Chapter 1

The aurora borealis twisted and writhed in the night sky, a vivid green undulating ribbon of light, its meandering dance witnessed only by the mountains and me as I lay in the grass of the low hillocks at the base of the looming peaks. I rested a hand behind my head, watching the smoke I exhaled mingle and disappear in the stars as I brought the cigarette to my lips for another drag.

Images of the past swirled through my mind causing me to frown despite the show above me. There was no point in staying out here any longer. I sat up and took one last drag before extinguishing and burying the cigarette in the damp ground next to me. I stood and made my way toward the neat rows of identical rough timber buildings which made up the labor camp that had been my home for the last twenty years, knowing I had no other choice but to return.

I woke the following morning to rain, mud, misery, and a sense of foreboding. The air was thick with it, humming with electricity and danger. My hair stood on end as I pulled on my rough linen jumpsuit and stepped outside, becoming drenched within moments. The linen clung to me, rubbing and chafing with every move, as I picked up my bucket and tools and walked to the open pit mine nearby, ready to start my work for the day. The only good part about the torrential downpour was the moment I got covered in mud, it washed off as if it had never been there. The bad part was everything else. No part of me was warm, and I wasn't even sure I remembered the feeling. The sound of my tools striking rock echoed in my head, relentless, reminding me of my plight with every clink of metal on stone. I looked down at my hands every few minutes just to make sure they were still there.

My clumsy, numb fingers repeatedly dropped my tools making for slow progress. By noon, I hadn't met my quota. The extraction process was slow and painful and I was not meeting expectations. I was fed up.

"Where's the rest?" The guard, a young and ruthless recent addition to the camp, looked into my nearly empty bucket and spat, kicking it over and scattering what little my frozen hands had collected.

Twenty years before, the Southerners conquered the North and enslaved its people after a long and bloody war. Before the invasion, the North had been a land rich with resources and filled with magic. Since then the magical population had gone nearly extinct, slaughtered mostly for the anti-aging properties of their blood and out of fear of their varied abilities. Most of the rest of the surviving non-magical human population were forced into slave labor camps, mining the precious resources of the rich northern lands. But those, too, were becoming increasingly scarce due to the voracity with which they were extracted.

At the age of five, after seeing my parents slaughtered and crucified and my home burned to the ground, I was sent to a mercurium extraction site. No one knew what the Southerners were using mercurium for, but they seemed to need a lot of it. The site, which had originally proved to be fruitful, was quickly becoming depleted and dangerous. It was not unheard of for the cliff walls of the quarry to shear off in sheets and crush anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves too close.

"Probably still in the ground"—I gave a slight bow but maintained eye contact deliberately, defiantly—"my lord." I smiled, overcome with a delirious recklessness.

Before I rose he backhanded me with a gauntleted hand. Stars exploded in my vision as my head snapped to the side, my body following, sprawling across the mud. I touched my jaw gingerly, and deciding that it was not broken, I attempted to crawl away.

"You gave me your version of a joke," he jeered, grabbing my ankle and dragging me backwards toward him. Something sharp caught my side, and I felt my skin tearing, intense pain followed by a dull ache. "Now I'll show you mine."

Sick settled in the pit of my stomach as I glimpsed the trail of red left behind as he pulled me closer toward . . . something. What?

The horses. Oh gods. My heart beat against my chest with such ferocity I could practically see my sodden tunic flutter. This is not good. An understatement, I knew, even as he lifted my foot and tied it to a stirrup, his lips curling and the triumphant gleam on his face sickening.

"Please, wait." The words escaped my throat in a breathy panic as my fingers sank into the sucking mud. I felt dirt collecting under my nails, pushing its way in. My breaths came out in short, harsh gasps. My side was starting to burn, and the blood was flowing freely. He was going to kill me, and if he didn't, I would bleed to death anyway.

"You're not laughing yet." He grinned as he cinched the knot, looking directly at me. "Just wait for the punch line."

Time slowed. I watched him raise his hand to slap the hindquarters of the horse, and I watched the muscles of the animal twitch as it wound up to run. The horse whinnied. The rope went taught. With inexplicable calm and clarity, I closed my eyes, my shallowed breaths deepening and slowing. My heart beat once, twice. I knew I was going to die.

I heard a scream, high and piercing and my eyes snapped open. The guard's face, once arrogant and sneering, contorted grotesquely, mouth open and eyes bleeding. Then the light came: a blinding, brilliant white-green flash of light. It emanated from me in all directions, filling my mouth with the taste of copper and my nose with the stench of sulfur and burned flesh. The rope snapped, the horse ran, and the guard's scream echoed in my ears. He raised his hands before his face and I watched them disintegrate.

Everything went silent save for a single high-pitched thrumming note that hung in the air like smoke from an extinguished candle. Then it, too, quieted. Ashes floated lightly through the air before being caught by the rain and mingling with the mud and blood.

The sound of rain returned, a steady hum replacing the high-pitched note. The wetness on my face, a nuisance earlier, was now a welcome feeling. I stood, hunched and shaking, my hand at my torn and bleeding side, fighting the waves of black dizziness trying to overcome me. As I took a tottering step forward, I stumbled and fell.

Cold darkness made another attempt to move in, and this time I let it.