Episode 1

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[ Author's note - This episode has been revamped as part of the book being finalized, but is still unedited.]

In the present

Ania glares at me, waiting for a reaction. She's got that burning look of someone who's ambition, filled with secrets, is savoring this moment.

The wind kicks up mana-residue ash, stinging my eyes. Rubbing one and then the other with the back of my filthy hands, I take a deep breath.

She's waiting for something, like for me to admit to a crime or something. There's no banter or desire for the cat to play with the mouse. She's got something on her mind, and she's not going to let go of it.

The sickening stench of the magically burnt lake-bed town runs right into my brain, stopping the endless circle of thoughts. I notice how heavy my body feels. All the running and fighting aside, pulling Oner out of me with that gemstone, like Blindfold Man did with Jackal, took a yig of a lot out of me. Thankfully, it looks like Ania and her crew missed the show. Well, other than the two Oner killed.

Glancing about, the lake bed's got a dark burnt line marking where Ania's fire dome had surrounded the entire oasis. Did she really kill everyone in this tent-city just to get to me? Must be some secret she's learned.

Peeking over my hand, I see she's got grey streaks in her hair and creases around her dark-rimmed eyes; probably taxes for the power she now wields, and a reminder of just how much time has passed since I saw her last.

The wizard robe, which has seen better days, floats ominously behind her, waiting like an obedient dog. It creaks in the wind, like old, worn floorboards. Eerie.

"You hold a serious grudge," I say, raising an eyebrow and smirking dangerously. My instincts are telling me to create a distraction and bolt, but where to? It's all flat until you hit the ridges around this place, and it's a long, long run versus soldiers with lightning rifles. I have no doubt that even if she's tapped out, her soldiers are eager to earn a bit of their self-respect back, I can see it in their eyes. Whatever happened on northward with those ghouls, it clearly shook them to their core. I'm sure there was a lot more of these guys when everything started. Again, what the yig's Ania doing bringing that much firepower down to try and get me. Or was it for me?

The driver of the levi-car's out, his lightning rifle resting on the hood of the levi, pointed straight at me. His index and middle fingers keep tapping on the trigger eagerly. The muffler on the end is scratched up badly, but likely good enough to keep the boom from making him deaf.

The three bandaged in the levi's flatbed keep glancing down at their feet. The flatbed's got a twelve-inch rim, bench seats all around. Could be hiding plenty of things down there.

Their uniforms at first look dusty, but it's more than that. They're faded and threadbare, maybe even vintage. They're blue and gold, like Ania's sleeveless dress, which is in the same condition as the uniforms. Around her waist, she's wearing a woven belt with three grey pouches on it.

Ania frowns, her eyes looking up and to the left, before returning to punish me with her intense glare. "The two from years ago?"

"Yeah. I mean, all of this for two people you didn't seem that fond of?" I bow my head, letting a laugh out. "Seriously, that's a world-class grudge."

Oner's bloody serrated blades are laying at my feet. The body of two of Ania's soldiers laying nearby. My mana-pistol's about two yards away. The idea of making a dash for it crosses my mind, but I won't make it.

"In fairness, that guy was dying," I continue. "And I didn't know I was going to do that. But he bought us precious time against that flaming Carn. As for that woman, she tried to kill me. It was self-defense. I'm ignoring the part where you guys took me hostage."

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