Another Wednesday means it’s time for another excerpt from A Wizard’s Sacrifice. This effort is inspired by the #bookqw (Book Quote Wednesday) promotion wherein authors post a snippet from their work containing a key word chosen by author Jenna Barwin. Today’s word is QUIET.
Spoiler Alert: the following excerpt reveals two major plot points of what lies in store for Vic in the next volume of the Woern Saga. This chapter comes near the beginning of the second act of Sacrifice, so there’s a whole lot of story that follows, but if you’re the type of reader who hates spoilers, this may not be the excerpt for you. In that case, I hope you’ll still pick up a copy—the eBook is available for preorder now.
New World, New Enemies
A path arrowed past rows of sharply staked tents, from a black and white scrolled pavilion anchoring Thabean’s camp to a massive edifice bedecked with banners and striped in patterns of scarlet, verdant, azure, violet, black, and white. A fancy silk robe enveloped Vic, dragging on the ground and snagging underfoot. Leaning on Bethniel, she hobbled down the lane with the vigor of an ailing crone. A few paces ahead, Thabean’s cloak billowed as if caught by a breeze, but there was no wind and they moved slowly.
“Are you doing that?” Vic asked.
Thabean stopped. The cloak undulated. “I’m doing many things, madam. Thinking, breathing, talking to you. I was walking—would you like some other means of transport?”
She realized the cape floated just above his shoulders. His hair looked fresh and dry, while everyone else’s locks clung to damp foreheads. She stepped closer. “I’ve been sick ever since I got the power. Is that what I’ve done wrong? Meylnara’s hair moves on its own, like serpents. Your cloak billows, and you don’t sweat.” Using the Woern, she lifted her hair off her neck, swallowing nausea while tingling spread up her torso and into her head.
His lips toyed with a smirk. “Come to the Council. Think, breathe, madam, and do just enough.”
Dropping back to Bethniel’s side, she held her hair off her shoulders. Blood pounded behind her temples, and she gnawed on her tongue to keep from falling to her knees. But that small thing—holding her hair off her shoulders, walking behind that billowing cape, drawing each breath into her lungs and blowing it out again in concentrated effort—wrung black starbursts out of her nerves, and with each pulse, the pain in her temples faded a little and the shaking began to leave her limbs. By the time they reached the Council’s pavilion, her head was floating, and Bethniel’s arm, twined around hers, felt as distant as a cloud.
A guard drew aside the canvas flap, and Thabean nodded an aide toward Bethniel. “Fainend will take you up to the gallery. Victoria?”
She took the arm he offered, felt a little jolt when she touched him. His smirk shifted to a grin. “Brace yourself.”
Inside a small anteroom, the air was dry and cool. Thabean’s aide led Bethniel toward a circular staircase while another guard parted a fabric doorway for Thabean. Vic followed him into a narrow passage carpeted with plain knotted wool. Thabean waved at undyed canvas walls. “It’s a nod to Samovael. He paints.”
She glanced at his floating cape. Mild nausea clung to the back of her throat, but the headache was gone. “What do the others do?”
“Grunnaire spins. Nelchior twists. Csichren floats—but he’s lost to the Woern. Don’t do too much, only enough. Darien sings and is lost as well as bothersome. Saelbeneth does nothing, but she is immune.”
Swallowing, Vic held him back. “I knew the Waters might kill me when I took them, but I thought it would happen immediately, or not at all.”
His sneer softened into a bitter frown. “We all die, Victoria. In time. Saelbeneth is fifty-two. The rest of us are . . . younger.” He shook his head. “You can’t be more than twenty. Too young for the Woern. You hadn’t yet lived. I’m sorry.”
A laugh burbled out of her throat. “I’ve lived enough,” she said, starting for the next opening. “You can’t guess.”
“Madam, protocol!” He rushed ahead to beat her through the doorway.
Be damned, she thought, stepping through before him. He slid into the hall after her, cheeks red. Murmured conversations died, and nine faces round an oblong table turned toward them. Two wizards did not look; one stared blankly ahead, the other at the ceiling. A buzz nagged at the edge of Vic’s hearing, and she felt the hairs on her arms stand on end.
A handsome woman at the head of the table stood. Saelbeneth had a mass of dark brown curls that framed a symmetrical face, her skin the same color as her hair. The other wizards blended together—dark and light—as Saelbeneth held Vic’s gaze. Vic bowed her head slightly, trying to copy the way Thabean greeted the Council leader. Saelbeneth frowned. “She hardly looks better than she did this morning, Thabean.”
“She’s well enough.” Directing Vic to stand at the end of the table, he took a seat on Saelbeneth’s right. The wizards exchanged glances up a chain leading to their leader, then back down to the last of them, the one who stared at the ceiling, a soft round man reclining in the air above his chair, his eyes half-closed. They wore no uniforms, but their places at the table showed their ranks as clearly as the stripes on a trooper’s sleeve. Vic straightened, recognizing a martial court.
“Tell us why you’re here, Victoria.” Saelbeneth sat.
Dread crept over Vic’s skin, and she fought the shudder gripping her spine.
Vic. Bethniel whispered in her head. Vic glimpsed shadows in a gallery above them—all the aides assembled, Listening. She couldn’t be sure some wouldn’t be as strong as Geram or even Wineyll. She couldn’t be sure, so she couldn’t lie. Fine. At least the headache was gone. Steeling herself, she opened her mouth and spoke to them in the Ancients’ tongue. “I was born in the North, in the Unknown. Among the Oreseekers.”
“What? What’s she saying?” One of the wizards, a beige woman, her hair and eyes as pale as her skin, jerked her head up toward the gallery, then at Vic again. The buzzing grew sharper, louder, her throat vibrating hideously.
Shrine, Vic breathed, but met the woman’s stare. “I’m an Oreseeker, madam.”
“You’re looking here? There’s no ore—what’s this woman want?”
“Darien,” a voice intoned from the gallery, silencing her. The gleam leaked out of her eyes, her mouth turning down into the same frown the rest of them wore.
Shifting her gaze to Saelbeneth, Vic continued. “I am trained as a Logkeeper—a historian of the Ancients’ knowledge—and as a soldier. I did not seek the Elixir, but the circumstances of war left me without a choice.”
“So you came as a mercenary?” asked a broad-shouldered man. Behind him, painted ivy unfurled across the colorless wall before bursting into flame and dropping into a river of molten earth.
“I’m not here for metal or mullas, sir, but to find a purpose,” Vic replied. “In my homeland, we have no wizards. My power incites fear but fails to inspire awe. What can a wizard do in a land that does not want one?”
“Vic—” Bethniel hissed.
“Saelbeneth!” cried a woman with blue gems spinning beneath each ear, her chestnut hair woven with ribbons.
A hand up for silence, the Council leader motioned Vic to continue. Thabean scowled, his eyes dark as storm clouds. The spinning woman—Grunnaire—and the painting man—Samovael—bore matching expressions of disgust and outrage. Shrine’s bitch, Vic cursed silently as pain lanced her temple. She’d barely said ten words, but every one of them seemed to be wrong and she had no idea why. What did she need to say to end this tribunal and get on with the business of killing Meylnara so they could find a way home?
The wizards stared at her, faces composed into masks of judgment.
She decided on the simple truth. “News of your war came to us. I was sent to help.”
“She condemns herself with every word!”
“This is insufferable!”
Vic’s eyes jolted from face to face as wizards stood, shaking fists and banging them on the table. Others sat with crossed arms and stormy features. Thabean, the one who’d risked his life to rescue her from Meylnara, covered his eyes and shook his head. Her hair dropped flat against her shoulders. Her stomach sank as they called for her death. “What have I done?” she asked in mindspeech, so her words would carry over the shouting.
The Council leader stood, and the others fell quiet and retook their seats. Saelbeneth had kind eyes and a soft mouth, like a mother who would hold you to her bosom in warmth and safety. Vic wanted to walk round the table and enter that promise and ask forgiveness. Instead, she set her chin. “I come with offers of help, and you respond with threats and accusations?”
“You came from Meylnara. You obtained the Elixir illegally. You carry a child. Any of these three would incriminate you. All three together condemn you.”
In the silence that followed, Vic opened her mouth and shut it again in dumb surprise. It had been just over two months—how could they know? How could Meylnara have known after only a day? Regardless, the Council would kill her for being pregnant. And yet, she had awakened in the room of a queen, not a prisoner. They wanted something from her, or she’d be dead already. Grabbing hold of that, she began again. “I was Meylnara’s prisoner—”
A bugle pierced the air, echoed by shouts. Aides rushed in, and the Council stood to receive messages. Saelbeneth called for order and asked for a report.
“Meylnara’s minions are entering Csichren’s wedge,” replied an officer.
“This tribunal is recessed,” she said. “Victoria, you have a chance to show your allegiance. Thabean, you will guarantee she does no harm.”
“Madam—” a wizard protested.
“Do not defy me, Nelchior,” she snapped. The Council adjourned swiftly, some running through the passage, others diving beneath the canvas walls. Nelchior and Grunnaire shot through a hole in the pavilion roof, captains in tow. Saelbeneth strode out, leaving Thabean alone with Vic.
“Shall we go, madam?” Thabean asked.
“She can barely stand!” Bethniel appeared at the threshold of the Council chamber.
A chance to show your allegiance. Vic grimaced at the sick pressure behind her eyes. Her knees trembled, and she felt as if they might collapse beneath her. “I don’t think I have a choice, Beth.”
“You don’t,” Thabean said. “Come with me.”
Outside, a garbled roar soaked the air. In the distance, bugles wailed. Entrusting Bethniel to Lillem’s protection, Vic followed Thabean into the air, swallowing hard as hot pain tore into her skull. “It’s the same as before,” Thabean said, gripping her shoulder. “Do only enough; you do not need so much Woern to fly—only enough, Victoria!”
She banked the power flowing out of her into the supporting air molecules. The pain mellowed, and she followed Thabean to his camp, where they alighted near a knot of officers. A servant brought him a tunic of steel links while he listened to reports. Vic’s jaw fell, and Thabean paused with an arm halfway into a metal sleeve. “I have none for you, madam.”
Shaking herself, Vic tore off the hem of the robe, shortening it above the knees. “It’s all right; that thing looks heavy and I can barely stand as it is.”
They took to the air again, sailing after the soldiers dashing eastward. Kragnashians swept over a trench filled with spikes and tar, their wedge formation a dagger that plunged toward the heart of the encampment. The tip was blunted by heavy fighting, but the Kragnashian warriors swept through the humans like a knife through legumes. Thabean’s troops ran down the wide lane stretching between camps, the archers splitting off to join the artillery assembling along the flanks of the wedge. Thumb-thick arrows darkened the sky. Flaming boulders sailed toward the crush of chitin while ear-splitting trills and human cries of battle and pain and terror rose like swamp gas.
A cluster of wizards floated above the fray, casting lightning and fire. The bolts glanced off the Kragnashians’ carapaces, channeling into the dirt or the soldiers defending the line. A few scattered Kragnashians lay like lumps of stone, but many more troopers sprawled on the ground. The creatures flowed over the corpses, elongated mandibles snapping at the living, cleaving through arms and necks.
Vic formed a block of hardened air and smashed a knot of the People. The creatures flinched, then surged forward and savaged the soldiers attacking them.
She looked at Thabean in consternation. “That should have flattened them!”
“It was an impressive blow, madam, but the Kragnashians are resistant to direct attacks with wizardry.”
A catapult thunked. Boulders crashed and tumbled into the invading wedge, and springtime scent plumed thick from the carnage. Soldiers spilled into the hole, working in teams to strike with pikes and drive the creatures back, but the Kragnashians regrouped and tore through the human defenders.
Safe above, the wizards continued to shoot electric volleys that did more damage to their own troops than the Kragnashians.
“If direct attacks with wizardry don’t work, why are we wasting our time up here?” Vic asked. Steeling herself, she opened herself to the Woern. Power plunged into her. The icepick grinding behind her eyes became white hot, the pain its own focal point as she dove headfirst toward the churning mass. A dropped pike flew into her hands as she swooped beneath a slashing mouthpart, slipped between the rows of tendrilled legs, and thrust the point up into the creature’s thorax. Keening, the Kragnashian reared, its blood a torrent of cut grass. She yanked the pike free and shot to the underside of another, killing it. A third went down, and a fourth. She evaded the crushing mandibles, but spine-laden legs raked her skin, tore her garment. Giant, deflated corpses accumulated around her, sinking into the stew of crushed and mangled troopers. Bathed in blood and offal, Vic’s heart thrummed with energy. The Woern sang within her, enhancing her strength and sustaining muscles wasted from illness. Her left arm seemed nearly as strong as her right.
It went on, for seconds, for hours—she lost all sense of time in the rhythm of killing. She glimpsed Thabean in the fray as the Kragnashians’ wedge broadened and thinned, and the creatures wound between tents instead of plowing over them. Able to fight individuals instead of a chitin-armored mass, the soldiers brought down more and more of the Desert People. Flying up, Vic gazed over the vast sea of green, taller and denser than Fembrosh, extending to the horizon in every direction. “I guess I can’t call them Desert People here,” she muttered.
Thabean joined her, his hair and mail soaked in green ooze. “They’ve never attacked with such numbers before,” he said suspiciously.
She glared. “I’m helping you.”
Meylnara shot out of a writhing mass of Kragnashians. A fireball whizzed toward them, veering after Thabean as they flew apart. An invisible net cinched around Vic. The breath gushed from her lungs; she sucked and gagged, but there was no air to refill them. Heart desperate for oxygen, she gathered all her power and rammed it against the force holding her. There was a feeling of stretching, then a burst, and she hurtled high above the camp. Gulping air, she paused to watch Thabean and the others converge on Meylnara, shooting lightning and fire, driving her back under the cover of her People. The rogue disappeared under armored wing covers, and the creatures retreated like a fast-running tide.
Vic flew down to the cluster of wizards, now arguing. Grunnaire urged caution, while Nelchior advocated pursuit.
“What is your counsel, Victoria?” Saelbeneth asked.
A fierce throbbing behind her eyes, Vic peered at the Kragnashian retreat. The Council troops followed, still hot with battle but their arms sluggish. The bodies left in the Kragnashians’ wake were mostly human. “You follow them into the forest, into their forest, they’ll destroy you.”
“They’re in retreat!” Nelchior cried. “We have the advantage.”
“I’ve lost too many,” Thabean replied icily. “Do what you wish, but I withdraw.”
“Coward,” Nelchior spat.
“I concur with Thabean,” Saelbeneth said. “To follow now would be too costly. Victoria, your method of killing was effective. May I ask your assistance?”
Vic grinned sardonically. “I can’t help if I’m dead, madam.”
The Council leader nodded serenely. “No, you cannot.”
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