Chapter 1

The northern sky was a dull uninteresting gray all the way to the horizon, where low banks of swirling clouds collected around the distant mountain peaks. Lena shivered slightly and pulled her IAF pilot's jacket closer around herself. Even on the ground, several hundred feet below her, small patches of snow were visible, outlining the rocky ridges in crisp definition. In the cockpit of her tiny plane, it was well below freezing. The so-called windshield didn't do much to keep the wind out, and it whistled through the cracks where steel joined to glass.

It had been sunny when she'd started her flight, and if not exactly warm (it was October, after all) at least a somewhat comfortable temperature. Four hours later, a storm looked to be imminently arriving, and intense gusts buffeted her plane, periodically unbalancing it and making Lena glad for her seat restraints. As well as constantly readjusting the flight pattern, she had to keep wiping the windshield free of condensation to be able to see. The Empire did not waste money on cockpit equipment for trainee planes, or on warm jackets.

Some piece of machinery under the dashboard, shaken loose by the strong wind, began making an obnoxious clanking noise that was giving her a headache. She pounded on the instrument panel until it ceased, shaking her head in disgust. These old Sunhawk models must have looked impressive when they were new, but now they seemed obsolete, fit only for a back alley junkyard. This one had an altimeter with only half an indicator needle, not to mention a completely useless compass.

Lena glanced at the letter that lay in the passenger seat beside her. It seemed out of place in the dingy vehicle, a cream-colored envelope wrapped with red ribbon and sealed with the imperial sigil. She had no idea what the letter read, but it was clearly important. Her orders were to deliver it directly to the governor of Makhar as quickly as possible. They could have at least given me a decent plane to get the job done right, she thought ruefully. When she'd inquired about an upgrade, a distracted air force clerk had informed her that all of the new equipment was being used for training exercises -- indefinitely.

Putting it out of her mind, the rookie pilot turned her attention back to the weather. The sky was rapidly darkening and more clouds were coming her way. Lena tapped the little button to turn on her radio, cursing her terrible luck. Not only was her first real flight all the way to Makhar, half a day away, but it looked like some of that famously unpredictable mountain weather was acting up. She hadn't had any practice flying through storms in the Academy. "I can handle this," she said aloud, with no one there to hear except the wind. She let out a long breath, and gripped the control stick nervously. "No problem."

Half an hour later, it began to snow. The wind swirled drifts of glittering white through the air, making it harder and harder for Lena to make out landmarks on the ground. She punched her radio again, intending to make sure that she was still heading in the right direction, but got nothing but a few garbled words and static from the other end.

"This is pilot number four thirty six, requesting assistance." she said as loud as she could into the microphone. "Four thirty six en route to Makhar. What is my position?" No reply came from her radio. Lena's words became more frantic as she manually scanned the frequencies, searching for a signal. "Repeat: what is my position?" More than anything else, this frightened her. The flight path from Eluvar to her destination should have been lined with transmit stations; Makhar was an Allied city, after all, and Imperial pilots often flew trading missions there and back. Even in a heavy storm, the signal should have come through clearly. Either something had happened to all of the transmitters at once... or she was a lot farther off course than she'd thought.

Lena flicked her eyes across the instrument panel. The fuel gauge read fifty-six percent, higher than she had expected. As old as the plane was, at least it still had a decent hybrid engine, one of the ones that actually worked better in the cold. Still, it wasn't going to float along by itself forever. She would have to land eventually.

Trying to prolong the inevitable, she poked at the radio and twiddled various colored dials on the dashboard. Flecks of ice began to build up on the windshield. Lena swore under her breath when she saw it. If the ice grew any thicker than it was now, she'd be flying completely blind. She had to descend before that happened. Obhras, please let there be a road, she prayed silently. Nervously, the girl swept her long brown hair out of her eyes and focused on the sky.

She began to slowly nudge the nose of the plane downward, squinting into the storm, searching desperately for a place to land. The small aircraft skimmed through the skies like a mountain falcon. The snow was playing tricks on Lena's vision; a promising shadow that might have been a ridge disappeared into the chaos, leaving her unsure whether it was ever there. A rough shudder rocked the plane suddenly, tearing the controls from her grasp. Ice was building up on the wings, burdening the already unwieldy aircraft with an extra load of weight. It moaned fitfully under the strain.

A dark space opened up below her, and Lena jerked back on the brakes as hard as she could. One of her wheels slammed against the rocky ground, and she lost all control. There were several more harsh thumps and then she was being smashed against her restraints as the plane began to flip, rolling over and over, losing bits and pieces as it went. Lena felt like the breath was being crushed out of her lungs as it skidded against the mountain side. A horrifying crunch echoed through the cabin as the portside wing tore free and the lights in the cockpit flickered and died, plunging her into sudden darkness.

When the hunk of battered metal finally came to a stop, Lena hung limp, upside down and dangling from the straps that had kept her alive. She was bleeding heavily from several places where shards of glass had pierced her. Blood stained the gray patches on her uniform jacket, turning the whole thing the same dark red as the sleeves.

You have to move, she told her unresponsive body. The icy wind, now unimpeded by the shattered windshield, blew angrily through the cockpit. She imagined it talking to her. You hid from me for a while, but I've got you now, it shrieked.

Lena brought one shaking hand over to the catch that would release her from her restraints. "Shut up," she told the empty air, and dropped. Her impact made the broken glass scattered along the ground tinkle lightly, making a sound like mocking laughter. She winced, both from the pain in her legs and from overwhelming hopelessness. Where the hell was she, anyway? Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the letter that she had been ordered to deliver lying flat on the floor, seemingly untouched. It took her several tries to pick it up, smearing the beautiful envelope with the blood that stained her hands.

Somehow, she managed to stumble out of the awkwardly angled exit hatch and out into the storm, gripping the letter tightly in her hands. Lena surveyed the area anxiously, looking for a cave or somewhere else nearby where she could take shelter. No luck. By the gift of Obhras or some freak chance she'd crashed on a long, fairly wide ledge against the mountainside, which was slick with frozen snow. There were no visible openings into the cliff face, and she didn't think she had the strength to crawl along the edge long enough to find one.

The snow continued to fall, even more heavily than before, covering Lena in a soft white blanket that obscured her features and drained her of her motivation. Her wounds had ceased to hurt, leaving behind only a dull ache. Her eyelashes, which were heavy with frozen crystals, began to close, and she slipped quietly into silence.