* * *
THE FIRST GRAYBACK crested a ridge about fifty paces distant, halting when it saw her. The wolf’s dark fur sported a streak of gray that stretched from its black nose through its dark eyes and triangular ears. Its whiptail slipped from side to side, ending in a poisonous barb that could paralyze a full-grown elk.
Kara’s legs trembled like her arms.
Five more wolves exited the cedars at the edge of the circle of dead earth. More graybacks. Their thick torsos were barrels jutting from slim black hindquarters. Their deceptively thin, sinewy legs ended in large paws with thick yellow claws.
The leader howled. Its pack answered. Then the graybacks charged in a single snarling mass, kicking up leaves and dirt. They were coming to rip her throat out.
Kara closed her eyes and took the dream world. She saw then that the orange forms of the graybacks were transfixed with dark red star-shaped glyphs. Someone controlled their minds. Someone out there intended to murder her.
She could not outrun the wolves — she knew that — but she could fight them with blood glyphs. She could do as she’d been taught. She set her staff aside and knelt amidst thick leaves.
As wolves snarled and leaves crunched, Kara forced herself to remember hours under the hot sun. Eyes closed. Journeymages shouted commands or flicked her and others with switches, trying to break their concentration. Make them drop the dream world.
Blood glyphs carved in the heat of battle would never be carved in a quiet room, and Solyr’s teachers knew that. Kara pretended she knelt back in Solyr’s central square. The Lorilan faded.
Theotrix, Bird of the Hunt. It came first. She sliced her finger and drew its complex glyph on the earth in blood. As a wolf howled she imagined a Journeymage making that sound, playing tricks.
She painted more glyphs in a line of power, each new glyph modifying those before. Braun the Sculptor. The Adynshak. Rannos the Wolf. Olden the Turtle. All were needed and all complex.
Kara ignited her glyph line as a grayback snarled, so close. She tossed out her arms and threw back her head. She howled back. She might die today, but she would not die alone.
Rannos’s claws churned earth into rubble. Theotrix swept those clumps up in its claws as the soul glyph of Braun formed them into jagged shards. The Adynshak darted the shards at her attackers and only the shell of Olden, the great turtle, kept the storm from shredding the wild man at her side.
The three closest graybacks disintegrated. The other three yelped as earth shredded their flesh, blasting them away. They landed and stumbled as bloody balls of maddened, yapping fur. Kara opened her eyes to find a smoking circle seared into the earth around her.
She remembered the bite of cold stone on her knees. The babble of Solyr’s central fountain. Warm blood dripped from her ears and more tasted coppery in her mouth. She ignored it.
Glyphs consumed far more of her blood than she scribed — her pact with the Five Who Had Made the World — and she only had so much blood. No sane animal would attack after she shredded its skin, but the five-sided stars in these wolves left them far from sane. They would chew their own legs off to end her.
The wild man had not moved, so Kara tore open the top of her shirt. She scribed a snakelike glyph just below her neck, and it burned as she retrieved her quarterstaff. Osis, the ancient serpent, coiled around her heart, or would … until she ran out of blood.
“Move, damn you!” Kara stepped forward as the wild man took no notice of her, the wolves, or the world. He was a living statue. The wolves stumbled closer, snorting heavily through bloody snouts.
Kara could outrun these injured wolves, if she needed to, yet fleeing would leave this man to their mercy. She had to finish this fight. End their suffering before they ended her.
Kara dropped into a low guard, sweat running down her back, and closed her eyes. The wolves were bright orange shapes in the dream world. The red glyphs in their heads flared as Osis coiled tight around her heart.
The first wolf charged. Kara channeled Osis, and the ancient serpent spit greenish soul sparks from her mouth. Those sparks burned her tongue — a necessary cost — and cooked the grayback alive. It thumped into the leaves as the smell of scorched meat assaulted her nostrils. That made her wretch and cough.
Another wolf lunged and Kara swung her quarterstaff. Teeth shattered and blood spilled, but the blow failed to halt the wolf’s momentum. It knocked her down, shattered the dream world, and drove all breath from her lungs.
She tossed her staff and gripped the wolf’s neck as it pushed and snarled, jaws snapping at her face. She couldn’t glyph. She couldn’t get it off her. She was really going to die. She would never be able to save her mother, and she couldn’t bear that.
So she pushed back.
Something massive slammed into the grayback — her own quarterstaff. The blow knocked the wolf into the air. It smashed the head of the other wolf in the same smooth motion.
Kara scrambled up, lungs burning, as the wild man stumbled after both snarling wolves. He kept after them as he whipped her staff around like a massive club. What did he think he was doing?
Both wolves rushed him, as oblivious to their wounds as the dead-eyed man they meant to kill. Kara took the dream world and gasped. Green tendrils covered the wild man’s orange dream form.
Initiates rarely saw green in the dream world, for green was spirit energy. The energy of the human soul. Mages only saw it when someone died, and green energy covered this man.
He smashed the first wolf as Kara spit another burst of soul sparks at the second. The effort shattered the dream world and left her gagging on hands and knees, but it ended the fight.
The last wolf whimpered and twitched. Its battlemage had abandoned it, and now it knew nothing but terror and pain.
“Kill it,” Kara whispered. “Please, don’t let it suffer like that.”
The wild man swung her quarterstaff and caved in the wolf’s skull.
Kara struggled to breathe. Her skin felt cold and her vision swam, which meant she might be anemic. She stood and stared as the wild man threw down her staff. He stared back, and Kara could not think of a single thing to say.
“You.” The man spoke. “You are—”
“Alive.” He fell to his knees. His eyes fluttered closed. He hit the bloody leaves with a muffled thump.
A grayback had stung him. Their poison paralyzed victims and she had to walk him out of here — while she still could — or he would bleed to death. She slung her quarterstaff over her shoulder and slipped her arms beneath the man’s shoulders.
He was heavy, impossibly heavy, but Kara refused to give up. If she couldn’t carry him, she would drag him all the way back to Solyr. Its menders would heal him, heal her, and ensure they lived.
Kara felt her reagent pouch against her chest and pulled the unconscious man, grunting as sweat rolled down her brow. The acorn inside her pouch was one of several rare reagents she needed to heal her mother’s disease. She was one step closer to saving her mother, but only if she made it home.
That was going to be the most difficult part of this whole day.