Excerpt: City of Mages

Enjoy the first two chapters of City of Mages for free!

Chapter One

Alara had never forgotten the smell of burning flesh. Smoky. Rich. Metallic. She felt it sear through her, filling her lungs, threatening to choke her as she watched the scene play out.

She had lit someone on fire—again.
This was how she would fail the Haven. Fail Emaru. Fail everyone.
Time seemed frozen in the moment her fire magia had reached out to spark the flames across Raquel’s tunic. The other magite stared, wide-eyed in horror as her sleeve was eaten into ash. Senye Emaru stood behind Alara, a firm hand on her shoulder, squeezing her hard enough to bruise.

She could have turned on her teacher. Yelled that it was her fault for pushing her— threatening to fail her out of school. But the councilwoman wouldn’t have even flinched under her verbal assault. She’d only give Alara the same look of icy disappointment she had given countless times before, whenever the girl had lost control of her magia.

So Alara did the one thing she trusted herself to do—she moved decisively forward, ripping off her thin leather vest and throwing it over Raquel’s arm before she even had time to scream. The heat and light of her magia immediately went out, throwing their small group back into darkness.

The night stilled again as they stared wide-eyed at Alara. It wasn’t the first time her magia had failed her or the group. But it was the first in a long time that she’d accidentally set fire to something while trying to use her mind-stalking ability. She knew what they were all thinking: even a seven-year-old would have had better control.

Raquel threw the singed vest at her feet. “Alara! What in El’dyo’s name is the matter with—”

“We will talk about what just happened later,” Emaru said, putting an end to Raquel’s complaints, though Alara knew her guardian and teacher was less pleased with her. Her was biting—more biting than the chilled mountain air. “But for now, I believe we have company.”

It didn’t take Alara’s mind-stalking abilities to know the enemy bruyas had spotted them and were headed straight toward their huddle. Their footsteps were soft but distinct in the silent night. The villagers of Hurazon had locked themselves away in their homes hours before, leaving Alara and the other magites guarding the perimeter in silence. It left the village eerie and quiet as they waited. Even the faint buzzing of insects was dampened by the thick air, soft and hushed. The plan had been to sneak up on the bruyas and surprise them as they attempted to raid the outskirts of the village. There had been reports of bruya sightings in the area for the past few months, and Emaru had taken on the task as a final test for the magites nearing graduation. This task would show their skill with magia, both in protecting the village and capturing the rebels, and prove that they deserved to join the ranks of full-fledged mages.

“For El’dyo!” Emaru said as the shadows in the cloud forest before them shifted.

The others repeated her words, raising their own weapons and arms. Alara threw her vest back on and snatched her wooden staff from the ground. The heat of her magia pulsed in her chest as if still trying to reach out to the smoldering remains of Raquel’s tunic. Their eyes met for only a second, and she saw a flash of fury. She would definitely hear about it later—she probably owed her a new tunic.

Alara was snapped from her thoughts as an arrow whistled by her head, thudding into a tree a few yards behind her. A moment later, the world exploded. Balls of flame met jets of water. Steam hissed and danced in the air as the two collided.

Beside Alara, Raquel took up her bow and shot arrows into the chaos, her hand moving gracefully as she used her wind magia to aim and turn the arrows in unnatural ways. A few hit their targets—wind-filled crystalized receptives exploding against skulls and wrists, unleashing concussive gusts of wind. Nothing deadly. The Haven didn’t kill. Not even those who threatened their country.

Hearing the sounds of heavy footfalls behind her, Alara whipped around to see a dark- eyed bruya coming at her with a spear. She launched to the side and swung her staff to block the man’s blow then swiped at his legs. Like Alara, he only wore thin armor over his chest. His legs were clothed, but unprotected.

She caught him off guard, and the bruya fell onto his back with a dull thump. But before she could celebrate, a blast of wind shot her off her feet and sent her skidding across the dirt. By the time she stood back up, the bruya was running at her again, this time his spear forgotten on the ground and his arms raised up toward her. Another sharp gust of wind pelted her shoulder, and she stumbled back, hands searching in the dark for her staff. She knew a third strike was imminent. This would have been a good time to use her magia. Any other fire magite would be able to blind him, singe his hands, or block his strides with well-aimed shots of fire.

Instead, Alara braced her body for the third blast of air, letting it strike her just as she launched herself to the right. She flew back a few feet, hitting the ground with a bone-aching thud. Her jaw throbbed as she smiled. Her staff was now only a foot from her hand. His eyes widened as she threw herself at him, staff raised. She struck him across the knees and twisted to jam the butt of the staff into his gut. Even the leather armor he wore couldn’t protect his diaphragm from the sharp hit. He fell forward with a wheeze.

“Cuffs!” Alara shouted, realizing the pair she had worn on her belt were no longer there. Had they fallen during the scuffle? Or when she was trying to save her classmate after her accidental murder attempt?

“I’ve got you.” Mitteo came up behind her. She turned back to grab the cuffs just as his foot caught on a root, knocking him face first into the dirt a few feet away, the cuffs clattering to the ground. By the time she’d finally snatched them off the ground, the bruya she had downed was already gone. She bit her lip as Mitteo stumbled up, face muddy and red. The idea that this magite was going to be graduating from the Haven soon, while she was about to fail out sent a wave of unfettered anger through her. The boy was an earth magite and still tripped over every damn root.

She opened her mouth to berate him, but before she was able to get the words out, a wall of heat burned across her vision and fire veered sharply to the left, just missing her.

She didn’t have to look to know that Emaru had saved her tail with a well-timed burst of air. The mage waved her hands calmly in front of her, the magia strain not even registering as she redirected the gust toward the bruyas, using their own powers against them. She gave a sharp flick, and a fire attack from a long-haired bruya ricocheted off an invisible wall, flying toward his own ally.

“Use your magia to corner them!” Her face was fierce, and even in the dark, Emaru’s gray eyes seemed to glow.

Alara gripped her staff and looked back toward the fight. She raised her hand and took a deep breath. She could feel the heat of the torches in the village’s main plaza, their flames leaning toward her. She reached back toward her own center, to the thread of magia that danced there. But as the wave of heat crawled up her chest, she let out a strangled cry and dropped her hand. The magia immediately dissipated and her body went cool.

“Try again,” Emaru said.
“Right now? Don’t you think—”
“Right now, Alara!”
She lifted her hand again, but couldn’t bring herself to reach toward the flames. Dread curled in her stomach at the feel of her buzzing magia. She shook her head, her arm falling limp to her side.

“Useless child,” Emaru said. “Go help Raquel, then!”
Alara tried not the feel the shame shuddering through her in cold waves as she sprinted to where the other girl fought. Raquel moved gracefully between firing arrows and sending bursts of wind at bruyas. As Alara watched her dodge the magia attacks, a small sense of hopelessness rang through her. The Haven’s strategy would always baffle her.

The magites were fighting to capture. The bruyas fought to kill. They were ruthless in their use of magia. Anything to destroy the Council’s rule. Personally, she didn’t think the bruyas deserved saving, not that she’d ever let Emaru hear her voice such things.

One bruya broke off from the group and moved to flank Raquel.

Alara grabbed the bolas from her belt, relieved they hadn’t fallen wherever her cuffs had. With a sharp twist of her wrist, she sent the bolas flying. The rope struck the bruya just below their knees, the stones wrapping around their legs, snapping tight. The figure went down hard.

Alara sprung forward, hoping to catch the bruya and knock them out. But before she could reach them, the bruya had gripped the rope around their ankles, disintegrating them into ash, then jumped to their feet.

She skidded to a stop. It was a younger boy, likely around her own age. His hair was long, falling into his face and partially covering his eyes that grew wide as she approached.

Alara moved into a fighting stance, ready to take him on. But rather than meet her head- on, the boy turned and bolted in the opposite direction. She watched as he melted into the forest.

He wasn’t the only one. As it turned out, all the bruyas were retreating, tearing through the underbrush from where they’d come.

She took a deep breath and let the humid air fill her lungs, heavy and cool. Sweat dripped down between her shoulder blades under her tunic. The night was again hushed and quiet until the sounds of the forest came alive as the shadows stilled between the moss-draped trees.

The magites themselves were no worse for wear, still standing. Still breathing. Still living. They were scattered across the rocky clearing, the flames of Hurazon flickering just behind them.

They had survived the attack in one piece.

Alara’s smile widened involuntarily, and she thrust her staff up in victory as she took in the tired faces around her. Her gaze found Senye Emaru’s, and the look on her face sent her heart stuttering.

“Fool,” Emaru said. Her voice was cold and pierced the air like a knife. “I should never have brought you along. You are clearly not ready.”

Chapter Two

The words were a slap to the face. Alara lowered her head, tears prickling the corner of her eyes. She could feel the gaze of the other magites on her, particularly Raquel, who was likely wearing her usual told-you-so smirk. Taking a deep breath and choking back the tears, she turned to Emaru with a determined look.

“We chased them away, didn’t we?” she said. “We protected the villagers and their property.”

“For today, maybe,” Emaru said. “But the mission was to capture the bruyas, not scare them away. They could be back tomorrow or the next day. They may even move on to raid another village. You are thinking in the short-term, Alara. And that’s not even mentioning your other failures tonight.”

Alara bit back a response, her face heated. She had always felt the Haven put too much emphasis on students using their magia. She would have been better off tonight not using hers. There’d have been no chance of losing control. So long as the job got done, what did it matter?

But in this case, it didn’t, and to Senye Emaru, it’d be yet another reason why Alara’s abilities needed to be engaged and fully mastered. That very thought filled her with a sense of shame.

Emaru turned to the other magites. “This isn’t over. If you can, get some food and rest. We’ll meet at evening meal. Focus on what went wrong tonight and what we can do differently next time. Think back to our previous lessons.”

“Yes, Senye Emaru,” a few magites said, bowing their heads in acknowledgement before scattering. The eastern edge of the sky was starting to gray and Alara realized with a weary start that morning was already coming.

She turned to follow the group back toward the plaza, but Emaru placed her hand hard on Alara’s shoulder. “No, not you.”

She sighed, defeated. Avoidance wasn’t going to be an option.

Raquel caught Alara’s eye and gave her a small smile and wave as the others walked away, her lopsided tunic growing clearer in the slowly creeping dawn. Alara looked away, too tired and ashamed to even think about Raquel.

She already had to deal with whatever speech Senye Emaru had planned. For all she knew, this could very well mean the end of her career at the Haven.

Senye Emaru steered her toward a large tree stump on the edge of the woods. Alara collapsed, exhausted, as her teacher gently took her own seat. She didn’t look up to meet her gaze and instead focused on the ground. She knew what she’d see if she looked up—Emaru’s bright gray eyes shining with disappointment, the loose strands of her black and silver hair falling gracefully over her creased brow.

“I put my neck out for you to get you on this mission,” Emaru said. “Jorye doesn’t think you’re ready. And Lena Cruz doesn’t think you ever will be. But I thought maybe if I just challenged you more, pushed you a little harder, you’d finally prove them wrong.” Her voice was soft, which made Alara’s chest feel even tighter.

She wished Emaru would just yell at her.
“Alara, ever since I met you, I knew you were special. Do you know why?”
Her shoulders slumped as she answered. “Because I’m a mind-stalker.”
“You’re not just any mind-stalker. You’re a powerful one—more powerful than me. And you know how big my ego is.”
Alara had to give a weak smile back. Emaru had said it as a joke, but it was truer than even she realized.
“With your abilities, we could save so many more bruyas. We could bring them to

El’dyo’s path and allow them to use their magia for the good of all of Sombria. Your powers could do that. You could do that.”

“Or,” Alara said, doing her best to fight back the tone of defiance that came so naturally to her, “I can do all that without having to resort to my mind-stalking abilities. I’m better at fighting without my magia. You saw me! I can use a spear better than any other magite.”

“You can’t just punch your way through every problem.”
“Hence the spear.”
“I’m not joking, Alara.” Emaru’s voice somehow took on a more serious tone. “We wouldn’t have had to fight so hard if you could have narrowed in on the bruyas and given us the ability to strategize. You should have been able to sense exactly where they were. You should have told us their numbers. And we should have saved some of them tonight.”

Alara chewed the inside of her lip. She and Emaru had had this fight so many times she’d lost track. “You know I tried, don’t you? I tried to use my mind-stalking, but it was just a mess of energy and people. When I pushed harder I... Raquel could have...”
She couldn’t finish the sentence; acid burned bitter in her stomach.
“Stop lying to me and stop lying to yourself!” Emaru’s voice was sharp. “What happened with Raquel was due to your own unwillingness to control your magia. Your fire magia shouldn’t come out when using your mind-stalking abilities. You’re better than that.”

“Or maybe you just need to admit that your precious daughter just isn’t cut out to be a mage!”

Emaru’s eyes widened. It was as though Alara had plunged a knife straight into her chest. It had hurt her to say it, though perhaps there was more truth to it than even she wanted to admit.

“Where do you think that’ll take you?” Emaru said, her voice low. “You want to be a member of the councilguard, yes?”

“I’m already a better fighter than many of them. Ardo doesn’t have any magia, and he’s a councilguard.”

“Exactly. Ardo doesn’t have any abilities. You do. The councilguard does not tolerate untrained mages in their ranks. The Council will not budge on this.” Emaru gave a heavy sigh and stood up from the stump. “Today when the relief arrives, you’re going to head back to the Haven. You’re done with this mission.”


“No, Alara. Your chances are running low. If you don’t open yourself up to your abilities, you will never be a mage. That means you will never join the School of Protectors, and you will never be a member of the councilguard.” She turned and stalked away, not even giving Alara a chance to respond.

She was left slouched on the stump, her dark knotted curls falling across her face. She looked down at her hands, staring numbly at the mud caked in the lines of her palms. A few callouses beneath the mud were red, one even bloody, likely ripped open by her staff during the fight. She hadn’t even felt the stinging until she saw the blood.

Bleary-eyed, she looked up past the tree line and noticed the stars had faded away. She could just make out pale pink in the eastern sky, coming over the rolling green mountains. When would the next round of guards come to relieve them? How much longer did she have until they took her home? While councilguards didn’t interfere with these missions and tests, they were always around in case of an emergency, as backup to the in-training magites—something she feared she’d always be.

Exhausted, but too defeated to go back to the tents and risk running into Raquel, Alara wandered along the eastern edge of the town. Most of the trees had been cleared away from the main parts of Hurazon. The town was made up of multiple stone-lined ledges, the land flattened in layers for building. Even here, so close to the ocean, the land was sloping, rising quickly away from the River Sur that ran at the center of the valley. Trees loomed large on the outskirts of the town, some brushing up against houses as they grew. Ferns, bushes, and underbrush edged out from the woods and crowded the boundaries of the town. Dew was heavy on the leaves this morning and they sparkled in the wan light of dawn. It was the end of the wet season and everything glowed with green from the constant rain of the previous months.

Hurazon was one of the larger towns on the outskirts of Sombria. Given its position along the western coast, it served as one of several key ports. As large as it was, however, it was still dwarfed by Cielo, the sprawling city that wrapped around the mountain of the same name. And within the confines of the mountain itself was the Haven, where Alara had lived most of her life.

The mornings in Hurazon weren’t exactly quiet; there were plenty of villagers milling about their homes to feed their alpacas, l’lamas, and guinea pigs. Others watered their crops or tended to their morning cook fires. Yet it was still unbelievably empty compared to the Haven and Cielo.

She almost found the relative silence calming, despite the anger still raging inside her from her conversation with Emaru. She replayed it in her head, coming up with new arguments to convince her she was wrong—that she would be a great councilguard with or without her powers.

She approached a small stone ledge bordering the south side of the village, a few yards from the churning waters of the river. It rushed with the recent rains, its banks already wide here as it headed toward the bay and the open sea

The stones that were placed tightly together to create the ledge were overgrown with moss, which added padding as she sat. She ignored the dew that soaked through her thin trousers, and looked out into the densely packed forest. Shivering slightly in the morning air, she realized she was still wearing her fighting gear and didn’t have a scarf or poncho to shut out the cold. Goosebumps crawled up the length of her arms and sent a chill through her body with each passing breeze, though she was far too stubborn to head back into her tent after having just sat down.

She absently ran a finger along the ridges of scar tissue that lined her lower cheek and neck, running through her argument with Emaru repeatedly. She became emboldened with each pass she made of the conversation... until she inevitably made it back to the very end, where Emaru reminded her of the Haven’s way. That unless she became a mage, she could not become a councilguard.

She sighed, breathing out her last bit of defiance as her teacher’s words sank in.

Her head sat heavy in her hands, her skin pale from lack of sleep. Closing her eyes, she played with the thread of magia that danced in her chest. It was warm and sent a wave of heat through her as she touched it, making her shudder. As it rose, a tingle materialized at the back of her mind, her mind-stalking abilities weaving with her fire magia. It was a barely-there sense of something—someone. Alara gave a heavy sigh. One mage was coming up behind her. Emaru.

Alara let out a bitter bark. “I’m opening myself up. I know you’re there. Are you happy?”

She spun around with a scowl, weariness drowning out her tolerance for Emaru. But it wasn’t Emaru who she made eye contact with when she turned. Instead, a dark-skinned girl who looked about her own age stood a few meters away, clasping a small bag. Her tan dress was embroidered simply with red and yellow yarn, marking her as a villager.

“You!” Alara jumped up, her own eyes going wide with shock. “You have magia!”

“W-what?” The girl’s voice trembled, and she took a step back. Alara caught movement out of the corner of her eye, seeing Raquel turning the corner around a squat stone building. She was looking at both of them in shock, a bowl of quinoa in her hands. As the village girl turned to flee, Raquel didn’t hesitate. The bowl fell to the ground, yellow grains of quinoa scattering in the dirt. In an instant, Raquel had pulled out her bow and shot a receptive-tipped arrow directly at the girl’s head.

She let out a quick yelp as a blast of air exploded at the back of her skull, and she crumpled to the ground.