she caught sight of the twin-scythe symbol on the band around his upper arm, representing his element of magic.

He placed his hand on the rock wall and became still, no doubt trying to slow down the heartbeat of the worm, dull its senses, and bring about its death. Chelstra looked away, clearly being affected by his Death Magic but her expression remained strained, and Raine knew that she was still following his work and observing the beast’s élan vital, its life energy. She needed to witness its end just as much as everybody else did.

Silence fell. No one noticed the biting cold as they waited, sitting on their steeds and watching the box with unblinking eyes. Even the horses were quiet, tails no longer flicking with emotion, hooves no longer stomping the ground. Any desert creatures that remained on the surface did not call out and did not move.

Everything was still.

And then the Death Mage, hand still outstretched along the wall, lowered his head against the box and sighed, smiling slightly. The Life Magi breathed out in relief and the night erupted with the collective cheer of the Avendan soldiers.

THE NIGHT WAS not over, however. Life Magi rushed to the aid of the exhausted and injured, tending to those previously abandoned on the sand. The dead were also collected and prepared for the journey back- Captain Sedley would not allow the bodies to be left rotting in the desert sands.

Troy looked as bad as Raine felt- he was as white as the sand, shaking and barely able to stand. They sat together, looking around at the others in a dumb trance, a wide, contagious grin stretched across Troy’s handsome face.

Raine was just grateful that they were all still alive.

Preston was taken into care immediately and she watched as two magi carried him away from the crowd. Blood was streaming from his nose, and he appeared to be unconscious. Hammond watched through his hair, and shook his head before lying back down on the ground. He too was incredibly pale.

“That was all him.” Troy muttered, sitting on the ground and watching as the sage was taken away. “That bit in the sky- that was him. He mixed the elements; he did it all himself. Incredible.”

Raine looked back at him. “I know; I felt it too. If it wasn’t for him we’d probably all be dead.”

“You were both incredible!” Chelstra said, having returned to them for a brief respite. She was exhausted. Her hair was damp with sweat, her cheeks flushed and eyes overbright. Healing so many had clearly taken much of her energy.

“Aww, you’re just saying that.” Troy said, flicking his hand bashfully. She shook her head at him, tears of relief rolling down her face. Hammond yawned.

RAINE SLEPT EASILY that night; she was so fatigued that not even dreams could disturb her. By the time she had awoken, the Fire Magi had already left, aiming to reach the rock coffin soon after sunrise, having been ordered to burn the remains of the sandworm. Some of the Air Magi went with them to remove the pungent odour of burning flesh by directing the winds away from them.

Sitting underneath their gazebo, Raine watched the skies for a while as thick plumes of smoke ascended into the bright blue void, Chelstra quiet beside her. Then, as the smoke ceased and some of the other people watching cheered, she lay herself back down on her bedroll and returned to sleep.

AS per usual, they rose when the sun set and packed up their gear for the trip back. The mood was much lighter now that everyone had slept, despite their recent losses. Preston was back on his feet, to the delight of both experienced and new magi, although he was pale and even quieter than usual. He gave them a rare small smile as the Third Platoon celebrated both his recovery and his impressive display of magic.

They continued east, cheered, with their backs to the sand. A quickly-constructed cart followed at the rear of the procession, carrying the dead and dragged by horses. It was a constant and sobering reminder of the price they had paid for their victory.

ONE NIGHT, AS the mountains loomed patiently before them, Raine was approached by the Death Mage she had seen days earlier, the one who had finished off the sandworm.

He came to her as she was tending to her mare alone during one of the short breaks, using the chance to move her muscles and heat herself up as much as possible. Hammond was sitting on the ground in the distance, preoccupying himself with a ball of flame and Troy was with him, chiding him for being so careless. Chelstra was tending to some of the fatigued soldiers; her work had been constant following the sandworm battle.

Raine looked at him, immediately guarded as she sensed his approaching presence, and he smiled in a way that did not reassure her in the slightest. Up close, she was able to examine his appearance intently. He was also dressed in the gold and blue uniform of an Avendan mage, except that he wore an open black robe over his tunic rather than a simple cloak. He was surprisingly young, a few years older than her, with a sharp chin, pronounced cheek bones, and a pallor that made him appear slightly ill. His eyes, Raine could not tell the colour in the dim moonlight, were hidden behind a pair of small, round, double-bridged glasses. A long parted fringe moved across the eyewear, one that needed pushing from his face. Another glance revealed that his clothes were too big for him and now that they were both standing in front of each other, she realised that they were almost the same height.

“Good evening, my dear.” he said, his voice polite and smooth. Raine’s mare stirred slightly, affected by his presence, and Raine could feel it too- the man held an unpleasant aura around him, one that made her feel greatly uncomfortable. She had heard of the effects of a Death Mage’s aura before, but had never really experienced it herself; she had only interacted with Water Magi like herself back in Treston.

“Good evening,” she replied slowly, allowing some of the confusion she felt to spread across her face. Why would he be speaking to me? Her mare snorted and she quickly patted the side of its head. “Can I help you?”
“Actually,” the man said, pushing his round glasses up his nose, “It may be I who can help you.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “I don’t know who you are, except that you were the one that killed the sandworm.”

He gave a short laugh, one that sent shivers up her spine. “I merely destroyed the last remaining fragments of its life but yes, that was indeed I. Please, allow me to introduce myself.” He gave a short bow, his eyes watching her intently as he straightened. “My name is Lloyd Wetherdon. I am a Death Mage of First Platoon, Second Company.”

“I see,” she said slowly. “It is nice to meet you. I am Raine Taylor, a Water Mage of Third Platoon.”

“Indeed you are,” he said, watching her. Raine said nothing to the strange retort. Behind him, she could see Hammond sit up slightly, watching their conversation. Troy was too caught up with the Fire Mage’s magic to notice.

“So… Is there something you wish to speak with me about?” she asked eventually, her discomfort continuing to rise. She had no idea what the man wanted, or why he was so focused on speaking with her in particular. It’s not like he can sense my Shadow-ness, she thought, trying to push back her rising concern. He probably just wants to talk about something else. I have no idea why he wants to speak with me, though.

“There most certainly is.” he said. He stepped forward. “You see, you and I are more closely connected than being just colleagues, my dear.”

Raine stood her ground, despite feeling her unease intensify to something closer to fear. She felt the weight of her knife on her hip.

And then he stopped, a few steps in front of her. “I would like to speak with you once we return to the capital, if that is acceptable. I believe that we have something very important to discuss.” he said, moving his hands behind his back.

“Why can’t you just talk to me here?” Raine said, eyes narrowing.

Wetherdon gave his odd little laugh again. “I do think that your Life Mage friend would try to ward me off with her protection spells if I were to speak with you for long, wouldn’t you agree?” he said mildly. “Life Magi tend to dislike my presence, as I’m sure you have noticed.”

Raine didn’t need to think about it very much and nodded slightly. I definitely don’t think I’d mind if she comes and makes you go away. But…

She had the feeling that the mysterious man before her knew something, quite possibly something about her, and the idea sent chills through her limbs. Despite her rising caution, she found herself intrigued. I have to find out if it has anything to do with me being a Shadow. If that fact became known, somehow…

“Excellent!” Wetherdon rubbed his gloved hands together. “Then I look forward to seeing you again, Miss Raine. We have much to discuss.”

With a flick of his cloak, he disappeared back into the darkness. She simply watched him go, frowning. Hammond lowered himself onto his back, now spinning the ball of flame above him lazily.

DAYS LATER, THEY climbed up the mountains and Kreshna Desert disappeared behind the tremendous snowy peaks. The earth coffin remained on the outskirts of the Empty Stretch as a monument of their slaying of the sandworm. The tribes of the desert would not approach it in the future; they would share stories involving a demon of the worm that had remained, haunting the area surrounding the coffin and filling those who approached it with a feeling of insatiable hunger.

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