The mystery of other worlds is not one Hannah Winters ever thought she’d solve. However, the day she spots a brown-robed stranger with a magical staff in a neighbor’s field is the day she also discovers Aerisia, a magical land beyond Earth’s sunset.
Here in Aerisia, Hannah is believed to be the Artan, a legendary heroine prophesied to deliver Aerisia from the Dark Powers. Plenty of people, including the Simathe, a race of immortal warriors, and the Moonkind, people of the Moon, are willing to help her discover her true identity, but Hannah’s just an ordinary girl from Earth. She doesn't have any latent magical abilities and she’s not the Artan. However, her allies aren't seeing it that way. Neither are her enemies. In fact, Hannah’s life is in jeopardy nearly from the moment she arrives in Aerisia. And becoming the Artan may be the only way to survive…
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The day was darkening, but it wasn’t the peaceful shadows of twilight overtaking the sky. The day was tranquil, but it wasn’t the calm stillness of a summer day drawing to a contended close. A cool breeze whipped up, teasing strands of hair out of the braid I’d re-plaited this morning. The force of it blew and tangled my horse’s mane. Pulling my cloak tightly about my shoulders, I studied the forbidding sky. Dark clouds scudding across its face were gathering into an ominous, foreboding mass.
“It’s going to storm,” I announced.
A needless comment in light of the obvious signs, but I felt like I had to draw my companions’ attention to the fact. They were plodding along, every now and then casting a glance upwards, but otherwise appeared unconcerned.
A raindrop hit the tip of my nose, sliding over my lips. I wiped it away. “Shouldn’t we be looking for shelter?”
I hated storms. As a child, I would quiver under the blankets while they raged outside my bedroom window. When the thunder was so loud it shook the house, I would run to my parents’ room, where I’d be held tight and comforted until the furor had passed.
As a young woman, naturally I no longer ran to my parents, but I still disliked storms. Holding my breath and counting the seconds between lightning flashes and peals of thunder, I could never fall asleep until the fury had abated. This oncoming storm was triggering an assault of memories, and I couldn’t tear my gaze from the threatening sky.
Another raindrop hit my gloved hand. Its twin splashed the tip of my ear. My hands were starting to shake. The wind picked up again, rustling the tall grass on either side of the road. Other than that there were no noises and, besides our party, no signs of any living creatures. All was eerily silent: the calm before the storm. My horse was tense, its ears pricked. A distant crash of thunder; he shook his head nervously. Lightning flashed though the clouds. Though still a ways away, the storm was obviously moving closer.
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “High-Chief, please, can’t we find shelter? I don’t want to be out in this!”
Not surprisingly, the man was far from alarmed. “It’s only a storm. It will pass.”
His unruffled demeanor made my anger boil. Jerking my horse to a stop, I rounded on him furiously. “I know it’s only a storm,” I yelled, rising in the stirrups. “I don’t care! I don’t want to be caught in it! What’s wrong with you?”
Those pit-black eyes narrowed angrily, and I plunked back down. Suddenly, the gaze pinning me was more frightening than the imminent storm. What was I thinking, screaming at him like that? Was I crazy?
“Look about you,” he lashed out, a keen edge to his voice the storm could never hope to match. “Is there anywhere to take shelter?”
The man had a point, even if I hated to admit it. The countryside was all sprawling fields interspersed with grey boulders, large and small. A few scrubby trees dotted the landscape, while mountains loomed large in the distance. There were no houses, no caves, no trees, no roofs to hide under.
What to do? What to do?
Inside their gloves, my hands were openly shaking.
“The rain will not harm you. We ride.”
That was Ilgard. The man was implacable.
He and his men spurred his horses forward, but I refused to budge. As he passed by, the Simathe leaned from his saddle, catching my horse firmly by the bridle. The animal followed meekly…until I sawed viciously on the reins, making him whip his head to the side and tear loose from the Simathe’s grasp.
Directly overhead, thunder boomed. I panicked, jumped, my silver spurs raking my horse’s flanks. Already spooked, this proved too much for the frightened beast. He bolted down the trail, taking me with him. Gripping the pommel with one hand and the reins in the other, I held on with all my strength. I don’t know how long we ran, or how far, before it happened. Thunder crashed, followed by a brilliant flash of lightning. It struck me…yet it didn’t. One moment I was tearing along at breakneck speed, and the next—a boom, a flash, and I was enfolded in a dazzling veil of white.
Time morphed into a murky soup of air, space, and speed. Beneath me, my horse struggled to run, but it was like moving in slow motion. My body felt frozen, my motions on horseback sluggish, and my fingers unresponsive as they tried to relax their grip on the saddle horn and reins.
A fierce rush of wind blasted us, knocking my horse off its feet. I was still clinging to his back and fell with him, winding up with one leg pinned beneath his weight. Terror, obscene and sudden, flooded me like a wave, overwhelming my mind as I lay helpless on the wet grass. I opened my mouth and tried to scream, but no sounds came out.
That white light was around, within, and about me, holding me powerless in its suffocating grip. I was no longer conscious of the raging storm. Nothing was left except light and choking panic. Thunder crashed a fourth time, and in its sonorous peals I heard an evil voice. No, I heard the voice of evil. Over and over again it called my name, the echoes rolling and crashing like wild waves against a rocky shore.
“Hannah,” it called. “Lady Hannah, the Artan. Hannah. Lady Hannah, the Artan. Mighty deliverer from Earth. Have you come to save these people, this land, from me? From me?”
A face materialized, filling the sky over my head: a gleaming white skull. Formed from the white light enclosing me, vacant eye sockets and a fleshless mouth smiled a hideous smile as it loomed over me, slowly descending.
“From me, Hannah? From me, Lady Artan? From me?”
Nonsensical words. Hideous phrases. I couldn’t figure them out. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. I was reduced to babbling a mindless, “No, no, no!” My head shook senselessly from side to side. My horse didn’t move. Was he dead?
Now the face was upon me, its jaws gaping wide as if to swallow me whole. In the midst of my panic I reacted, throwing my arms into the air in a defensive posture. I touched something tangible; a tremendous weight pressed upon me. My arms trembled violently as I fought to keep from being crushed.
“No,” I screamed. “No! Get away from me, leave me alone!”
Nothing at first, then the weight withdrew ever so slightly. Encouraged, I continued shouting commands and denials. There was a swift pause, one that seemed to last forever. And then, wonder of wonders!—the face began to fade. Another breathless moment of horror and hope, and I was able to pick myself up, rising as far as my pinned leg would allow. With both hands thrust against my opponent, both palms turned skyward, I continued pushing against the terrible weight and screaming for it to leave. New life flooded my veins, and my voice strengthened. To my indescribable relief, as I regained strength, my enemy seemed to lose his.
“Leave!” I shouted once more. “Leave me alone!”
As the words fled my lips this time, a strange steam of blue light leapt from my fingertips, careened upwards and slammed brutally against the grinning skull. The thing parted its yawning jaws in a hideous, gurgling scream, not unlike that of the drocnords. Power, sheer power, replacing any fear, suddenly I was strong and invincible. There was only this moment, this battle, and the magic of the blue brilliance bursting from my outstretched hands.
The monster’s second scream shook the earth. I wanted to double over and press my hands to my ears, but the magic wouldn’t let me go. Another stupendously loud crash of thunder, accompanied by the most brilliant flash of lightning yet. Both the skull and the menacing white light blasted upwards, a fountain of radiance spraying the clouds, fading into the next lightning bolt that raced across the sky.
The instant they were gone, my cerulean light fled as well, and all vigor drained from my limbs. A heavy shudder convulsed my body, and I toppled backwards into soft mud. Heavy rains drummed on my face, droplets coursing down my cheeks like tears. The last thing I remember thinking was that the storm seemed to be vanishing into the distance.
My eyes closed.
The world went black.
He had to reach her.
Her horse, frightened as much by its nervous rider as the storm, had bolted, galloping recklessly down the narrow trail. They had not gotten far, however, before lightning split the sky, its jagged edges slanting directly towards the woman fleeing on horseback. In an instant, both horse and rider were swallowed by a great, blinding flash of light. Rather than diminish, this searing light grew rapidly, steadily. It hurt his eyes, this strange brilliance, causing both the Simathe lord and his men to fling protective arms across their faces.
The attack came in that one instant of being caught off-guard. They were the most feared predator of the plains: felines larger than an ox, yet endowed with supernatural grace, cunning, and speed. Many Aerisians swore they were as intelligent as humans. Gazing into the depraved, yellow eyes of the beast that came at him from nowhere, the Simathe High-Chief could readily believe it.
Usually they hunted alone, or in small prides of two’s and three’s. Deathcats never attacked in the strong force of fifty or more now threatening to overrun his company. In the initial onslaught, several of his warriors went down wounded, their horses killed outright. But in short order, decades of training and experience rose to the fore. Closing ranks, backs to one another, the Simathe protected the wounded in their midst. Blades gleamed brightly in the intermittent flashes of lightning, only to be plunged in and pulled out a dull red. Blood was everywhere, fouling the air with its peculiar stench. The screams of wounded horses and dying deathcats filled the night.
Against normal human strength, the deathcats would almost surely have prevailed. Nevertheless, the tenacious Simathe could not die, and in the end it was their attackers who fled, leaving the tired, gory group behind. Those who were able to flee, that is. Many of the beasts lay dead or dying upon the trampled, blood-and-rain matted grass. Those still living didn’t breathe much longer.
Throughout the whole ordeal, one thought pounded desperately in the Simathe’s brain. I have to reach her… The girl he’d sworn on his honor to protect had been swallowed whole by that consuming flash of light. Was she dead? Injured? Were Aerisia’s hopes already doomed? So suddenly?
The High-Chief fought hard, the desire to reach his Artan second only to the maddening desire to kill—to destroy the beasts who’d attacked without warning. At last, skirmish over and enemy defeated, those of his men who were uninjured dispersed to assist their wounded comrades and mounts. Some ensured that no deathcats clinging to life would live to breed more of their kind.
The Simathe High-Chief glanced about, noting the strange tunnel of light was gone and the storm had receded, as well. Where was the Artan? Whatever that white brilliance had been, it had destroyed his night vision. Temporarily, he hoped. For once, he wished mightily for a lantern or a torch, but knew he’d not the time to find one. Thus, he waited tensely for the next flash of lightning, no matter how weak, to show him where she was…
When it came, he saw that she lay ahead on the path—a dark form which, at this distance, appeared unmoving. He ran. Ignoring the mud, he dropped to his knees, a small part of him aware of the gentle rain wetting her face. Brushing the damp hair from her brow, he ran his eyes swiftly over her inert body, assessing the damages. There were none—visible, at least—and he thought she breathed steadily. Next, he glided sure hands over her neck, arms, and legs, stopping short when he found one foot was pinned beneath the horse. Grimly, he laid a hand to the animal’s side.
It was dead.
Even alone, he could have moved the beast enough to free her leg, but that would mean shoving it aside, her limb taking the brunt of the weight. If weren’t already broken, such a maneuver might change that. If it were broken, moving the horse risked worsening the damage. Hesitating briefly, the warrior-lord decided against going it alone. Instead, he reached out mentally to three of his men.
Over here—to me.
Torches had finally been lit at the scene of battle. Those carried by his warriors bobbed along the path as they hurried over. While waiting for help to arrive, Ilgard resumed his position of kneeling over the lass, shielding her from the falling rain with his own body. The lightning had passed too far away to be of any use, nor could he hear her breathing over the downpour. To reassure himself of its steady rising and falling, he placed a hand lightly on her chest, keeping it there until the torches were close enough to see that she breathed regularly.
What could have happened? It had to have been deliberate—the strange, consuming lightning and the deathcats’ assault occurring simultaneously. Another attempt by The Evil to destroy the lady Artan? The Simathe lord feared so. He knew they were fortunate indeed that only her horse, and not her life, had been lost in the attack.
With minimal effort, the four warriors lifted the dead animal, moving it aside. Soon as the pressure on her leg was released, the girl moaned, began to stir. Reoccupying his position next to her, Ilgard felt the leg just freed. Running a hand cautiously from thigh to toes, he was relieved to feel no obvious breaks. She moaned again, louder this time, her head rolling restlessly from side to side. Leaning over, he pressed a palm to her shoulder, pinning her against the muddy ground.
“Lie still, my lady.”
Miraculously, at his touch, the sound of his voice, she calmed, stilled. Not knowing what else to do, Ilgard scooped her up carefully his arms. Her dead weight, the way her head drooped upon his shoulder, prompted an exchange of worried glances among his men. What harm the light may have wrought they could not tell, and neither could she. She was completely unconscious, and not likely to come out of it soon.
Without a word, the men strode hastily through the tall, damp grass, heading back towards their comrades. The rain came down even harder, and the High-Chief feared they would never reach Treygon this night.
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