Excerpt: Battle of Will

The Kirfan Meadow was located along the border between Skirfall and Morcia, spanning some three miles in length and twice that in width. It had been the site of some of the bloodier battles of the war, and it only made sense to hold the memorial ceremony there. The sky was overcast, lending to the somber air and the hush that dampened the noise from the people gathered for the ceremony.

Mostly soldiers, Ackley noted as he made his way through the crowd. No doubt they had been ordered to attend, and Ackley smothered a sneer, composing his face. He recognized few of them, and those who knew him turned quickly before he could catch their eyes. Their avoidance made it easier to walk forward, continue through the crowd. He should linger at the back, away from the royal entourage, but Ackley refused to be cowed. They’d dismissed him, thrown him out with barely more than the clothes on his back; he refused to give them his pride on top of it.

It was easy to get to the front of the crowd, and Ackley lingered there in the shadow of a soldier who was a good foot taller than him and twice again as wide. It gave him a decent view of the open space at the center of the clearing. Two flags were planted in the ground: the gold sunburst on green of Skirfall and the white crescent on blue of Morcia. They waved in the chill wind, and Ackley wondered cynically how long the truce would last.

Not long, not if he knew Prince Taceo’s intentions. Taceo had made no secret of his hatred of Morcia, too consumed with his rage over his brother’s death in battle against them. Never mind all the loved ones that further war would kill. Ackley pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders, trying to block out the chill wind that blew through the meadow. Winter was coming early this year it seemed.

Ackley scanned the crowd, unsurprised to find the Skirfallans and Morcians were keeping completely separate. The Skirfall soldiers were thinning out, and Ackley found he was closer to the Morcians than he’d realized—likely one reason he’d been able to reach the front of the crowd with such ease.

The Morcian royal party was easy to spot: the Crown Prince, Beorn Ealdwin stood in front, his cloak a deep violet with golden trim. As per the truce agreement, he and his contingent bore no visible weapons, but Ackley doubted that meant they carried none. The Morcians weren’t stupid, even if they had an archaic stance on magic.

Ackley looked then for Prince Taceo, wondering what had finally forced him to consider even a temporary truce. Ackley doubted it was the death of the advisor who was one of the many being honored at the memorial ceremony. It little mattered, he supposed; he had more pressing matters to worry over, such as where he was going to go and how he was going to survive the winter. Honestly, he should be tending to those matters now, but Advisor Frewer had been one of the last few good men in the Skirfallan advisory council and Ackley wanted to pay his respects.

The blood in Ackley’s veins froze when he locked eyes with Daralis Lambrick across the meadow. What was he doing here? Daralis was one of the few mage-interrogators employed by the crown to get information out of prisoners. He should have been in the palace, in the capital three day’s ride to the south, not attending a memorial ceremony that was supposed to be cementing the truce between Skirfall and Morcia.

Daralis smirked at him, looking smug and far too pleased with himself. Ackley didn’t rise to the taunt, only continued staring steadily at Daralis until he looked away. Taceo hadn’t promoted Daralis to his place, had he? No, Taceo would never—Daralis didn’t have the right training, and Taceo would never give up one of his prized mage-interrogators. Ackley frowned, watching as Daralis stared down the field—at the Morcian royal party.

Surely Taceo wouldn’t try an assassination attempt … but then, Prince Beorn Ealdwin was the only heir to the Morcian throne. Killing him would throw Morcia into upheaval. Killing him with magic would be rubbing salt in the wound, considering Morcia’s stance on magic. Ackley shifted from foot to foot, glancing from Prince Ealdwin to Daralis, and then scanning the crowd for Taceo. The ceremony was supposed to begin any moment; Taceo should be in a place of prominence like the Morcian royal party. Taceo was nowhere to be seen, however, and that did nothing to reassure Ackley.

He was overreacting, Ackley tried to reassure himself. Taceo liked to make grand entrances, and the memorial ceremony likely wouldn’t be any different. For all he knew, Daralis had been needed nearby—though for what, Ackley couldn’t say, since there was a truce and therefore no more interrogations to be held.

Shifting nervously again, Ackley tried to ignore the way the hair on the back of his neck rose. He wasn’t a bodyguard any longer. He didn’t have anything to do with either royal family, so he shouldn’t care what Taceo was up to or how much danger the Morcian Crown Prince was in. Still, he couldn’t help tapping into his magical energy and pulling it forward, at the ready in case something went down.

The soldiers were getting restless, though a quick glance at the Morcian royal party showed no signs of alarm or anxiety. The entire contingent, Prince Ealdwin included, stood stock still, as though carved of stone. Ackley took a deep breath, settling himself, and switched back to watching Daralis.

A long, loud, single-note whistle cut through the subdued murmur of the crowd, and Ackley’s blood ran cold. It was a signal, no doubt, and the way Daralis’s mouth curved, it was meant for him. His skin prickled at the wash of magic as Daralis tapped into his own energy to pull up whatever spell he was meant to cast.

Those idiots. If Ackley had still had his position, he would have lost it all over again protesting the stupidity of this move. Releasing the tight grip he had on his cloak, Ackley didn’t hesitate, stepping forward. Daralis was already throwing his magic behind whatever spell he intended to inflict on the Morcian royal party, and Ackley reached out with his own magic, no time to find the best counter, and threw it at Daralis’s spell.

The force of his magic leaving him made Ackley sway slightly, but he kept his feet, moving towards the Morcians even as he realized his block hadn’t worked and Daralis’s spell reached them. It hit like a physical wall, obviously targeted to Prince Ealdwin as he stumbled back under the force of it. Something sharp and painful snapped in Ackley’s chest, and he gasped, pressing both hands to his heart.

His vision washed out, lost in a sea of white, and Ackley struggled to clear his head. What the hell had just happened? Shaking his head, nearly falling over as that made his head swim, Ackley glanced around quickly, taking stock.

Daralis was gone, lost in the crowd. Prince Ealdwin was still standing, one gauntlet-covered hand pressed to his own chest, and one of the men near him was pointing directly at Ackley.

Goddamn it.

They probably assumed he’d cast the spell, tried to kill their Crown Prince. They’d kill him.

Ackley moved, stumbling back a few steps and crying out when that made it feel like a giant hand was squeezing his heart. Lifting his head, he met Prince Ealdwin’s eyes, unsurprised to see the grimace twisting his face. Tentatively, Ackley stepped back again, watching Ealdwin wince as the pressure in his chest increased.

Closing his eyes, Ackley tried to pretend that his life hadn’t just completely fallen apart in the span of a minute. Damn Taceo anyway! What the hell had he been thinking, trying to kill the Crown Prince of Morcia?

The crowd of soldiers was starting to mill about restlessly, obviously aware something had happened. And how long would it be before Daralis reappeared to try to finish the attempt on Prince Ealdwin’s life? On Ackley’s life, now, as well. That forced Ackley to move, though he didn’t relish telling the Morcians they were stuck with him for the time being.

One of them was already headed his way, his face twisted furiously. Ackley headed towards him, well aware of the eyes on them. The man was taller than he was, his dark hair cropped close to his head. His armor was well-worn but sturdy, and he looked as though he could break Ackley with his hands without much effort. He also looked as though he’d love to do so, his eyes blazing as he reached Ackley.

“You can’t kill me,” Ackley said, knowing his Morcian accent was atrocious but not particularly caring. “We need to leave.”

Whatever the man had expected, that had obviously not been it. He grabbed Ackley’s arm in a grip that would bruise, shaking him slightly. “What did you do?”

Ackley hesitated, not sure how much he should say at the moment with the restless soldiers itching for a fight, Daralis still lurking somewhere, and the Morcians no doubt eager to spill his blood. “I can explain later—”

Biting back a yelp as the Morcian soldier dragged him towards the Morcian royal party, Ackley stumbled along, trying to keep up and to ignore the way the pressure in his chest eased as they approached Prince Ealdwin. “One wrong move and I’ll have a knife in your chest before you can blink,” the man snarled, glancing around at the crowd that was only getting more restless.

“You can’t kill me,” Ackley snapped, jerking his arm free. “If you do, it will kill him.” He gestured to Prince Ealdwin, who was only slightly shorter than the man who was manhandling Ackley. He looked just as angry, however, and Ackley didn’t doubt he’d signed his own death warrant by intercepting the spell from Daralis. It was only a slight reprieve that they couldn’t kill him immediately.

“What do you mean?” Ealdwin demanded, stepping forward despite the immediate protest of the woman to his left.

“The spell warped when I tried to deflect it,” Ackley said, stumbling over the Morcian words and hoping he was making enough sense to them. “It mutated to link us together. I don’t know how, and I don’t know if he’s coming back to try again.”

“This?” Ealdwin tapped his chest and Ackley nodded, pressing his hand to his chest in the spot where he could feel the slight, lingering echo of the pressure that had blossomed when he’d tried to walk away from Ealdwin.

Ealdwin scowled then glanced behind Ackley to the gathered crowd. He was silent for a long, agonizing moment before gesturing to the woman to his left. “Stay, get them home as quickly as you can. We’ll go ahead. If they engage, give them a fight, but don’t linger.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, and Ackley squashed his curiosity. There were no women in the Skirfall army; they were relegated to the camps that followed the army around. Did the Morcians let their women fight?

“How far?” Ealdwin asked, and it took Ackley a moment to realize the prince was speaking to him.

“How far for what?” Ackley asked,

“How far apart can we be?” Ealdwin clarified, his tone indicating he thought Ackley an idiot for not being able to figure that out.

“I don’t know. Probably not much further than before,” Ackley said, relaxing slightly now it appeared they weren’t going to kill him straight away.

“He’ll ride with me. Camp six, Wymer?” Ealdwin asked, addressing the man who still stood too close to Ackley. At least he hadn’t tried to grab Ackley again.

“I don’t like this,” Wymer growled, still sounding like he’d love to stick a knife or two into Ackley. “Six would be safest.”

“We’ll deal with it then,” Ealdwin said, scanning the crowd again. “Let’s go.”

Ackley gave the field a last look, unsurprised there was no sign of Taceo. Daralis was also nowhere to be found, and Ackley wondered if he’d run or face Taceo after having failed. The only saving grace was that they likely didn’t realize how the spell had warped and therefore wouldn’t know that targeting Ackley would be a way to finish the job.

Wymer shoved him and Ackley stumbled into motion, following after Ealdwin as they headed away from the field. The crowd parted easily before them, and in no time at all they were away from the meadow, heading towards a small group of Morcian soldiers not far away. There were a few dozen horses, saddled and ready, and Ackley stretched his legs to their fullest, trying to keep up with Ealdwin and his entourage.

Ealdwin’s horse was a monster, but Ackley had expected no less. Ealdwin was the Crown Prince of Morcia; one of the requirements was likely a huge horse. It was entirely black and outfitted with armor, but it stood still enough when one of the soldiers brought it to them.

Mounting with little effort, Ealdwin glared at Ackley. Ackley stifled a sigh, hauling himself up into the saddle behind Ealdwin with some effort. He awkwardly wrapped his arms around Ealdwin’s middle, not sure of the etiquette of their particular situation, but not particularly wanting to fall off the horse either. He ignored the scent of leather and horse and something spicy that came from Ealdwin himself.

Camp six, Ackley thought, hoping that it wasn’t too far a ride. Riding was never a joy at the best of times; riding double on a Morcian hellbeast with a man who hated him and would as soon kill him as look at him was going to be a special sort of torture.

Ealdwin nudged the horse into motion, and Ackley held on, shutting his eyes and wishing he’d decided not to go to the memorial ceremony. He couldn’t regret saving Ealdwin’s life—not when the alternative was unending war—but no doubt Morcia would take the attempt as an end to the truce anyway and endless war was going to happen no matter what Ackley had done.

Gritting his teeth, Ackley shoved those thoughts away and focused on his more immediate problem: how was he going to tell the Morcians that he didn’t know how to break the spell?

*~*~*
Camp six turned out to be half a day’s ride away. They stopped briefly to rest the horses once, but Ealdwin didn’t leave his horse’s side and no one tried to talk to either of them. The camp was a sprawling, huge affair. It had to host at least a few thousand soldiers, and Ackley tried to ignore the stares of the men as they rode through the sea of tents.

He was obviously from Skirfall—his skin gave that away clearly. He’d never met a Morcian with the dark skin that was so prevalent in the coastal cities of Skirfall where he’d been born. They were all pale skinned, occasionally tanned from the sun, but that was wholly different. That he was riding with Ealdwin gave them even more reason to gawk, no doubt, and Ackley was entirely unused to being the center of attention.

The royal pavilion was at the center of the camp, the Morcian standards tall and bright in the air above it. Smoke curled from three holes in the top of the canvas, and Ackley hoped the interior was warm. He was tired of the cold. Despite the warmth of riding with someone—and the warmth from the huge horse—his fingers were nearly numb with the cold.

He stumbled getting down from the horse, weathering the stare of the soldier who came to collect Ealdwin’s horse. Ealdwin dragged him into the pavilion without a word, pushing through the flaps of the tent with little care. It was warm, thankfully, and Ackley shivered as the warmth reminded him just how chilly it was outside.

At least he wouldn’t need to worry about what he was doing for the winter. He’d be stuck with Ealdwin—or dead as soon as they figured out the spell. Running a hand through his hair, Ackley moved closer to the fire, watching as Ealdwin stripped off his cloak and walked to the table set up to one side.

The pavilion was as large inside as it had looked from the outside. It was one large room with three small fires burning at equidistant points in the center. There was a large table that looked to seat six spread with maps. A smaller table was covered with paper, likely reports and missives, and Ealdwin was quickly sorting through them all. There were a few chests lining the edges of the tent, but no bed or anything resembling that. Did Ealdwin not sleep here?

Little matter, Ackley decided, stretching his fingers as the fire slowly warmed them. Wymer entered the tent then followed by three others, and Ackley tried not to tense. It looked like the time for explaining had come, and he didn’t doubt this was going to go terribly.

“How do you break it?” Wymer demanded, drawing Ealdwin’s attention from the reports he’d been looking over.

Ackley wasn’t the least bit surprised that was the first question they asked, and how in the world was he going to explain the binding effect to a group of people who hated magic and didn’t know even the basic theories?

“I can’t,” Ackley said, bracing himself for the inevitable accusation of lying. “I don’t know how.”

Wymer stormed across the room, and Ackley stood still despite the very clear indication that he was about to be hit. Wymer didn’t so much as pause when he reached Ackley and smoothly backhanded him. Ackley’s head snapped to the side with the force of the blow and the taste of blood filled his mouth.

“Wymer!” Ealdwin yelled, and Ackley spat the blood in his mouth into the fire, leveling a glare on Wymer. His lip was split, that was obvious, and a quick glance at Ealdwin confirmed that the blow had landed there as well—an identical split in his lower lip, and Wymer stepped back, obviously horrified.

“I told you,” Ackley snapped. “You can’t touch me without touching him!”

“You said kill,” one of the others said, stepping forward. It was another woman, though not the same one as before. “You said we couldn’t kill you, not that we couldn’t harm you.”

“Excuse me for not making the distinction,” Ackley muttered in Skirfall, pulling out a handkerchief and pressing it to his bloody lip.

“Explain everything,” Ealdwin said, stepping up to the side of the fire. “Every detail. Leave nothing out, or I will find some way to punish you for it.”

It wasn’t as though he hadn’t expected threats, Ackley thought morosely, running a hand through his hair again. Crumpling the handkerchief in one hand, he tested the split in his lip with his tongue, making it sting. It didn’t start bleeding again, at least.

“I was there to attend the memorial ceremony,” Ackley said, shrugging. “I noticed one of the mages from Skirfall acting strangely. He tried to cast something and I tried to block it. The result was this.” He gestured back and forth between himself and Ealdwin. “I can’t explain that—I don’t know what he cast, and my magic should have blocked it, not warped it.”

Wymer scoffed. “Your spell was the only one we noticed cast.”

“Because you’re so sensitive to magic that you’d notice every single spell cast?” Ackley asked witheringly. His sensitivity was unusual—it was one of the reasons he’d been recruited to be a magical bodyguard.

“It makes more sense that you cast this spell in some attempt to get close to Prince Ealdwin.” Wymer dodged Ackley’s question.

“Oh, right, because of course I’d love to issue myself a death sentence for what? Oh, you think I’m spying,” Ackley said as the realization hit. The woman’s lips quirked slightly at that, so perhaps she wasn’t as stupid as the others. “Yes, this is totally the best way to do that.”

“Enough,” Ealdwin snapped. “Why can’t you break it?”

“I don’t know how it was cast. I know my part of it, but not what Daralis cast—”

“You know the mage who cast this?” Wymer cut him off again, raising his hand as though to hit Ackley again. “Wymer,” Ealdwin growled. Wymer took several steps back, putting himself near the entrance and far out of reach of Ackley, as though he was unsure he could keep himself from harming Ackley, otherwise.

“I don’t know what Daralis cast, so I don’t know why it warped. Without knowing that, there’s no way to tell how it affected us, past the bond,” Ackley continued after a brief pause. “I have some theories, but I’ve also never heard of this effect actually occurring outside of books.”

“Explain that,” Ealdwin said tersely, his eyes never leaving Ackley.

Ackley swallowed, but refused to cower under Ealdwin’s gaze. “The effects? It’s a binding; it links us together. Whatever physically happens to one of us happens to the other. We can’t go too far apart. That’s all I know.”

“So if you die, he dies,” the woman said. “Does it wear off?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Ackley said. “It might, but spells usually only die when their caster dies.”

“Which isn’t possible in this case, as you are the caster. What happens if you do get too far away from each other?” The woman asked, and Wymer muttered something that Ackley couldn’t catch, as far away as he was.

“I think it kills?” Ackley said, shaking his head. “I’m not sure, but it hurts like hell at the very least.”

“Both of you?” Wymer asked loudly, and Ackley just glared at him.

“Wymer,” Ealdwin said again, as though simply speaking the man’s name would cow him.

“I still think it’s a dirty Skirfall trick,” Wymer said, meeting Ealdwin’s eyes without hesitation. “It’s something they’d do, admit it. This whole thing was a bad idea, didn’t I say so?”

“Yes, Wymer, you’re right, we’re wrong, shut up already,” the woman said, and he finally removed his glare from Ackley to focus it on her instead. The man at her side shifted uneasily, but she seemed unperturbed. “You’ll have to go back to Ellwood.”

“I know,” Ealdwin said, sounding none too happy about it. “I don’t like it.”

“There’s not much else you can do. He’s too much of a liability. You can’t go into battle with a huge target like that on your back,” the woman said, gesturing to Ackley.

He’d have been offended, but she wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t meant for battle, and since killing him would kill Ealdwin, he’d be the best target.

“You’ll come with me, Goldhawk,” Ealdwin said and the woman nodded. “The rest of you will stay here. I want regular missives. We’ll maintain the current strategies—”

“They tried to kill you! We need to retaliate!” Wymer burst out. Ackley favored him with a cold stare, reminded vividly of Taceo and his constant pushing for more battles and retaliation for the smallest, often imagined, slights.

“Do you have a problem with my order, Wymer?” Ealdwin asked, his voice cold and calm. Wymer shut up, turning red. He shook his head, though the set of his jaw clearly bespoke the lie that was. “Good. You’re dismissed.”

Wymer nodded, a single, jerky movement, and then turned and left the tent in a flurry of contained, angry movements. Ealdwin stared after him then turned back to the remaining three in the tent.

“Goldhawk, pick two men to come with us. Keep the party small, get extra horses to travel with us.”

“Is so small a party safe, your highness?” Goldhawk asked, frowning thoughtfully. “It will give us speed, yes, but what if they try again?”

“This far into Morcia?” Ealdwin asked, and Ackley bit back the retort on the tip of his tongue. Taceo had more than once snuck agents at least halfway to Ellwood, but he doubted that knowledge would endear him to the Morcians. Besides, he may have saved the Crown Prince of Morcia, but that didn’t mean he was going to completely turn traitor on Skirfall.

“It’s your life, I guess,” Goldhawk said, a faint smirk curving up one corner of her lips. “I’ll get everything arranged. I assume we leave first thing in the morning?”

Ealdwin nodded then walked away from the fire, making the pressure in Ackley’s chest reappear. Ealdwin had to feel the same, but he showed no sign of it as he drew the remaining two men over to a corner of the tent. Ackley watched Goldhawk leave, and he stepped away from the fire as its heat grew too strong.

He ignored the briefing Ealdwin was obviously giving the other two men, not particularly interested in whatever orders Ealdwin was giving to deal with his absence. How long did he have to live? Probably a few weeks, at least, if not months. Morcia didn’t deal with magic. They’d outlawed it decades ago, claiming it was too dangerous to allow.

That meant there was little chance of anyone but him breaking the spell, and Ackley didn’t even know where to begin with that. He wasn’t a curse-breaker and somehow he doubted that Skirfall would lend any of their curse-breakers to Morcia. He also doubted that Morcia would accept such assistance, anyway, considering that it was a Skirfall mage who had cast the spell in the first place.

Taking a seat at the map table, Ackley ignored the wave of exhaustion that swept over him. Expending all his energy to try and block the spell followed by riding for half a day was not helping him stay alert and ready for the next pitfall fate decided to throw at him.

The pressure in his chest eased up again, and Ackley looked up to find Ealdwin approaching him. His expression was difficult to read, and Ackley tried not to tense. Ealdwin couldn’t hurt him, not without hurting himself, after all, no matter his threats about finding a way to punish Ackley.

“You knew the mage who cast the original spell,” Ealdwin said. He didn’t sit, instead looming above Ackley in an obvious attempt to be intimidating.

“I knew of him,” Ackley corrected, because meeting Daralis and knowing his reputation were a far cry from knowing the man.

“Did he work for the Skirfall Crown?”

That was a loaded question if Ackley had ever heard one. If he confirmed it, that would further the war. If he denied it, they’d assume he was a rogue Skirfall mage and possibly drop their guard.

“I don’t know if he was today,” Ackley said as a compromise, because sure, Daralis might have been working on his own. It was possible, even if it was highly unlikely.

“Don’t lie to me, Skirfall,” Ealdwin said, stepping closer. He leaned over Ackley’s chair, bracing his hands on the back behind Ackley’s shoulders, effectively boxing him into the seat. “I don’t appreciate lies.”

Ackley stared up at him mutinously, not dignifying that with an answer. Ealdwin’s face darkened, and he shoved Ackley’s chair back, making it rock up on the back legs before hitting the ground again with a bang. He didn’t step back, continuing to loom, and his closeness made Ackley nervous despite knowing that Ealdwin couldn’t lay a hand on him.

“Who was he?” Ealdwin demanded, reaching out and grabbing Ackley’s face when he tried to look away. “Who are you?”

“A mage, obviously,” Ackley said, shoving Ealdwin’s hand away and trying not to remember that Ealdwin was a prince. Even a Morcian prince demanded respect, but he couldn’t show deference, not now; Ealdwin would exploit even that small concession.

Ealdwin scoffed, shoving his chair again. It rocked back, hitting the ground and jarring him again. Ackley glared, standing. It put them even closer, though Ealdwin was still able to loom over him since Ackley’s short stature didn’t even begin to compete with Ealdwin’s height and breadth.

“Who was he?” Ealdwin repeated again, grabbing the front of Ackley’s cloak in a grip that Ackley would have no luck breaking.

“A mage,” Ackley repeated, tipping his head mockingly. “That’s all I know.”

“No, that’s all you’ll say,” Ealdwin said, shaking him roughly and then shoving him back. Ackley tripped, landing hard in the seat he’d just abandoned. Scowling, he glared at Ealdwin, but Ealdwin wasn’t paying attention to him any longer, distracted by the pronouncement of someone at the front of the pavilion.

Ackley took the reprieve, taking a deep breath as Ealdwin walked away to meet whoever had arrived. Hopefully Ealdwin would give up on asking him questions—Ackley doubted it would do him any favors to reveal that Daralis was a mage-interrogator for the Skirfall Crown.

His head snapped up when he realized Ealdwin was storming back across the tent towards him, a nervous-looking soldier on his heels. The soldier held shackles, and Ackley’s stomach sank. Of course, why hadn’t he thought they’d bind his hands?

Except, Ackley realized with dawning horror, they weren’t normal shackles. There were runes inscribed on the bracelets—magic, to suppress magic—and he hadn’t even thought of that possibility. Morcia was supposed to hate magic, so it hadn’t occurred to him they’d use magic to bind him completely.

“Stand up,” Ealdwin ordered, and the soldier at his side flinched at the tone. Ackley almost rolled his eyes, but his attention was completely on the shackles.

Standing slowly, shooting Ealdwin a venomous glare, Ackley held out his wrists. Fighting wouldn’t do him any good; Ealdwin could likely restrain him with one arm behind his back and half a day wasn’t enough to replenish any of his magic to fight the only way he knew how. Ealdwin gestured to the soldier, who stepped forward with great reluctance.

Ackley bared his teeth at the soldier, but though he flinched, he still attached the shackles. They burned as they closed around Ackley’s wrists, the ache spreading up his arms, through his chest, and weakening his knees. It hurt, more than he’d thought possible, and the insane pressure in his chest was back, slowly growing. He gasped, falling to his knees, and tried to focus on his breathing instead of succumbing to the urge to pass out.

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