Chapter 4: Evil sorcerers and godly visitations

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A hand grabbed Jane's arm, dragged her backward. She hit the ground hard, and her right side flared with pain. As she scrambled to her feet, the blue-clad man—her attacker—dropped his dagger and clutched his throat. Tendrils of black flame encircled his neck, drew tight, lifted him upward. He rose in the air, three feet—six feet—twelve feet... His mouth formed a soundless O of horror—his face turned bluer than his robes—

Without warning, he plummeted, head-first toward the earth. There was a sickening crunch of flesh meeting rock.

Jane scrambled away from the man's still form. His neck was bent at an angle too acute to be healthy, and his chest did not move. But of course he can't breathe anymore, Jane thought, a spinal transection would mess up the nerves innervating his diaphragm... And then it hit Jane that her attacker was dead; she was staring at a dead man's body...

All around her, Riders battled more blue-clad men. Jane did not know where to look, what to do. The clamor was deafening, and she was unarmed, defenseless—

"Down," said a cold, unruffled voice. Before Jane's sluggish brain could think what that meant, a force pressed her to the ground. The breath whooshed from her lungs, and she gasped with the pain of it. Metal sang nearby, and heat singed her shoulder. She heard a screech of agony, abruptly extinguished. She pressed her face into the ground and shut her eyes.

When Jane dared look up again, the fighting was almost over. Most of the blue-clad soldiers lay dead on the ground. The enemy fighters were retreating toward the forest.

A whimper reached her ears.

Jane clambered to her feet.

Nikolay stood a few paces away. His amber eyes gleamed with satisfaction. A blue-clad man, barely more than a boy, hung suspended before him in the air.

"Please—" said the boy.

"Mercy?" Nikolay sounded bored. His gaze flicked to the corpse of the man who had attacked Jane, then back to the boy. "Was this your leader?"

The boy glanced at the dead man and shut his eyes. His whole body quivered. "My lord, please—p-please let me die, in the glory of Velos—"

Nikolay turned to Jane. A smile played about his lips. "These men attacked us and made a serious threat on your life. What think you, Avtorka? Ought I to give this Kanachskiy scum what he wants?"

"I.... what—"

Jane shoved her shaking hands in the folds of her cloak and bunched fistfuls of cloth in her fingers. Her thoughts felt numb and brittle, like flowers glazed with ice. "You—" She coughed. "You can't just k-kill him in cold blood."

Staring into Nikolay's eyes, Jane suspected he could. He looked amused, like this sort of thing was all in a day's work. A sick feeling squirmed in Jane's gut.

"So, you would have me let him go?" said Nikolay. She had the horrible suspicion he was testing her. "I cannot let him run back to his people, with the details of your existence, and our location."

The boy's eyes met hers, defiant and furious and terrified. He had an angular chin and heavy eyebrows and his brown hair was clotted with a mixture of mud, soot, and blood. A vermilion gash on his cheek oozed sluggishly.

"Take him prisoner," Jane said, horrified. "You don't have to kill him!"

Nikolay raised his hand. A gag appeared around the Kanachskiy boy's mouth, choking off his protests. Ropes materialized on his wrists and ankles.

"Tie him onto one of the horses," Nikolay told the commander. "Have him watched closely. Perhaps the boy will have useful information for us... though I doubt it."

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