Excerpt: Arson of the Heart

Toma hurried through the night, dragging his thick cloak tightly around him as he ducked through the shadows cast by the widely spaced lanterns. He could extinguish them easily, but that would draw too much attention and he was doing his best to be sneaky.

Not that he thought he was succeeding. Epsen was too smart; no doubt he knew exactly where Toma was and would catch him at the last possible second, to prolong the agony.

Stifling a hearty sigh, Toma ducked into a dark, smelly alleyway, ignoring thoughts of what might be causing the rank smell. Leaning against the wall, he forced himself to calm down and catch his breath.

A soft scuff of boot was his only warning, and then heavy hands settled on Toma’s shoulders, dragging him away from the wall. Toma yelped, startled at the sudden movement, and barely resisted the impulse to catch the man’s clothes on fire.

It was a good thing he had resisted, because this was not Epsen, who could withstand such an assault.

“Let go—”

“Hush, now,” the man hissed at him, his voice deep and amused. Toma tried to jerk away, but the man’s grip was too strong.

“Let go,” Toma repeated, nailing his assailant with a well-placed kick to the shin. Twisting away, he ran right back into the wall, but he didn’t pause, pushing off the brick and ducking towards the opening of the alley. There was a reason you weren’t supposed to go down dark, smelly alleys.

He barely got two steps before he was grabbed again, from behind. The man was much stronger than he was, and Toma didn’t even get a chance to yelp again before a broad hand was clamped over his mouth.

A hand that smelled sweet, clean and flowery…like the standard-issue soap dispensed at the college baths. Toma stopped struggling, confused; if this was one of Epsen’s cohorts, why was he not calling out that he’d caught Toma?

“Gonna stay quiet now?” The man asked, his grip relaxing a little. He had one arm wrapped tightly around Toma’s waist, pinning Toma against his broad body. The other arm was draped heavily over Toma’s shoulder, hand clamped over Toma’s mouth to keep him quiet.

“Who?” Toma asked as the hand fell away. The man didn’t release him though, holding him rather intimately close.

“A friend,” the man said, chuckling softly. “Don’t run off now, we’ve still got to get you those last five blocks to the rendezvous point.”

“How do you know that?” Toma asked suspiciously, wondering if this was another trick of Epsen’s.

“Heard that brat talking about it.” The man shrugged, loosening his grip on Toma’s waist. “Come on, let’s get you there and have done with this nonsense.”

Toma made a protesting noise, struggling out of the lax grip. “It’s a requirement—”

“Oh, it is not,” the man dismissed, and Toma gasped as a sudden, sharp chill fell over him. The air around them darkened, and Toma’s eyes widened in shock.

“A shadow mage?” Toma asked weakly—there were only three of them at the college, so that narrowed down the who rather drastically. Especially as the other two shadow mages were female students. Which meant he was currently in the company of none other than Professor Lajos Misyk.

“I can keep them from seeing us, but not from hearing you,” Lajos said with good humor, and Toma flushed deeply, shutting his mouth with a click. “Come on then.”

Toma nodded, ducking his head and letting Lajos lead him from the alleyway. Lajos reached out and grabbed his wrist in a loose grip—more guiding than restraining—and pulled him into the dimly lit street.

It was odd, looking out from the sphere of darkness. Everything was muted, dimmer, and in the night air, harder to see. Toma stumbled over the uneven pavement more than once as they made their way towards the designated rendezvous point. Lajos seemed to have no trouble, just steadied Toma wordlessly whenever he tripped.

A few minutes of walking and they were there. The straw dummy was set up in the center of the clearing—but also in the middle of a giant water fountain. Toma’s heart sank a little—it was obviously soaked through, which meant it would take no ordinary firespell to set it alight.

Epsen was waiting. He hadn’t seen them yet, lounging unconcernedly at the fountain’s edge. He looked bored and a little smug—as well he might be. The dummy Toma was supposed to burn to ash was sopping wet, and in no way fit to be fired.

It was cheap and it was cheating and Toma was utterly sick to death of such tricks. Epsen and his cohorts were complete and utter bastards, never playing fair and always, always deriding him and thinking less of him because he was from out-country. Scowling, Toma narrowed his eyes and tugged at his wrist where it was still caught in Lajos’s grip.

Lajos didn’t let go, and the courtyard was sufficiently bright for Toma to see the frown on his face.

“Let go,” Toma hissed angrily under his breath. What was it with these Marjans and their need to push everyone around?

“Rigged,” Lajos muttered, trying to draw him away. Toma dug in his heels, turning back towards the center of the clearing. Calling up the strongest, hottest fire he could, he flung the flickering, sky-blue flames at the dummy.

It caught fire and incinerated immediately, a cloud of steam hissing to life as the dummy fell to ash. Epsen didn’t even get a chance to turn and look before it was completely destroyed. The shadow spell slipped away from him as Lajos let go of his wrist—leaving Lajos still cloaked—and Toma took advantage of it to turn away from the clearing, fury making his blood run hot and fast.

Epsen was spluttering behind him, but Toma paid him no mind. He’d met the challenge, he’d played Epsen’s little game, and now he was done. Stalking back towards the college, Toma focused on not catching anything on fire accidentally and not at all on Epsen’s games or the baffling behavior of one of the senior professors.