Just a quick oneshot. I may make this the first chapter of a longer story in the future.
The heat hung over the village like a smothering blanket.
Alder watched his neighbors carry buckets of water out of their hut, the image dancing in the heat waves that wavered off of the baked clay. The entire village was preparing for the daily gathering, always necessary during the dry season in Etain. In normal times, goods were traded as per their worth. During the drag of summer, however, nothing could match the worth of a simple bucket of water. As a result, all shared, carrying the village through the time that sucked the life out of the area.
Alder had nothing to share. He only benefited, and he knew others resented him for it. He walked to the gathering with a heavy heart, his scalp burning from the sun as though his red hair were aflame.
The others who passed him glared, their eyes full of suspicion. None offered help when he stumbled in the heat. His store of food, the food he hunted for himself, had grown small, and the water bucket in his home was mostly dry.
He would never steal water, but no one would believe him. Not after what happened.
Alain, the village elder, called the meeting to order, his powerful voice carrying over the throng. “This is day thirty-two of the current heat spell,” Alain intoned. “We have suffered greatly so far.”
“Too much!” a man cried out. Alder looked up.
“Something must be done!” a woman cried.
“There is nothing that can be done.” Questions like these always arose when the heat stretched on every year, the dry heat like torture in the small village.
“The dry season grows longer and hotter each year!” A man on Alder's left stood up, redfaced in anger. Andrew, the blacksmith, who's shop had lain abandoned for the last three weeks. “This would never have happened when I was a child!”
“There is no point in wasting energy.” Alain didn't bother raising his voice. “The best thing to do is to wait and keep calm. Exertion will bring death.”
“We must do something!” The same woman who had been ignored before yelled again, louder this time, and people responded, turning to her and some agreeing, whispering under their breath. Alder's heart picked up speed. The mood of the crowd was turning, from a tired group of people willing to help each other to get through hard times to something else. Something dangerous.
“What would you have us do? Traveling for water will only be a death sentence, and digging will only cause heat death faster.” Alain was trying to quell the crowd.
“There is no need for any of that.” A man spoke up from the back of the throng, an accent shading his words. Alder didn't recognize him until he turned to look.
The speaker was a man with pale hair and eyes, a traveler who had settled here from the north a few years ago. The heat had been unkind to him, his skin burned red from the sun. He always told tales of his travels, of the mythical Keep and the magical creatures that lived there, and people naturally paid close attention to him when he spoke.
Alder had never trusted him, however. He spoke of magi who practiced dark magic, his voice always carrying admiration for spells that sounded evil. Alder suspected he had been driven away, into the harsh heart of Etain where no one but this village lived.
“Where I come from, there is no heat like this.” He spoke slowly, calmly, with a soft commanding voice that bade you listen. Alder narrowed his eyes.
“How?” Andrew asked, some of his belligerence gone.
The man chose his words carefully. “I’ve spoken of magic before. We magi…those magi who use dark magic, they choose old ways. Old rituals. We sacrifice some for the good of others.”
A few people seemed concerned, and the man quickly picked up his tale. “Some people are not worth sharing with, after all, yes?”
Someone glanced at Alder. He swallowed nervously, looking away.
“Surely this is not necessary," Alain spoke up. He too sounded nervous. “We will begin the dispersal of water -”
“Real magi give up the people who do not deserve resources,” the man continued, ignoring Alain, and the crowd hung on his words. “Sacrificing them to the magic brings storms faster, and makes those who survive more comfortable.”
Alder took a step back. People were nodding, smiling. Someone behind him grabbed Alder by the arm.
“This one killed his parents by stealing their water!” Andrew yelled. Alder opened his mouth to deny it, but of course no sound came out. He had never been able to speak, not since it had happened.
“Criminals make perfect sacrifices,” the man said, looking at Alder but not meeting his eyes.
“He will suffer the way his parents did,” the woman said, and people around her agreed. His neighbors, the ones he had watched bring their water to the gathering, scowled at him and turned away.
Alder didn't try to fight. There was no point. There were too many, and running during the dry season would only bring on his death faster.
“Tie him up!”
Alder heard Alain protesting, and then he was silenced. Those tying him worked quickly and quietly, stripping his clothes off and binding his ankles with cord, his wrists behind his back. For a sacrifice, it was all very civilized-everyone knew not to waste energy in this heat.
“Leave him in the sun,” the man spoke. “One less to take your water, and one more death to bring the storms faster. Blood magic works.”
Hot tears formed in Alder's eyes, but he was too old to let himself cry. He hadn't wanted their water anyway.
They dragged him into the sun, and the ground underneath him burned. He shut his eyes tightly, and the sun baked him. Nobody watched.
Alder knew that death would come quickly.
The sweating had already begun, and his head swam in the heat. He didn't dare open his eyes, to see the merciless sun beating down on him. His skin was pale, and if he lasted long enough he would be covered in blisters.
He tried to think of his parents. He had been close with them, an only child.
He had survived the heat last year, when their water ran out and their well ran dry. It should have killed him, like it killed his parents, but he had lived, his throat dry and cracked with heat and leaving him mute to defend himself to the villagers when they claimed he stole his parents water. It had never recovered.
A wave of nausea surged through him. Heat sickness was setting in. He rolled over to vomit, nothing but whitish bile. Rolling made him dizzy, and that made the sickness worse.
Soon, nothing came up. Heat surged through him, but he could no longer sweat. The ground spun.
This was fitting. He couldn’t survive again.
He opened his eyes, and was greeted with darkness.
Night had not come. He rolled, impossibly slow, to look up. The sun had been covered, a thick, dark cloud blanketing the village.
Alder almost smiled. The man’s dark magic worked. He had been sacrificed, and the storm had come.
Rain began to pelt the ground, the drops hitting as hard as thrown stones. Alder opened his mouth, instinctively hoping to ease some of his dehydration, before thunder boomed, a fork of lightning splitting the sky and unleashing torrents.
More died each year during the dry season preceding the storms, but the storms themselves were deadly too if caught outside. Wind lashed rain into his face, hard enough that if he were not already prone he would have been knocked over. He could no longer look up; opening his eyes only invited the rain, the cold drops making his dry eyes burn.
Alder lay on his side like sodden rags, listening to the power of the storm. He had not expected to die this way. Water began to pool around him, the flood coming fast despite the dry ground underneath absorbing it. Eventually it would absorb it all, filling the underground wells, but for now the water would run into Alder's nose and mouth, drowning him because he was too weak to move. He tried to drink; it tasted like dust.
Gusts of wind blew over him, whistling in his ears and hair, and he began to shiver with cold despite being overheated just a short time ago. The thunder deafened him, the flashes of lightning only visible as a red sheen behind his eyelids. If one struck him, at least it would be over quickly.
Suddenly, everything calmed. The darkness was accompanied by silence, the pelting rain gone, and for a moment Alder knew he was dead.
Then he heard a strange noise, an animal noise. Something approached in the darkness.
Alder had seen pictures of horses before, but none like this. The four legged form approached him, its coat black as the clouds above and lightning flashes wreathing its mane, arcing down its legs into slate gray hooves. Each footfall barely connected with the ground, and when it tossed its head, leaning down to nuzzle Alder, sparks prickled his skin.
Was this the form of dark magic that the man had summoned?
The horse nudged him harder, and Alder put up a hand, energy filling him as he touched it. The creature’s black eyes regarded him steadily, and it stomped a hoof on the ground, lightning splitting the sky overhead. Thunder rumbled, overhead and in the distance, the hoofbeat magnified tenfold.
The creature nudged him again, and Alder climbed to his feet, sunburned skin screaming. He fell as soon as he gained his feet, the steed kneeling, and Alder climbed onto its back.
Energy thrummed through him, the energy of lightning and life.
The the steed began to run, faster than Alder thought possible, the dry cracked ground a blur underneath its hooves as it hurtled north. Alder shut his eyes, his heart pounding and fluttering with weakness and thunder as he held on.
When he opened them, he had arrived at an enormous castle on the wings of a storm.
Storm Steeds are awesome.
Before Aran can fulfill his dream of becoming a respected mage, he must pass his final exam and bond with an ice dragon. He sets out on his journey and gets along well enough in Arkene-until he meets a highly unusual person with an equally unusual creature.
It’s not just magi that can form magical bonds.
Check out The Final Exam
, my new MS story.