Free fiction! Here’s the next chapter for book one of THE GREAT WAY. If you missed the earlier installments:
Here’s today’s chapter
Without any warning, a creature burst through the portal, bounding onto the stone dais and sniffing the air. It was as large as a mountain bear, but its frame was almost human. Its long arms and legs both ended in monstrous hands, and it was covered with pale purple fur.
It roared at them, displaying the fangs of a grass lion.
Cazia glanced up at Treygar, absurdly hopeful that she would see him smiling as though this was the most normal thing in the world, or maybe a prank they played on the young folk every Festival, but he was gaping in stunned surprise like everyone else.
Someone screamed. The beast glanced around the dais, roared again and launched itself onto a scholar. The man fell back as the creature sank its fangs into his arm then tore it from his shoulder.
Panic erupted in the courtyard. Bear men began pouring through the portal like water from a leaking bucket. Guards in civilian clothes charged forward in a line, swinging their bracers at the creatures’ heads.
But the monsters knocked them flat like they were rag dolls. Men and women screamed as the creatures bit into them. More beasts bounded over the line, landing directly in plumes of fire erupting from the scholars’ hands.
The creatures fell back from the wall of flames, letting the scholars advance. Could the scholars going to push them back through the portal? If only I could be down there with them, defending the king and queen.
Then one of the beasts lifted a guard over its head and threw him into the jets of fire. He struck two scholars, knocking them completely off the dais. Beasts charged through the gap and swarmed the scholars from all sides, tearing them apart with their teeth and claws. Goosebumps ran up and down Cazia’s whole body and she suddenly felt lightheaded.
Servants, merchants, performers, all of them mobbed the gates or jammed the entrances to the palace in panicked mobs. Screams came from everywhere.
The king stood between the queen and the creatures, swinging his heavy chair in a powerful downward stroke. At the same moment, a jet of bright fire shot from the queen’s hands, so focused that it cut one of the creatures in half. The long spears of the so-called athletes in the yard suddenly thrust through the confusion, stabbing into the monsters surrounding the king and queen. A scholar, wounded but still alive, created a huge stone block–bigger than any Cazia had ever seen–between the royal couple and the beasts.
It didn’t matter. One of the bear men, though punctured with three long spears, knocked the king aside with a swipe of its claw. He fell into the surging mass of creatures. The queen stepped backward, fell off the dais and landed on her neck.
“MOTHER!” Lar screamed. Cazia saw the shock and anguish on his face. For a moment the pain was so clear in his expression that he looked as if he had been murdered, too.
Treygar grabbed hold of him to stop him running out of the garden into the melee.
Cazia realized she had been frozen in place, watching the chaos and brutality as though it was just a mime. The king had vanished. The queen lay still in the dirt. The creatures bounded from the dais into the yard with the speed and grace of grass lions, running down those too slow to have escaped. Cazia had to do something. Anything. She was in danger. Her friends were in danger.
“My prince!” Treygar shouted, “we must retreat!”
“I can help!” Lar shouted back.
“We can help!” Colchua said.
“NO!” Cazia shocked herself by the force behind her response.
“My prince, we are overrun! You must withdraw!”
Timush and Pagesh grabbed Lar’s arms as though they were about to drag him away. Cazia heard scuffling on the stone below the railing and began the motions for a flame spell of her own. Out of habit, her hand motions helped bring out the correct clarity of thought, the colors, the swell of emotion the spell required.
One of the beasts reached the top of the railing, pulling itself up and roaring. Cazia finished just in time, feeling the flame rush from the space between her hands into the creature’s open mouth.
Treygar spun, moving much faster than she would have thought possible for such an old man, and slammed his bracer down on the creature’s head.
The beast’s gray blood splattered over them both. These creatures are full of magic. I can feel it. For one absurd moment, Cazia was overwhelmed with dismay over her ruined dress, then she glanced over the rail. The creature was still plummeting to the paving stone below, but two more were climbing up.
She turned back to the others, but didn’t have to say anything. Her brother seemed to read her mind. He and Timush grabbed the ends of a stone bench and lifted.
Treygar grabbed the prince’s arm again. “No!” Lar said. “I can’t abandon everyone!” Colchua and Timush dropped the bench over the railing. Painful yelps and heavy crashes followed soon after.
“Lar!” Cazia shouted at him. “Stoneface is right! Do what he says or you’re going to get us all killed!”
Treygar pointed at Pagesh. “You’re in charge of the little girl! Let’s move!”
Pagesh scooped up Jagia, who immediately burst out crying. The courtyard was filled with screams, prayers, and monstrous roaring. Treygar began to run eastward through the garden, heading toward the promenade and the graveyard menagerie. Did he plan to go into the palace and escape through the Sunrise Gate?
“Stop!” Cazia called. “We can’t go that way; they’re already inside the palace. We have to go there.” She pointed toward the Scholar’s Tower, pulling Lar and the others after her.
Treygar didn’t argue. He pushed forward, letting the young people run ahead. Col and Timush led the way, sprinting toward the tower door. Lar ran just behind them, with Treygar close on his heels. Pagesh was a strong runner, but not when she had a hysterical child to carry. Treygar glanced back at her, clearly worried, but he didn’t pause to help. Cazia ran last, regretting her decision to wear this big, beautiful dress and ignoring her hat when it blew off her head.
I am running for my life inside the Palace of Song and Morning.
This was happening. It was happening right now. Cazia almost stopped to look around; she’d just seen the king and queen murdered, and she might be next. This was a moment for histories, songs, and plays, and she was actually living it. She felt strangely detached and incredulous.
The servant girl who had tried to dump dirty water onto her feet—an Enemy—ran by them, her eyes wild with terror.
“Don’t you shut that door!” Col shouted. A weedy-looking scholar was pushing the heavy door to the Scholars Tower closed. His eyes bulged in terror, and for a moment it seemed he wouldn’t obey. Treygar shouted at him, and he hesitated long enough for Colchua to throw his shoulder into it and fling the door wide.
“To the top!” Treygar yelled. Good. He’d already figured out why Cazia had chosen the tower. A pair of frightened old scholars demanded someone Explain Everything Immediately, but Timush shoved them aside. They all ran for the stairs.
“Bar that door!” Cazia yelled back at them. Doctor Whitestalk’s desk was empty. “Shutter the windows!”
“Wait!” Pagesh shoved Jagia into Cazia’s arms. Her eyes were wild and a little sad. “I’m going to find Zilly.” She sprinted out of the tower, shouting “Bar the door behind me!”
One of the old men slammed the door and threw the bolt. Lar, Col, and the other boys had already vanished up the stairs. No one but her and Jagia had seen Pagesh go. Zilly? It took a moment for Cazia to remember that was the name of her maid.
Jagia’s face was uncomfortably close to her own: the girl had stopped crying, but she looked pale and stunned.
Cazia set her down. “Can you run?” She nodded. “Go! I’ll be right behind you.”
“My prince!” a voice farther up the stairs shouted. “What can we do to help?”
The girls caught up with the others in the administration chamber, and Cazia was the last to push inside. The speaker was Doctor Warpoole, the Scholar Administrator for the entire empire. She was more of a functionary than a spell-caster, but she had been formidable in her younger years. Cazia didn’t much like the woman but she hoped to be her someday, or at least serve the empire in her place.
Two other young women sat at desks beside her, styluses in hand. They looked utterly stunned. Cazia knew their names–Ciriam Eelhook, Barla Shook–but she had never spoken to them. They were Enemies, and right now they were terrified.
Lar looked at Cazia blankly. Great Way, he’d just seen his parents die.
“The Evening People did not come through the portal,” Treygar said. “We’ve been invaded by some kind of monster. The king and queen were lost within moments. The palace is overrun and the prince must be flown out of the city at once!”
Doctor Warpoole spun on her heel and yanked on a braided cord beside her desk. “That will summon the cart. What else can I do?”
“Can you shut the portal?” Cazia blurted out.
“Alas, child, I don’t think I can.”
Cazia yanked a quiver of iron darts off the wall and tossed them to the prince. He caught them and, as if shocked out of a trance, slung them over his shoulder. Cazia took down a second quiver, then a third.
“Those are relics,” Barla said, “Tyr Cimfulin Italga used them in the Clearing of Shadow Hall.”
Cazia had heard that story, hadn’t she? Something about a scholar soldier and a swarm of giant spiders. “Lar and I are his descendants,” she said. It occurred to her that she had campaigned for one of these clerk positions last fall, but Shook had been chosen instead. “Let’s say we inherited them.” She slung the quivers over her shoulder.
Treygar started pushing Lar toward the stairs. “Uncover your mirror, doctor. Tell the commanders stationed outside the city to arm themselves. Then–”
There was a loud boom from the bottom of the tower. The creatures were trying to batter their way in.
“Go!’ the administrator yelled. “Barla, send an alert to Beddalin Hole and have them spread the word. Ciriam, you’re with me.”
Treygar had already herded the prince up the stairs, with Colchua shoving Timush and Bittler after. Cazia had been left in charge of the little girl again.
Barla and Ciriam exchanged looks. One had been ordered to flee with the prince and one had been ordered to stay behind, but the shocked expressions on their faces were identical.
Cazia pushed Jagia up the stairs; Ciriam and Doctor Warpoole followed. Cazia heard the cloth being yanked off the mirror behind her, but she did not look back. She did not want to see Doctor Shook’s expression again.
Cazia and Jagia ran upwards, passing one empty floor after another, not daring to pause long enough to do more than glance through the narrow tower windows at the chaos below. The rest of the tower seemed empty; everyone had gone down for the festival.
There was a sound of shattering wood from below, followed by roars of flame and screams. Ciriam shrieked “Hurry! Hurry!”
The muscles in Cazia’s legs burned, but the thunder of heavy footsteps below urged her to hurry. Jagia started to flag as they came near the practice room; Cazia was tempted to scoop the girl up, but she knew that would be slower still.
There was another scream from below, a woman’s this time, and much nearer. Doctor Warpoole, who was bringing up the rear, barked: “Don’t look back!” and Cazia knew she wasn’t talking to her.
The last few flights of stairs were made of wood and the noise of their stamping was oppressive and alarming. They might as well have goaded the bear-things to chase them. “Almost there,” Cazia said to Jagia. “Keep going.” For some reason, offering encouragement to the little girl made her feel stronger. It gave her hope.
She heard Treygar shout from the effort of throwing open the heavy trap door. It slammed against the roof with a boom that echoed through the entire tower. The grunts and roars and heavy treads on the stairs below grew louder and louder. Treygar ran out of the top of the stairs into the gray daylight, and the Prince stumbled out behind him, wheezing and clutching his sides. Col, Timush, Bittler, then Jagia and Cazia and the two scholars all spilled onto the slab roof. Bit fell to his knees, wheezing and pale. Cazia and Col raced around to the far end of the trap door and lifted it.
“Not yet!” Doctor Warpoole yelled. She started a spell Cazia had never seen before: her gestures were elaborate and unusually constrained. What was she doing? Then she pushed her palms outward as she exhaled, and a plume of green mist billowed down through the trap.
The wooden stairs dissolved like snow thrown into a boiling pot. One of the beasts leaped upward into the daylight, fanged jaws gaping. The moment it entered the mist, the fur and flesh of its face boiled off its skull. Its bloody bones fell into the gap made by the missing stairs and it disappeared down into the tower.
Doctor Warpoole nodded at Cazia and Col, but her brother was the only one to shoulder the heavy door into place. Cazia could only stare in shock.
That was not one of the Thirteen Gifts. Doctor Warpoole, the scholar administrator for the entire Peradaini empire, had just cast a wizard’s spell.
The trap slammed into place and Timush threw the bolt home. Then he grabbed Cazia’s elbow. His black hair was matted with sweat. “Where’s Pagesh?”
There was a floating cart fifteen feet from the edge of the tower. It wasn’t large–a six-person design, at best, but the single black disk above it was huge. It would be fast, and it would fly high.
However the driver looked at them with blank, terrified eyes. Tyr Treygar shouted orders for the man to pull into the dock to let them aboard but he didn’t respond. The driver seemed to be frozen in shock.
Timush’s huge dark eyes were just as wild and sad as Pagesh’s had been before she ran out of the tower. “Out there. She–”
“WHAT?” He yanked her arm painfully, spinning her around. “You left her behind? How could you leave her behind!” His face was right beside hers as he screamed, and she could see the patch of pimples on his forehead.
“Pagesh abandoned us!” Jagia shouted. “She left us all alone!”
She left to save Zilly, Cazia almost said. She chose to risk everything to save her rather than flee to safety with you. But she couldn’t say that to Timu. Everything was already too awful. Cazia yanked her arm out of his grip. “Jagia loved Pagesh as much as you did. Maybe you two should look after each other.”
“Oh, this will not do,” Doctor Warpoole said. She stepped up to Cazia and lifted both quivers over her head as though taking a sharp knife from a child. She gave one to Ciriam and, as she slung the other over her shoulder, drew out a long, nasty-looking spike.
The driver may have been terrified out of his wits, but he knew better than to defy a scholar with a quiver full of darts. He angled the cart so that it floated toward the tower deck.
Cazia ran around the perimeter of the tower, looking down the sides. Three beasts were climbing the pink stone wall. “Clerk!”
After receiving a nod from Doctor Warpoole, Ciriam ran to Cazia’s spot on the western end of the tower. “Ciriam, right?” Cazia asked, immediately remembering that she should call her Doctor Eelhook. Too late now. “That one is highest. Start with it.”
The clerk looked dumbfounded. Cazia slapped the outside of the quiver the scholar had just taken from her, and the woman jolted into action. She drew a dart and, leaning queasily over the crenellation, shot it down the side of the tower.
It went wide, skipping off the pale pink stone. Ciriam drew another, did the spell again–more shakily this time–and shot a spike over the beast’s shoulder.
Cazia plucked a dart from the quiver at the girl’s hip and shot it down the side of the wall, letting her frustration and anger lurk behind the carefully-built mental state required for the spell. It struck the beast’s shoulder, sinking into its torso so deeply that it vanished.
The creature roared, and for a moment she thought it wouldn’t fall. When it did Cazia, turned to the clerk and held out her hand.
Ciriam was about Pagesh’s age and height, but where Pagesh was tanned and strong from endless days spent outside in fields, the clerk was pale and squint-eyed, with weak, bony hands. She didn’t even know how to aim a dart spell properly.
But she wasn’t about to give up that quiver.
“Let’s go!” Treygar called. He ushered the prince onto the cart first, of course, then let Bittler, Timush, Jagia and Col climb on. Doctor Warpoole waved at Ciriam and Cazia, and they sprinted toward the cart.
Cazia took the opportunity to pluck three more darts from Ciriam’s quiver.
As they climbed into the cart, the driver screwed up his concentration and forced it upward. They swung up and out, all of them packed in elbow to knee. Timush crouched in the front corner with Jagia in his lap, both gripping the rails with white knuckles. Bittler and Col were jammed into the back, almost falling onto the driver. The doctor shrugged, squeezing Cazia into the corner; apparently, she didn’t like to be crowded. Old Stoneface gave Doctor Warpoole a dark look as she settled in; clearly he would have preferred to have someone else in her place.
The wheels of the cart passed over the crenellation just as the first of the beasts reached the top of the tower. Doctor Warpoole drew a dart from her quiver and began her spell, her hands moving faster than any spellcaster Cazia had ever seen. Ciriam followed her example, but Cazia was behind them and couldn’t help.
The beast bounded to the edge of the tower, then leaped at them. Doctor Warpoole’s spike struck the beast on the crown of its head, gouging its scalp but otherwise bouncing off. The clerk didn’t lead the beast enough and her shot passed uselessly behind it.
The monster seemed almost is if it could fly, clawed hands reaching out, fanged jaws gaping. Cazia thought the whole world fell silent, although she knew the beast must have been roaring, and the people around her must have been screaming. She had no time to cast a spell of her own and no space to make the gestures.
The beast—with its bristling fur, impossible size, and nearly-human face—was going to make it into the cart with them.
Stoneface shoved the prince aside and swept his arm backhanded at the beast’s outstretched claws. He managed to batter its hands aside, preventing the monster from getting a grip on the rail, but it caught hold of his forearm instead.
The beast slammed against the side of the cart with a crash so loud Cazia was sure the planks would shatter, then the whole thing tipped to the side.
There were screams and cries of anguish all around her–Cazia might have screamed herself, she wasn’t sure. Everyone fell toward the lowered rail of the wagon, and it was only Timush’s quick hands that kept Jagia in the cart.
Doctor Warpoole knelt low, keeping her center of balance below the rail. She held Ciriam down with her, but Cazia’s weight nearly sent them both over the edge.
Treygar fell flat on his stomach on the edge of the railing, clearly being dragged down by the tremendous weight of the beast. The only one still standing was the driver, and that was because he had been tied into place. His face was twisted in concentration as he tried to right the cart and gain altitude.
Cazia couldn’t see the beast below the level of the cart, but she heard it roar. She pulled her dart from her sleeve. She didn’t think she had time to cast a full spell before the creature climbed over the rail, but she knew what to do with the sharp end of a spike.
Lar and Col reached for Stoneface to drag him back into the cart, but the old man lunged upward to throw himself over the rail.
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