The demons come, devouring life and light. Armed with sword and spell, Keepers meet the scourge. Above nations, beyond the law, to be a Keeper is to hold power–but power always comes with a price.
Introducing Burning Bright, the first book of the Seize the Fire trilogy.
Burning Bright, Chapter One
by KD Sarge
“Keeper-Apprentice Kunihiro Takai,” Ume said, “well done. Harmony herself, Lady of Harvests, would be pleased to call this place home. She might even bring the twins, Binder and Unwinder, which holy children—”
“Little thanks to you.” Hiro pushed a book on the shelf nearest him more in line with its fellows. There. The little library was perfect. The kitchen behind him sparkled. The porch was neat, the garden weeded, Eshan’s bedroom freshened…he never should have let it get so bad. But now Eshan would never know.
“I did my part,” Ume said, flopping into the big chair Eshan curled up in on winter evenings. “I trotted up here and warned you the healers were letting him go today.” She flung long brown legs over the arm as she sprawled. “And when you asked for help, I told you. Demons to be defeated? Drunkery to be debauched? I’m in. Cooking, cleaning, sewing, minding? Not this wench. Especially if I’m not allowed to use magic.”
“No water—or flames—near the books. That would be worse than the mess. If Keeper Kisaragi came home to a ruined library…” Hiro shuddered. So did Ume.
“Much worse,” she agreed. “But now that you’ve cleaned up two months of apprentice on his own, washed dishes, dusted books, swept hearths, washed bedding and polished floors, do you want me to call some water for you? It saddens me to say to a cherished friend, but Hiro—my colleague, my swordmate, my dear honored Keeper-Apprentice Hiro Takai—you reek. You don’t want to offend the discerning nose of our revered Keeper-Adept Kisaragi, do you?”
Hiro weighed her offer. She wouldn’t be, he knew, in any way gentle. She’d probably just reroute a stream over his head. And the nearest stream was the glacier-fed one skittering over the rocks of its bed in the back garden.
On the other hand, it would be quicker than going down to the baths.
No one had told Hiro that his master was leaving the healing villa today. No one had told Ume either, and the little she’d overheard had not contained any details. Eshan might come at any time, and Hiro had no intention of being elsewhere when he did. And once Eshan was home… Though Eshan tried to hide it, Hiro knew well that his master was not fully healed. Once Eshan was home, Hiro wouldn’t be leaving his master’s side for days.
“Thank you,” he said to Ume. “Let me get a clean uniform.” He turned for the little hall to the bedrooms.
“And soap!” Ume called after him. “Cleanliness finds favor in the eyes of Harmony as Bounty! You want her favors, right?”
Hiro shook his head as he rooted through the mess of his own room, rated unimportant in the press of cleaning. He wasn’t terribly religious, but Ume’s irreverence often gave him pause. Eshan said the cynicism of the learned was wrong—that the gods were real and a wise man did not call their attention.
Ume, of course, would say that she was neither wise, nor a man.
In the garden, Hiro stood on the terrace that could use a rinse anyway, since birds had been occupying it in his master’s absence. He had barely set aside his clothes when, as expected, Ume waved her arm dramatically and dumped half a melted glacier over his head. He gritted his teeth and scrubbed at his body until the world started to spin and he half-fell onto the bench.
“Islahi dumol! ” Ume snapped and the water drained away from Hiro and hurried back where it belonged. She grinned at Hiro.
“Too much water for you, fire-boy?”
Hiro clamped his teeth to keep his stomach where it belonged.
“All right?” Ume asked, losing the grin as she brought him a towel. “You’ve gone all pale. It’s not that cold.”
“I’m fine,” Hiro gasped past chattering teeth as Ume wrapped the towel around his shoulders. And he was, or should be. How many times had he washed in that stream, choosing to endure the cold over the time and effort of going to the baths?
“Did you eat this morning?” Ume asked. “Or did some fool of a redhead think he’d work all day on an empty stomach?”
“I…had to clean before I could cook,” Hiro admitted, feeling the nausea and weakness ebb. “And once I started cleaning I didn’t stop.”
“Fool of a redhead,” Ume said, the grin coming back. “I’ll raid the kitchen.”
“You’ll make a mess!”
“I can steal food!”
“Apprentice Kunihiro Takai,” said a Keeper standing under the ladylace tree, “you are summoned.”
Even as a stranger, she sounded much too formal for someone addressing a dripping and naked apprentice, and she was in full uniform down to her gloves. Hiro took his cue from that.
“Keeper, I answer,” he said, standing. “Is there time to dress?”
“Dress yourself,” she ordered. “Bring your sword.”
“At once, Keeper,” Hiro said. He grabbed Ume’s arm and dragged her through the garden door into his room.
“Hiro, what did you do?” Ume whispered as the door closed. “She’s not here to fetch you to Keeper Kisaragi’s homecoming.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Hiro grumbled, toweling his hair roughly.
“Want me to—”
“No!” Last time he’d let anyone bespell his hair… “Thank you. Ume, will you go to Master Kisaragi? Please tell him of this summons. The last time a Keeper wanted words with me—”
“Oh!” Ume grabbed his arm. “Hiro! It’s time! Everyone’s been talking about how you defended yourself, how Hiro Takai fought a Master Keeper and lived—I bet it’s your Kindling!”
At last! “If it’s time, he’ll be there, then,” Hiro said, pulling on his best uniform. He swallowed hard to fight a sudden rush of nerves. He’d do well. He would. He’d never embarrass his master.
“I’ll make sure he’s there.” Ume planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek. “Burn bright, fire-boy!” she said and ran out the door.
Hiro followed his guide to a tower room where three Keepers sat, all in formal robes and none of them his master. Eshan wasn’t there as a spectator either. Hiro’s guide melted to the wall as the seated Keepers, each a white-cuffed adept, examined him. Shoulder cords told him their specialties—brown earth, blue water, pale blue air.
Hiro stood at attention, his feet apart, and waited. The Keepers waited too, but Hiro’s master was Keeper-Adept Eshan Kisaragi. Hiro didn’t like it, but he had learned the width and breadth of patience.
Long before Eshan would have spoken, the adept in the middle cleared her throat. A tall brunette with curly hair and a stunning smile not in evidence at the moment, she was Keeper-Adept Marian.
“Apprentice Takai,” Adept Marian began, “you were called, and you have answered. Do you—”
“Forgo the formality, I beg,” the earth-mage interrupted. “His recent luck aside, reports are clear that this redheaded child is not ready. Despite five years as an apprentice. Let us prove it and move on.”
The quick-eyed air-mage saw Hiro tighten his jaw, no doubt, but Hiro didn’t answer the adept as he wished to—by naming five red-haired and much-honored Keepers including the founder of the order—and he didn’t glare either, so the small man let it go. Whether they tested his manners, his casting, or his swordwork, Hiro would not embarrass Eshan’s teaching.
“We will allow him his chance,” Adept Marian said, patting the other’s arm. “But we may hasten by the formalities if the candidate has no objection?” She raised an eyebrow at Hiro. He gripped his belt and answered.
“I need no time to prepare, Keeper-Adept.”
The earth-mage snorted. And flicked his fingers. Hiro didn’t move, but the spell-cast pebble deflected an inch from his shin and skittered across the floor.
The air-mage sniffed. Hiro’s uniform fluttered about him, until he found the knot of the simple spell and untied it. The adept sat back. Adept Marian hid a smile.
“If the two of you are satisfied, we can continue with the trial.” She looked to the earth-mage, who bounced his head on his hand. The air-mage jerked his chin in a nod. “Apprentice Takai, sufficient doubt has been cast on your ability,” Adept Marian said, “that we will begin with a trial. If you fail, or if you choose, you may stop. You will be assigned a new teacher and allowed one final trial in a year’s time.”
A new—! Hiro gripped his belt to keep from reaching for his sword. Did they think a better teacher than Eshan Kisaragi could be found? Ever?
“If you succeed,” she said, “if you then choose to proceed to your Kindling—which will be far more difficult than this trial—you cannot turn back. You will not rest. You will not eat. You will not stop until you are a Keeper or you are dead.” She stared at him for a long moment, letting her words sink in before she spoke again. “Apprentice, will you proceed?”
“Of course, Adept.” How else could he show them how wrong they were to doubt Eshan Kisaragi?
Around Hiro a shield sprang up, iridescent as a soap-bubble. Now he put a gloved hand to his sword.
“Prepare yourself,” Adept Marian said, and the light in the globe vanished.
Lost in soft darkness, Hiro mumbled protest and sank back toward the depths. The whisper returned.
“Hiro Takai, blast your red head! Answer me!”
“Ume?” Hiro’s eyes sprang open to stare at a pattern of silver light. Moonlight, he realized. On a wall. Shining through a screen behind him.
“Ume!” He ought to know that whisper. Hiro sat up and cursed as his head spun, but he unlatched the screen and a moment later Ume eeled over the sill and landed on his lap and hugged him.
“Thorn and havoc, I thought I’d never find you! Why didn’t you answer me?”
“I…did.” Hiro blinked as slowly his mind collected itself and all the things wrong began to stand out. He was not in his bed, and the loose sleep shirt he wore was not his. Ume looked dirty and harried, and that should not be in the place he’d finally recognized as the healing villa.
“Hiro, I’ve been looking for you since the ritual, and I know I’ve gone past that window at least three times!”
Ritual. The…Kindling. Something— “Something went wrong.”
“You noticed,” Ume growled, and shook her head. “Thorn, here it comes. I get this—” She stopped talking, and her chin lifted. She straightened, sliding into a formal kneeling position at the foot of the bed. Then she opened her mouth, but it wasn’t—quite—her voice that came from it.
“Kunihiro Takai,” she said with a timbre that tugged at Hiro’s memory, “my humblest apologies, to you and to Ume. I have failed.”
“Eshan!” Eshan had—coerced Ume? Why? How? They said it couldn’t be done! “Eshan?”
The speech went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “—to make certain you received this message. I have failed you, but still I would save you if I can. I beg of you, do not let the Keepers push you to your Kindling. If ever you have trusted me, heed me now—do not let this happen.”
If? When had Hiro ever questioned Eshan? Though clearly he should have. Five years he’d taught Hiro—
“Convince Ume if you can,” the message continued, “if my betrayal has not already persuaded her. No Keeper is to be trusted. Take your lives while they are yours and go.” Ume’s head bowed, and the voice grew softer. “It has been my honor and my delight to be your teacher, Hiro. I…wish you joy, and the blessings of the Lady.”
Teacher? Honored and delighted to be Hiro’s teacher?
Flashes of skin on skin, touches in the dark—Hiro shook the memory from his head.
“That was it?” Ume tilted her head. “No horrendous warning of the end of the age?” She blinked a couple times. “He’s…not coming back, is he?”
Hiro blinked, and realized she was right. Warning aside, Eshan had sent the message to say goodbye.
“When did he—”
“Force himself on me?” Ume bit her lip. “Hiro, why? If he just wanted me to give you a message—”
“No, listen!” Her hand shot out, grabbed Hiro’s wrist. “Later! We can talk about it later. When I was sneaking into the compound, I heard the adepts arguing. Hiro, they were debating whether they should kill you or bind you, and one said you never should have left the ritual alive and it wasn’t too late to rectify it and a couple of them agreed!”
Hiro stared at her.
“Hiro,” Ume breathed, her eyes wide and overflowing, “Rilka agreed.” Rilka, Ume’s master, had many times dragged Hiro to her kitchen and fed him. Now he felt punched in the stomach.
“You’ve got to get out of here,” Ume said.
Fire and darkness danced through Hiro’s mind—fire and darkness and chanting and pain, and voices apart from the chanting debating letting him die.
Now they discussed killing him.
“Take your lives while they are still yours and go,” Eshan had said. Once more Hiro moved to obey.
“Ume, he did it to protect you,” he said as he flung off the blankets. It had to be. For Eshan to coerce anyone, especially an apprentice— “So that it’s not your fault that I was warned.” He bounded out of the bed and grabbed the wall to stay upright, and felt wrong. So wrong he actually looked at his body to count limbs. Then he staggered on to the closet to find his ritual clothing. Blackened and burned…? “My sword isn’t here.”
“It has to be near. Can you feel it?” Ume bounced to her feet. “I’ll go.”
“No.” Hiro turned from the closet, trying to judge where he was in the compound. “No, don’t go looking; yes, I do feel it. I’ll get my sword. Please bring me clothes. I need nothing else.”
“Idiot.” Ume shook her head. “The adepts are in this building. No one out there—” she jerked her head at the window, “—is awake. You get clothes and food from the stores. I’ll get your sword and meet you by the tri-split rock.”
“Oh, please.” She flashed a grin. “Everyone knows redheads can’t sneak. Even when they can stand up without holding onto walls.”
“Ume, Eshan didn’t want to endanger—”
“And I’ll kick him when I see him,” Ume growled. “He knew, Hiro. I don’t know what yet, but he knew, and that piddly warning, too little too late, was all we got.”
Eshan knew, yes. And left Hiro to find his own escape. Worse than a punch, that thought was a flaming knife twisted in his chest.
“So,” Ume put her hands on her hips. “You’re my friend, you can barely walk, and you’re in danger. Try and make me not help.”
Hiro had to admit she was right on all counts, but he didn’t have to say it out loud. Instead he stepped onto the bed to go out the window, and stared at the sinking moon. “Ume? Why—how long has it been?”
“Five days, Hiro. The full moon is past and we begin our flight on the waning. Destruction and trouble will surely follow.”
“Joy.” Hiro shot a grumpy glare at the broken edge of the moon then climbed/fell out the window.
Mountain-born Hiro had never had more trouble walking up a hill. He stumbled and fell against the storehouse wall, catching himself with a smack that made him cringe. He held onto the wall, waiting for his balance to return. He felt as he had when first learning the sword—as if he’d grown an extra limb, and everything he knew how to do must be re-learned. He could not think of the Keepers’ betrayal, nor of Eshan’s abandonment, because he must keep his mind on walking lest he fall. Eventually, though, he saw his goal on the shadowed slope above him.
A looming tower of stone split into three prongs, and at night the tips of the column caught moonlight that didn’t reach into the dell the rock poked from. Keep legend said the captain had cracked the tri-split rock long before she became Tzukita’s captain, but the reasons varied. Some said she’d been showing off, impressing a know-it-all apprentice. Others—Adept Rilka in particular—said the goal hadn’t been impressing, and the rock hadn’t been the intended target. Adept Rilka sometimes claimed she herself had been the target, while praising Ume for not being the kind of student she’d been.
Hiro wondered if Ume thought of the story as she stood in the dark of the dell waiting for him, only the glint of a smile revealing that she’d been much faster in her search than he had. Then he stumbled, almost falling down the slope, and she jumped to get a shoulder under his arm. Like Hiro, she wore casual clothes and not a uniform. She also had a pack, and two swords tucked in her belt. Blast it.
“Ume, think. If you—”
“Shut it, Takai.” Ume shoved him to put his back to the rock, then took her hands off him and he almost lost her in the shadows. He thought she crossed her arms, though. “I am thinking, as you clearly are not.” She poked his chest, hard. “Consider. Six days ago, Adept Kisaragi left, apparently without a word to anyone but me, except those words weren’t for me—they were for you. Do you believe for one moment that he left you behind willingly?”
When she put it that way— “No. But—”
“Not done, Takai.” She tugged a lock of his hair, hard. She had always been very free with his hair. “Consider further.” Hiro wished she’d stop sounding like Adept Rilka. “Keepers are sworn to restrict their use of higher magics to the fighting of demons alone. He coerced me, breaking that vow, because he felt his warning was that important. Eshan Kisaragi broke a vow and used coercion. Knowing him as you do, are you fool enough to deny for even a moment that he would have taken you, damn his orders, to keep you safe had he been going somewhere safe?”
That— “Thorn and bloody blazing briars!” Hiro swore. He’d followed Eshan to battle demons how many times? What mission could be so much more dangerous?
“So glad your wits have caught up,” Ume muttered. “So. You’re my friend and you’re in danger. My own master would have you killed because Keepers—Adepts!—cast havoc and thorn on you, fumbling a centuries-old ritual. Like it seems Adept Kisaragi knew they would. And if I stay for my Kindling, they might just do the same to me—he did say I should flee as well.” She poked Hiro again. “Exactly why were you thinking I should stay here again?”
“Because—” Hiro groped for a reason and only came up with truth. “Ume, I…have no idea where he is. You’re not wrong. He left without a word. I thought he was coming home.”
“Are you telling me, Hiro Takai, that with all the times you two have shared magic, you can’t devise a way to find him?”
“I…” Hiro shook his head. “I don’t think my wits have caught up after all.”
“No fear,” Ume said, holding out his sword. “I’ll look after you.” She tilted her head toward the east. “Dawn comes. We’d better go before they find you missing.”
“Yes,” Hiro said, and set off uphill. Again it felt as if he had too many limbs or not enough. Walking was easier, though, and Ume helped him, so he had attention to spare for new awareness. He could feel his goal above him on the slope, through it he sensed currents he’d never known before…
“We could just leap the gates,” Ume pointed out, waving a hand down-slope.
“And be followed in moments,” Hiro returned. Not that Keepers couldn’t follow anywhere they went. It was possible to make it difficult, though. Ume didn’t speak again as Hiro led her to the Watchstone, but she gasped.
“You did it? They said the ritual failed!”
“Something failed,” Hiro snapped, “but it was not me.” He put his hand to the stone. Despite the urgency, he paused a moment to marvel. A few times when they Traveled by themselves over the last half-year, Eshan had placed Hiro’s hand on his so he could feel the currents of energy as his master directed their Travel, but Hiro had never touched one alone before.
Standing a hand taller than him and as wide as a door on all four sides, the dark stone was warm under his fingertips though it was nearly dawn of summer on the edge of fall. Hiro had thought the warmth came only from Eshan’s hand. Always the Keeper had looked so cool, so distant, yet when Hiro managed to get close enough—
Hiro pushed the memory—pushed all distraction away and directed his will into the patterns he remembered. Of all the ways a Keeper could navigate the stones, his teacher had explained, two were simplest. One was to seek the essence of someone at the end of the journey, his hand on that far Watchstone. But if Hiro did find someone to guide him at this random time, odds were he would kill everyone involved by Traveling to the same place as another Keeper at the same time. And even if Lord Havoc in his guise as the Luck-Child smiled on Hiro for once and everyone survived, he would still be standing before an experienced Keeper who knew Hiro had no right to be there.
The other way he would still be guided. The Watchstones were set all around the world in a pattern intended to take a Keeper to the site of an incursion. Popping them into the middle of a battle, perhaps, but what else was he going to do? Hiro sent out his senses until he felt the wrongness of a demon incursion, took Ume’s wrist, and willed them both toward it, pushing the patterns in his mind into the stone as he stepped forward.
Burning Bright will be available for purchase November 1st.