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Hidden in the forested hills, Nathan spied on the vast army of General Utros. The bedraggled wizard stood among scrub oaks and spindly pines, camouflaged by crosshatched shadows. The white robes he wore over his black pants and fine shirt were stained and scorched from fighting against the impossible, ancient enemy.
But he would keep fighting. Though the city of Ildakar was gone, he and his rebels were still alive.
A hundred and fifty thousand reawakened warriors filled the valley below, ready to march across the Old World. Fifteen centuries ago, the legendary General Utros had laid siege to Ildakar, with its shining buildings, high walls, and beautiful gardens. Using a remarkable petrification spell, the city’s wizards had turned the army to stone, filling the plain with statues, but now the spell had worn off, and the invincible army renewed its attack. Desperate to save their fabled city, the remaining wizards had hidden Ildakar behind the shroud of eternity … which stranded Nathan and his compatriots outside. Now they were the only defenders left against an army large enough to conquer the continent.
“Dear spirits…” He plucked dry grass from his long white hair. The immense military force reminded him of when Jagang’s Imperial Order had filled the Azrith Plain beneath the People’s Palace. Nathan took heart in knowing that Jagang’s army had been defeated, although back then Richard Rahl had fought at their side. And Nicci …
Prelate Verna adjusted her skirts and sat on a lichen-stained boulder nearby. “When my party left Cliffwall, we didn’t expect to find an entire army blocking our way. We were just hoping to find Ildakar.”
“Ildakar is gone,” groaned the wizard Renn, crunching through the underbrush as he came up to them. He wrapped his hand around a gnarled pine branch and looked past the camped army to where his glorious city had been not long ago. With a distracted frown, he wiped a smear of sticky sap on the frayed fabric of his maroon robe. “The wizards hid Ildakar from time itself. They didn’t give a thought to those of us outside.” His jowls sagged into deep lines. “At least they’re safe now … I suppose.”
“We’ve got to make the most of our situation out here,” Nathan said. He felt more abandoned than the others, because he had lost more than just the city. The scorched swath across the battlefield below was a poignant reminder of how dear Elsa had sacrificed herself in an inferno of transference magic. In doing so, she had wiped out thousands of General Utros’s soldiers. Tactically speaking, it was a victory, but at such a tremendous price. He felt dark sadness in his new heart, rather than triumph.
Escaping into the hills as the enemy army reeled, Nathan and his companions had unexpectedly encountered an expedition from Cliffwall—Prelate Verna, several Sisters of the Light, numerous scholars, and a party of D’Haran soldiers led by General Zimmer. Their combined forces, though, were just a handful against a titanic army.
Nathan had been fighting so hard and so long that he’d barely had a chance to think about all they had lost. “How will Nicci get back to us now? If Ildakar has vanished, where will she go? Where will the sliph take her when she returns from Serrimundi?”
Traveling through the sliph network, Nicci had rushed off to the coastal city to warn about the threat facing the Old World. With Ildakar gone, she would be cut off on the other side of the land.
“We could certainly use Nicci’s help,” Verna admitted. “But we are not powerless. Don’t forget that.”
Nathan stroked his chin. “I will not, my dear prelate, but the sorceress isn’t the only one we have lost.” He didn’t know what had happened to Bannon either, who had been fighting inside Ildakar when the city disappeared. Nathan hoped the eager young swordsman was safe beneath the shroud. He sat beside Verna on the large boulder. “This is not the sort of reunion I anticipated having with you. I spent centuries trying to get my freedom from the Sisters of the Light, and now here we are together again.”
“Yes, here we are again.” The prelate’s smile was tired, and she tucked a lock of gray-brown hair behind her left ear. “But we need to get moving again.”
“But where will we go?” Renn asked, pacing among the pines. “Do we just run? We can’t expect to defeat General Utros all by ourselves.”
Lord Oron stepped up to them, looking haughty, his blond hair in a thick braid over one shoulder. His narrow face was speckled with fresh blood from the recent battle. “What is our best course of action? We cannot be just a bunch of rabble. Shall we form our own council of the gifted to fight General Utros?”
“It would be a small enough council,” Renn said sourly.
“You forget how many gifted we have among us,” Verna said. “Don’t underestimate my other Sisters of the Light and the Cliffwall scholars.”
Lady Olgya joined Oron, her body wrapped in special camouflaged silks, tough fabric that her silkworms had produced back in Ildakar. “Don’t underestimate any of us. But we can’t just hide in the bushes and watch that army bustle about. What plan should we pursue?”
Nathan realized they were all looking to him. “Am I your leader now? Will you call me wizard commander?” He found it ironic, since he had been unable to use his gift at all only a short time ago. “I never asked for the job.”
Uncomplaining, the former slave Rendell distributed rations of dried food to the group. “This is the best meal I can provide, since we don’t dare light cook fires.” The older man had fought for his city along with other freed slaves. He had risked his life so Elsa could mark her deadly transference rune on the ground. Now Rendell, too, was stranded outside of Ildakar.
Oron frowned at the meager fare the former slave offered, being accustomed to fine banquets in the nobles’ district. Nathan, though, chewed on the dried fruit and meat without complaining. He said, “I enjoy fancy meals as well as anyone, not to mention clean clothes and a soft bed, but I will endure a bit of hardship under the circumstances.”
“Shall we develop a bold plan to defeat that gigantic army?” asked Leo, one of the other wizards who had been cut off from Ildakar. His eyes were bright but his grin looked forced. “Where do we start?”
“Lani would have had some unexpected ideas.” Renn stared longingly at where the great city had been. He sighed. “I’ll never see her again. When I left, she was a statue, petrified by Sovrena Thora as punishment, but the spell would have worn off. I miss her.…” The long hard journey had made the portly wizard lose weight. His face was thinner now, and his skin hung loose. “I wish I could have talked with her again. It’s been so many centuries.” He drew a hopeful breath. “Maybe if we can get back through the shroud of eternity—”
“Lani is dead, killed by the general’s twin sorceresses,” Oron said with offhanded bluntness. “Didn’t anyone tell you?”
Renn paled until his skin resembled white stone. “Dead?” It was as if Oron had spoken to him in a different language. He turned to Nathan. “What does he mean?”
Nathan wanted to ignite Oron’s hair for his heartless comment. “I’m sorry, Renn. I’m afraid she was killed.…” He cleared his throat and tried to sound as soothing as he could. “Lani used a pool of water to spy on the general’s camp, but Ava and Ruva turned the magic back on her. They … drowned her.” He shook his head. “Elsa and I fought to save her, but there was nothing we could do.”
Renn placed his face in his hands. “That was the only thread of hope I still had.” His shoulders shook as he sobbed. “I waited for her. I protected her. I mourned for her.… She…” He struggled to find the right word. “She mattered a great deal to me.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to see her again,” Nathan said. “She was brave and strong. I’ll never forget what she did.”
Olgya sounded grim and impatient. “No time for mourning any one person. Countless people have been lost, and we have suffered. Think of my son Brock, Oron’s son Jed, the thousands of fighters. They all mattered to someone.”
Renn glowered at her. “It still hurts.”
“It still hurts, my friend,” Nathan agreed, thinking of Elsa and what she had begun to mean to him. “And we need to hurt the enemy.”
Sudden shouts came from the forest nearby, and Nathan lurched to his feet, reaching for the sword at his side. General Zimmer’s soldiers in the scattered camp grabbed their weapons and formed ranks for mutual defense. Figures sprinted out of the forest.
“Get ready! Here they come!” Zimmer’s voice held a hard edge of anticipation.
Three people burst through the underbrush, running at full speed. Oliver and Peretta, two young scholars from Cliffwall, dashed forward, along with Amber, a novice Sister of the Light. “They’re right behind us!”
“We brought them here,” Peretta called to her startled companions. “Now it’s your turn!” Despite the flush on her narrow face, mischief sparkled in her eyes.
More crashing sounds echoed through the sparse forest, followed by gruff shouts. Lured onward by the trio of runners, twenty enemy soldiers blundered into the camp, hacking branches out of the way. They wore ancient-styled leather armor bearing the distinctive flame symbol of Emperor Kurgan. Oliver, Peretta, and Amber scampered ahead, taunting their pursuers into the trap.
One of the enemy soldiers bellowed, “There’s more of them!” He held up a curved sword. “Wipe them out.”
In a blur, two fierce women rushed in from opposite sides, letting out high-pitched yells. They had been waiting to strike. Each morazeth wore a black leather band around her chest and waist, and their skin was mottled with branded symbols.
“We will let you kill a few of them,” Thorn called out to Nathan and the others. “But not every one.” She held a short sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. She plunged her sword into the stomach of the nearest soldier and laughed as he crumpled. “That’s one!”
Not to be outdone, her companion Lyesse snapped a barbed whip, which wrapped around an opponent’s thick neck. She yanked it hard, ripping open his throat. “And one for me!”
Thrusting out his hand, Nathan threw a burst of wizard’s fire that struck an enemy in the chest. The man’s leather and plate armor was like paper against the deadly fire that burned through his torso.
Howling a war cry, Zimmer’s soldiers threw themselves into the fight. The enemy scouts clashed with the D’Haran soldiers in a clatter of blades, grunts of pain, and shouts of anger.
With the fighters milling together, Nathan could not risk more wizard’s fire. Prelate Verna used her gift to dislodge a heavy bough from the trees above and dropped it directly onto a soldier. Oron, Olgya, Leo, and Renn summoned a raging wind to slam more armored men into tree trunks.
Finding themselves in a real fight, the enemy soldiers fell back on their rigid military training. The pair of wild morazeth attacked as if they themselves were an army, and the D’Haran soldiers tried to keep up with the women, kill for kill.
As the enemies fell bleeding, Nathan noticed something he had not expected. Previously, General Utros’s soldiers had been partially stone, their skin hard and chalky, but now they were real flesh again! He caught his breath. And if the enemy was fully human again, that would make them easier to kill. The D’Haran steel cut through the armor, hacked skin and bone, and the ancient enemies now died like normal men.
The gifted fighters Leo and Perri used magic to knock soldiers off their feet, impaling them on sharp branches. Even the slave Rendell jumped in with a knife, pulling off the helmet of a stunned soldier and slitting his throat. Nathan spotted an outlying man and used wizard’s fire to burn his head entirely off his shoulders like a grisly lantern.
In short order, all twenty of the ancient scouts lay dead in the underbrush. Thorn and Lyesse stood grinning, their bronzed skin covered with blood. “Three!” said Lyesse.
“Three for me as well,” Thorn responded.
“And that’s twenty more dead,” Nathan said. “Twenty fighters erased from the enemy forces.”
“The army will not even notice those losses,” Verna said. “Alas.”
“General Utros hasn’t finished counting his dead from our last attack,” said Oron.
“Dead men are dead men,” Renn said with grim satisfaction.
The D’Haran soldiers wiped bloodstains from their swords and armor. Zimmer nodded to each man, complimenting them. “Until we have a better plan, we will cut that army down little by little.”
“If that’s the way it must be,” Lady Olgya said.
Nathan sheathed his sword, which he had not needed after all. He still reveled in using magic after being without his gift for so long. “At least it’s a start.”
Copyright © 2019 by Terry Goodkind