Shadow & Flame – Mindee Arnett

NO ONE DARED APPROACH THE gate of the prison—not by choice, at any rate. Even the guards preparing for their watches regarded the Mistfold with wariness, like conscripts heading into battle. Not their first one, but their fifth or sixth, enough experience to make them fully aware of the hardships in store and the likelihood of death. Kate Brighton couldn’t blame them for it. The fortress was as foreboding as any she’d seen. Its red mud-brick wall, the color of dirt mixed with blood, stood more than thirty feet high, the top hidden by the thick, undulating mist that gave the prison its name. That mist was as vast and imposing as the sea, obscuring everything beyond it, even sunlight. Not that there was much of that to be seen yet, only a vague brightening from black to gray. Another dawn was here, and yet again Kate hadn’t sensed it, her magic, once stirring to life with the rising of the sun, dead inside her. She pushed away the reminder and the wave of homesickness it brought. Almost time, she thought, raising one hand to touch the revolver belted at her right side. A sword hung from her left, hidden by her long cloak. It was a heavier, more impressive weapon at a glance, but far less deadly. If fighting broke out, the revolver was all she would need. When it broke out.

Despite their planning, violence seemed inevitable. There was too much they didn’t know about what awaited them beyond the wall and beneath that unnatural mist. The only thing she knew for certain was that her little brother was being held in there, along with dozens of her fellow wilders. “It’s almost time.” Corwin spoke from beside her, and hearing him echo her thoughts sent a trickle of warmth through her, easing the tight knot in her chest. Craving a glimpse of his face, Kate turned to him, only to be met with disappointment. Although the voice was Corwin’s, the face staring at her from the shadows belonged to a stranger. It was a plain face with features so unremarkable that Kate’s brain was incapable of remembering it. But that had been the point when Harue fashioned the disguise. The magestone she’d made was perched in Corwin’s left ear, the telltale glow of its magic hidden behind a gold plate. Fortunately, Harue had the foresight to create it before they’d left Rime a few weeks ago. The very next morning after setting sail for this gods-forsaken country, her magic had vanished, same as Kate’s and the others’. It stopped Harue from making new magestones, but at least the ones she’d already made had retained their normal level of power and duration. An advantage of magist magic over wilders’, it seemed. “Yes,” Kate replied, glancing away from that unfamiliar face.

She wished Harue were a little less skillful at her craft. The magist might’ve left some trace of Corwin in the masklike glamour. Then again, such precautions were warranted. Corwin Tormane, high prince of Rime, was a wanted man. Both at home, where his older brother had labeled him traitor, and especially here, in Seva, the longstanding enemy of Rime. King Magnar Fane of Seva would sacrifice six of his seven sons to capture him. “You hate this face, don’t you?” Corwin said, a tease in his voice. Despite herself, Kate smiled. Here was her Corwin, for certain—the one who could always see her hidden truths. “Not at all. It’s better than your regular face, honestly.” “Well, in that case, I will make sure Harue remains in my employ indefinitely so that I might wear it for you each night.” “Moderation, my love.” She patted his check. “Once a week at most, otherwise I’ll surely grow bored with it.

” “Is that so?” He arched an eyebrow, or at least tried to, but this face wasn’t made for the gesture and so both brows rose, making him look surprised instead of playful. “Does that mean you’ll grow bored of me as well?” A smirk lifted one half of her mouth. “Let’s survive this rescue first and discuss the rest of our lives later.” Corwin grinned back at her, a hint of himself flashing in those false, dark eyes. “Tonight then. Soon as we’re on the ship for home.” Home. Kate longed for it. Despite the troubles waiting for them in Rime, she missed the land itself with a physical ache. The rolling hills of Norgard, covered in lush green grass and everweep flowers, the towering trees of Aldervale, the blue skies over gray mountains in Farhold, and the crystalline waters of the Penlaurel River. The life and color of Rime made Seva seem a withering wasteland by comparison. And her magic, of course. She missed that most of all. Even though she’d always heard that magic didn’t exist outside of Rime, it had been a shock to discover her abilities were so conditional to her location. She returned her attention to the gate where the change of guard was just finishing.

Although she admired Corwin’s absolute certainty about the outcome of this rescue, she didn’t share it. Too much of their plan relied on luck and chance, both in short supply. If only she were able to use her ability to influence the minds of others; then they could get in and out of the prison with relative ease. Without it they were forced to rely on stealth and tricks like ordinary bandits. Remembering those tricks, Kate reached into her pocket and pulled out two small pieces of cork, which she gently slid into her nostrils. “Good luck.” Corwin handed her a small glass vial. She accepted it with a quick nod, hiding its smoky contents from view with her clasped fingers. Then, stepping out from the alley, she approached the two guards standing by the gate. The one on the left looked up at the sound of her footsteps and raised a hand to the hilt of his sword. “What goes here?” Kate smiled warmly, counting on these men misjudging her based on her size and sex. “Pardon me, but I seem to have lost my way.” Her voice sounded strange with the cork in her nose, but neither guard seemed to notice. “Would you be able to tell me how to get to Merum?” At the mention of the nearby pleasure district, both men’s expressions shifted, and Kate seized her chance. Before either could respond, she took a quick step forward, squeezing her mouth shut as she flicked off the stopper on the glass vial, setting its smoky contents loose.

The poison rose up in a thick cloud, enveloping the guards. The one on the left tried to cry out, but the smoke filled his mouth, rendering him silent. A moment later, they both fell to the ground, unconscious. Kate dispersed the remnants with her hand, then beckoned behind her. Corwin and the others appeared in the courtyard, stepping out from their hiding places in the alleys surrounding the Mistfold. The prison was located on the farthest northern point of Luxana, the capital city of Seva. A strange place for a prison, although rumor claimed it had been a temple long ago. There were eight of them in all, counting herself and Corwin, a small but deadly band. Dallin Thorne and Tira Salomon appeared first, both of them former mercenaries: Dal from the legendary company known as the Shieldhawks and Tira from their sister unit, the Shieldcrows. Dal flashed a grin at Kate, teeth bared in his eagerness for battle. The cavernous scars on the left side of his face gave the expression a sinister edge. Next to him, Tira yawned broadly, as if bored. Kate supposed she might well be. In the four months Kate had known the woman, she’d never seen anything faze her. She greeted every danger with the same unflappable indifference.

Walking a few steps behind them, Tom Bonner appeared more subdued and somehow far more dangerous than either of the mercenaries. Given his ability to manipulate metal, there wasn’t any doubt of his potential for deadliness, at least when they were at home, but still Kate didn’t like thinking of him that way. His countenance these days made her more uncomfortable than Corwin with his stranger’s mask. She missed the old Bonner, gentle and optimistic, but that version of her friend seemed to have died along with his father, the elder Bonner murdered nearly half a year ago now by the same man responsible for putting the prisoners inside these walls. The remaining three were wilders, too: Yvonne, an aerist, with control over air; Vander, a pyrist, with control over fire; and Francis, another earthist like Bonner. Only unlike him, Francis had a greater affinity for stone than metal. If he’d had access to his magic, Francis could’ve torn a hole in the Mistfold’s wall and given them entry that way. Remembering her own weakened state, Kate brought her focus back to the task at hand and stooped toward the nearest guard, relieving him of the ring of keys belted at his waist. Then she turned to the manway door off to the side of the gate and unlocked it. Dal and Tira headed in first, weapons drawn, while Bonner and Francis picked up the sleeping guards and hauled them inside. Corwin, Yvonne, and Vander followed with Kate coming last, shutting the door behind her. She turned in time to see Tira bend toward the guards and slit their throats, one after the other, as easy as if she were harvesting wheat with a scythe. “Dammit, Tira,” Kate said. “What’s the point of putting them to sleep if you’re just going to kill them?” Corwin touched her shoulder. “They are our enemies, Kate, and we couldn’t be certain how long the sleep would last.

” She shrugged him off and turned away, trying to regain her composure. Corwin was right, of course. These were Sevan soldiers, oath-bound to a king who’d been trying to conquer Rime for years and was now closer than ever to accomplishing that goal—that could be the only reason why he’d been imprisoning wilders, to use them against Rime in some way, magic or no. Though surely their magic would return once they came home. Yvonne, who had visited Seva as a child, claimed it would. And these people are holding Kiran prisoner. The thought of her little brother was all it took for Kate to steel herself against the guilt. Quickly, the group discarded their cloaks, revealing the Sevan uniforms beneath, each one painstakingly acquired these last few weeks. Kate freed the helmet from the strap on her back and slid it over her head. The nose guard and cheek pieces hung too low, half obscuring her vision from all sides, but at least they would hide her face from onlookers. She was less certain about the uniform. The last time she’d tried to pass herself off as a man, it hadn’t gone well. “Yvonne,” Corwin said, inclining his stranger’s face toward the aerist, “you stay here and silence anyone who comes this way.” “With pleasure,” Yvonne replied, her eyes bright with anticipation. She was one of the few wilders with them who didn’t have a loved one caged somewhere here, but her mother had been killed by Gold Robes, the magist order that had secretly been kidnapping wilders and sending them to Seva.

Rescuing those wilders was Yvonne’s chosen method of vengeance. Kate often wondered what kind of person Yvonne would’ve been if her mother had never been killed. She seemed born to be an assassin. Even without her magic, which she could use to squeeze the breath from a man’s lungs with a single, silent thought, she was just as deadly, her knives more like extensions of her hands. Corwin addressed the others. “The rest of us will move on in groups, staggering our approach. Try to blend in as much as possible. Our goal is to free as many wilders as we can without discovery.” He turned and headed down the corridor searching for the nearest exit out of the gatehouse and into the prison itself. They’d been able to gather ample information about the gatehouse, but little about what lay beyond it, other than that the wilders were being housed in an area called “the pit.” The dreadful name had kept Kate up late at night, especially the thought that her sixyear-old brother was imprisoned there. No—Kiran would be seven by now. She clenched her jaw at the realization. They reached the exit without incident, and Corwin opened the door and stepped outside onto a dusty, sunlit field encircled by the prison’s walls. Kate blinked, her eyes slow to adjust to the sudden change.

She hadn’t expected this. From outside the mist seemed to enfold the entire prison like a dome, but glancing up she saw clear sky. The mist was still there, but it went no deeper than the wall itself. Magic. Only, Kate couldn’t see how it was possible. No wilder could do this, not in Seva. Lowering her gaze, she scanned the rest of the field, searching for prison barracks, but there were no structures in view. Instead, a massive hole sat in the middle of the field. The pit. Kate and Corwin approached it quickly, hoping they appeared like nothing more than two guards going about their duty with the others following some distance behind. But when they reached the edge, Kate forgot her role completely. “How?” she gasped, eyes drawn downward into the pit. This place couldn’t be. It was like looking through a window that opened onto another world. The bottom lay several hundred feet below, over a sheer vertical edge.

Grass so green it was almost blue covered the pit floor, even though Seva was an arid place, water scarce and the flora rough and colorless. But the grass wasn’t the only thing that didn’t belong. There were everweeps, too, thousands of them scattered across the floor thick as a garden. The sight of those flowers, with their perpetually dew-drenched petals of every color, sent an ache of homesickness through Kate, as if Rime itself waited for her below. “What is this?” Kate said. It didn’t look like a prison at all, despite the presence of several structures down below. There were few walls and even fewer guards. Corwin shook the question off. “Come on. There’s a stairway down.” He hurried toward it, and Kate followed half a beat later. She swept her gaze over the pit as they descended the steep, narrow steps carved into the cliff’s side, still trying to make sense of it all. More than a dozen long, low-ceilinged buildings squatted in a pentagonal formation in the middle of the circular pit. At their center was an arena-like structure formed by a short, crumbling wall. It might’ve been the ruins of an amphitheater.

Or a temple, Kate thought, as her mind at last made sense of the most startling object in the pit, one so incongruous that her eyes had at first slid right over it. A massive stone face lay in the center of the arena, the head of some long-decapitated statue. The statue rested on its side, part of it buried in the grass so that only a single eye and ear remained visible. That and half of the crown encircling its brow, fashioned in the shape of a serpent or perhaps a dragon. Kate supposed if the statue had a body to go with it, it would’ve reached the top of the pit and then some. Although they descended the stairs as quickly as they could, it still took several long minutes to reach the bottom. Kate did her best not to think of how hard the climb back out would be. At least she wasn’t tired. Just the opposite. She felt more awake, more alive, than she had in days. Given the early hour, there was little activity in the pit, only a handful of guards walking scattered patrols. When one of the nearest spotted them, Kate instinctively reached out with her magic. Go away, she thought. You don’t see us. To her surprise, she sensed the man’s mind clearly, and the sudden desire he had to turn back around again.

Her magic. It was back! She nearly swayed on her feet at the realization. “What happened?” Corwin grabbed her arm, steadying her. “My magic. I can use it again.” “How?”


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Updated: 10 October 2021 — 07:51

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