Cramps tore through Jane’s side; her chest ached with pain; her hair and clothes looked like an ice bucket challenge gone horribly wrong. The air chafed her lungs as she drew ragged breaths. Her boots squelched on the soggy earth.
The deepening twilight bathed the forest in shadow. Jane forced herself to keep going, under marsh vines, over logs, past a thrust of granite boulders that marked the edge of their campsite. Her feet pounded the earth as she ran—heart thudding, legs screaming in agony, shoes squishing over moss that lined the riverbank. Branches stung her face and arms.
Behind her, approaching footfalls told Jane that her stronger, leaner opponent was catching up to her. Jane reached into herself, grabbed for the first thing that came to mind—a concealment charm—and wrapped herself in its shroud. Then she darted left, in the direction opposite the river, slid through the trees, and went still.
Her pursuer’s footsteps paused, and then resumed again. To Jane’s dismay, she seemed unimpressed by Jane’s attempt at throwing her off track. Her steps drew steadily closer.
Harnessing the last of her energy, Jane ducked beneath a fallen log and changed course, crashing away from the river and into the underbrush. But it was no use; her pursuer was too close, and Jane heard her change course to follow.
Desperately, Jane spun and hurled a ball of magefire at her pursuer. It missed the woman by inches. Jane scrabbled for the kladenet at her side, but her attacker’s foot connected with her hand. A second later, the remaining air whooshed from her lungs as her pursuer knocked her to the ground by a well-placed blow to her sternum.
Jane closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to the damp leaves, chest heaving as she sucked in air.
“Well,” said her pursuer cheerfully, “that wasn’t quite as embarrassing as last time.”
Shaking with adrenaline, Jane raised her head. General Nadja stood above her, smirking as she offered her pupil a hand. Unlike Jane, the General looked flawless. Her Rider’s garb—practical cloth pants and a plain leather tunic with the Riders’ insignia—hung in elegant folds down her stocky frame. Her spiky hair gleamed in the twilight. Somehow, she had dodged the lashing branches, and her face was free of scratches. The pursuit had barely made her break into a sweat.
Jane closed her eyes again, ignoring Nadja’s outstretched hand in favor of slumping to the ground. “You—huff—still—huff—caught me.”
“Well, from what Olesya tells me, two months ago you would’ve collapsed after running a fraction of the distance. You’re making progress! I’m sure the commander will be pleased when she gets back from scouting.”
Decaying leaves and clots of dirt tumbled to the ground as Nadja pulled Jane to her feet. The general straightened Jane’s rumpled tunic and shoved a flask of water at her face. Shakily, Jane grasped the canteen. The water tasted stale but fabulous against her parched throat.
“Come.” Nadja tossed an arm around Jane’s shoulders. “Let’s eat before your legs stiffen up.”
Jane’s legs were already stiffening as she followed Nadja toward the campfire. The sweat was starting to dry, and the chilly evening air brought out goosebumps along her arms. The other Riders shot her hopeful or curious looks before turning back to their conversations. Jane tried to ignore them. She made a beeline for the log on which sat Drazan, Olesya’s second-in-command.
“How’d you do?” asked Drazan.
“Horribly.” Jane plopped down on the nearest log. “I’m starting to think I have some sort of mental block against holding a sword right.”
“Your azdaja’s been in a right state,” said Drazan. “Coiling and hissing ever since you left. I think she thought Nadja was going to do you in.”
“She’s not fond of the basket.” Jane swung the wicker top open and patted her lap. The winged snake looked up at her, scales glinting coppery in the firelight.
“Alive?” she hissed.
“Yes,” said Jane.
“Sssmell disgusting.” The azdaja flicked her tongue and turned her head towards the fire’s warmth. Jane reached forward to stroke her wings; the azdaja responded by rubbing her snout reassuringly against Jane’s hand.
“I’ll let you out when we get back to the tent,” she said. Olesya had just strode past, grim-faced. She had been less than enthusiastic about Jane bringing the azdaja along.
“We should reach Dalnushka in two days,” Drazan said in a low voice. “Plenty of room for your azdaja to exercise there. Meanwhile—”
With a flourish, Drazan produced a plate bearing the densest sandwich Jane had ever seen.
“May I present, for your culinary pleasure, tonight’s feast of magical marbleized toast?”
Jane steeled herself and took a bite. The marbleized toast was just as bad as one would expect a desiccated and magically rehydrated sandwich to taste. It reminded Jane of beef jerky, if you boiled beef jerky until it lost all its flavor and then added horseradish, Legos, and a towel.
“It’s good,” she lied.
Drazan raised an eyebrow.
“It’s edible, anyway.” If you use magic to protect your esophagus. Oh dear, I think I just chipped a tooth. Jane covered her mouth with a napkin and carefully lowered the toast. “I’m surprised with all its magic, Somita hasn’t managed to develop better food.”
Drazan shrugged. “Well, you know how it is. Mages these days either become healers or battle mages who fight in the war.”
The reminder of the war with Kanach was enough to cast an instant pallor on her mood. Her impending third godstest loomed in her thoughts like a disease. Somita’s fate, her survival, and her return to Earth all depended on her passing the test. And yet, the contents of the next test were even more a mystery to her than the ingredients of the marbleized toast.
“I’m worried I’m not studying the right things.” Jane chewed her lip. “My first godstest was hard, but manageable, and it only lasted a night. The second godstest involved multiple battles and lasted over a week. If this trend continues, my third godstest is going to be even more horrible, and it might last a month or more!”
“Nah, it won’t,” said Drazan.
Drazan shot Jane an unconcerned grin over the top of his sandwich. Jane noticed, with mixed horror and admiration, that he’d somehow managed to get down half of it without so much as a choking fit.
“Gods have short attention spans. Your third test will probably be shorter than the second one—I’d be beyond surprised if it was longer.” He waved the toast expressively. A piece flew off and clattered to the ground. “You’ll probably be forced to look in the Pool of Dreams and confront some bad past memories, and that’ll be it. Easy as pie.”
“The Pool of—”
“The Pool of Dreams—really, it should be called the Pool of Unpleasant Truths, but I suppose the gods didn’t want everyone to confuse it with the Book of Truths, which is a different entity entirely.”
Nadja rolled her eyes. “The Pool of Dreams is a sort of… giant underground lake, located beneath Dalnushka, which can answer any question the drinker poses. But to get the answer, you first have to survive being confronted with four unpleasant truths.”
“What sort of—”
“It might show unhappy memories from your childhood—or things you didn’t know about your own life.”
“That doesn’t sound so awful.”
Drazan let out a very suspicious-sounding cough. “Heh,” he said, as they looked at him.
“He drank from the Pool of Dreams once,” said Nadja. “Tell her, Drazan.”
“Where to begin.” Drazan put a hand to his forehead. “I was young,” he said grandly. “Madly in love, visiting Dalnushka for training, and I wanted to know if the girl I liked loved me back. Probably, I should have just asked her, but when you are young, it is a universally agreed upon rule that you never ask a girl if she likes you for fear of looking like a moron. So I decided to ask the pool instead. We were staying at Dalnushka for the winter—I can’t remember why—and looking in the Pool was considered the Ultimate Challenge, the Dare of all Dares—at least, until our teachers put a stop to our hijinks after the Pool drove young Tristan mad. Ah, don’t worry—” he added hastily, at Jane’s alarmed expression. “It only happens rarely.
“Suffice it to say, I looked in the Pool, and it taught me four things. One, that the medicine man Mum had been seeing since I was little was not just the medicine man, if you catch my drift—two, that I was not going to win the prize for top of my year as I’d thought—three, that a friend of mine had been stealing magic from me for years—and four, that my ladylove thought I was a pompous asshat and wanted nothing to do with me.”
Drazan put a hand to his heart, looking sad and noble. Beside him, Nadja snickered.
“Well,” said Jane, “not to minimize your trauma—I’m sure it was horrible, but—surely what you saw wouldn’t be bad enough to drive someone mad, unless they were predisposed to psychotic breaks, or else psychologically fragile? I wonder what the other boy saw.”
“How his parents died? The future of Somita? Rabid squirrels running wild across the Anadyrian Plains? Who knows? The Pool never shows what you predict, as a rule, so we’ll probably never know what poor Tristan saw.”
If the Pool always showed something unpredictable, then perhaps the Pool wouldn’t—as Jane feared—make her relive the night of her first godstest, when she had been forced to walk on glass… or force her to relive Casimir’s death again…
She swallowed. The sun had set behind the distant mountains, and amidst the creeping darkness, the weight of Casimir’s loss crashed down on her with a fury so abrupt she could barely breathe.
His absence still felt raw to her, a wound in her conscious, a bitter emptiness. Though she could shove it from her mind during the day, her mind replayed his death when she lay down at night—his look of surprise in the seconds before he fell. It haunted her, how easily his death might have been avoided. If only someone had said something—Olesya, Drazan, her—encouraged him to return to the Healer’s Wing, told him not to risk his life on the battlefield… And the worst part was, it was her fault he’d been there, on that wyvern, in the midst of a battle he shouldn’t have been fighting at all…
I wanted to watch Jane’s strategy play out.
The last words she’d heard him say.
The last words he’d spoken to any living person.
And then there was Phillip, her brother, who still lay in the Healer’s Wing recovering from his curse. Jane’s mind conjured images of him waking, alone in his bed. She imagined him sitting up, asking for the Casimir, imagined the first words he heard being of Casimir’s death… Sometimes in these moments, when the guilt overwhelmed her, she stopped what she was doing and wept.
The others must have noticed the change in her demeanor, for Drazan’s cheery expression slipped slightly, and General Nadja stared at the fire. After a time, Drazan said, “We should sleep,” and they both got up quietly to head toward their tent.
Jane got up too. At least her exhaustion from her earlier training might prevent bad dreams tonight—she hoped. She picked up the basket containing the azdaja and started back across the camp toward her tent, trying to avoid the squishier soil by the riverbank. A few geese had coalesced by her tent and were pecking at the guy lines. Jane shooed them away, unfastened the tent flap—and froze.
An intruder was lounging on her pallet.
A very holy, very godly intruder.