As I drift out of my peaceful slumber, a deep, rich darkness greets me.
It curls around my resting form with gentle kindness, reassuring me that night is still upon me. The sun has not yet graced the sky with its blisteringly bright presence.
My ears, on the other hand, are met with wretched screams.
Wakefulness finally hits me. I scramble from my mattress, ignoring the aches up and down my body. I grab my satchel from where it’s tucked by the bedpost, then slip into my boots. In a matter of moments, I’m racing down the halls of the Sylvester house, my heart pounding with furious intensity. I follow the screams, my boots thumping against the polished floors faster and faster—
Wham! I barrel straight into a Lanthan woman.
“Shh!” The woman places a finger over her lips, then whispers, “They’re here.”
My body goes cold. There’s no question who she’s referring to. They are the Red Shields, the Queen of Althuria’s militia and loyal servants. They are responsible for the decimation of entire villages, towns, and cities. They are hell-bent, as per the Queen’s orders, on tracking me down and killing me now that the Queen has all the power she needs to dominate every empire known to this world.
I, Asha Olinger, am the last thing standing between them and total control over the world. I’m the only one who can counter her lutros magic with the power of the void and stop her.
So if her men are here…
The Lanthan woman gazes up at me fearfully. Recognition hits me. She’s one of the former Black Daggers I saved from execution just a few weeks ago. I want to run, but I can’t save only myself from the Red Shields. If they find her, she’ll be killed.
I grab her arm, ready to pull her into my room with me to buy us some time, but she pulls away.
“Save yourself,” she whispers. “They’re looking for you, not me. Your friends and sister are safe, so don’t worry. Just stay alive, void wielder.”
With those last words, she starts down the halls. I want to run after her and cloak her in the void, but it’s too late. Gruff voices ricochet down the halls, sparking me into action. I spring back into my room and shut the door behind me with a soft click. Heart racing, I go through my options.
Althea, Zaniyah, and Professor Sylvester must be safe, just like the woman said. They’ve been working at the Academy nonstop to find ways to protect the Althurian-Lanthan rebels and remaining Black Daggers. Althea is staying in my Academy room. The Academy has measures to keep them safe. Lex, though… He’s still in this house. If I try to find him, I’ll be caught for sure.
Footsteps sound near my door. It’s too late.
My gaze bounces from the open window, where a sharp breeze flings my curtains outward, to my bed and then back to the window. A few feet away from me and just out of reach, a vast oak stands proud and tall—but not tall enough.
I have to get out of here. I can’t help Lex or anyone else if I’m tossed into the Queen’s dungeons.
I drag a chair from by the door to jam the doorknob, then a dresser in front of the door opening to further barricade myself in. Steadying myself, I open the window and peer out.
Below me lies only the darkness of the early morning hours. My room is on the eastern side of the house, farthest from where the Red Shields entered. They won’t see me if I come out from this side. I can only hope it’ll stay that way.
As if to buttress my hopeful thoughts, a thud sounds from the door. I keep my eyes locked firmly on the tree a few feet away. I can’t lose focus now.
Freezing wind trails its icy fingers through my hair. I steady my magic and release dark smoke toward the oak tree. Judging by its size and height, I’d wager the tree is not a day older than fifty years, with plenty of room for growth. The void curls over the leaves, seeping into the branches and finally the trunk.
Another thud sounds, followed by the creaking of the chair beneath the force of the hit. I push my magic farther. With a great shudder, the broad oak shoots upward. As the thicker branches reach the height of my window, I halt the flow of my power. The oak stills.
Making sure my satchel is firmly in place around my shoulders, I place a hand on each side of the windowsill. My courage wavers the minute I look out at the tree.
It’s close enough now. I just have to make the jump.
A monstrous crash signals the Red Shields are moments away from tearing the door from its hinges. I hover at the edge of the window, breathing deeply. My boot-clad foot lingers at the windowsill, sizing the energy I’ll need to make it out alive.
Cracking noises slice through the air, and the Red Shields break through my makeshift barricade.
There’s no time to think. I drop my satchel to the grass below, wincing as I hear it thud. Eternos forbid I’ve broken the dagger. And then I’m flying, flailing through the air in a desperate effort to reach the thickest tree branch. For a horrific moment, I think I miss it. My arms are too short, my aim is off—
My fingers close around the branch.
Joy zips through my heart for a brief moment before I slam into the trunk and groan. I have only a moment to recover before I drop to the ground, breaking my fall with a roll. My Academy training was good for something, at least. In mere moments, I’m racing across the lawn and grabbing my satchel, the rhythm of my steps matching my frenetic heartbeat.
Behind me, someone yells my name, and then I go tumbling face-first into the grass.
END OF CHAPTER 1
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