Mystic: Chapter Three

For hundreds of years, high-born nobles have competed for the chance to learn of the Myst. Powerful, revered, and often reclusive, Mystics have the unique ability to summon and manipulate the Myst: the underlying energy that lives at the heart of the universe. Once in a very great while, they take an apprentice, always from the most privileged sects of society. Such has always been the tradition—until a new High Mystic takes her seat and chooses Pomella AnDone, a restless, low-born teenager, as a candidate.

Commoners have never been welcomed among the select few given the opportunity to rise beyond even the highest nobility. So when Pomella chooses to accept the summons and journey to Kelt Apar, she knows that she will have more to contend with than the competition for the apprenticeship. Breaking both law and tradition, Pomella undergoes three trials against the other candidates to prove her worthiness. As the trials unfold, Pomella navigates a deadly world of intolerance and betrayal, unaware that ruthless conspirators intend to make her suffer for having the audacity to seek to unravel the secrets of the Myst.

Available November 3rd from Tor Books, Mystic is the start of an enchanting new epic fantasy series from Jason Denzel! Read chapter three below, or head back to the beginning with our excerpt of chapter one.

 

 

Three
The Mystwood

 

The first day on the southern road proved to be more challenging than Pomella had expected. Her feet ached after the first sprinkling of miles. The waterskin dangling from her belt and the canvas pack across her chest became bulky annoyances.

The sun hung high above the eastern horizon by the time her nerves finally settled from the night’s urgent rush. Pomella found herself frequently glancing back, worrying that her fathir would catch up and drag her home. She wondered how he had reacted when he’d discovered she’d left. A part of her knew she shouldn’t care what he thought, but she couldn’t help it.

But despite her worries and sore feet, the gentle spring morning soothed her. She breathed in the beautiful green countryside. Fir and oak lined both sides of the road, slowly growing in density as she approached the edge of the Mystwood. She spied the Ironlow Mountains to the south, with MagBreckan rising at their westernmost edge, its peak covered in cloud and snow.

By highsun she passed the AnGrey farm where Goodman Danni and Goodness Jhanni were bringing the sheep in for shearing. A pang of apprehension chilled through Pomella. This was the farthest she’d ever been from home, and she worried they might try to stop her from leaving the baron’s land. She detoured on a wide path around them, hoping to remain out of sight.

Past the AnGrey farm, she fished in her pocket for the smooth stone that the Green Man had given her. She examined it up close. It looked like a simple rock that could be found on the village green. Feeling a bit foolish, Pomella tossed it in front of her.

The little stone tumbled to the ground.

But just as it was about to land on the road, an echoing sound like a twirling bird popped from the stone. Pomella jumped in surprise as it rolled upward, lifted through the air, and hovered before her. A soft, green light emanated from it, pulsing as if breathing.

This had to be the Myst!

She reached out a trembling hand. The stone skittered away, just out of reach.

She swallowed. “I-I need to find the ranger who’s waiting for me north of Sentry, please.”

The stone spun like a toy top and zoomed away, heading toward the Mystwood. A grin spread across her face, and she hurried after it.

*   *   *

Her happiness didn’t last. In the late afternoon, heavy clouds pushed up from the south. Rain began to fall, and quick as a luck’n, a heavy torrent turned the road to mud. The wind drove the rain straight at her like a hail of arrows. She thanked the Saints for Bethy’s hooded cloak, and trudged on.

A heavy jangling sounded on the road behind Pomella. She glanced back, and pulled her hood aside to give her a clear view. A handful of mounted soldiers rode toward her. Cold terror gripped Pomella. Each man wore the Baron AnBroke’s gold and green atop his mail armor. The lead soldier carried a spear topped with the baron’s standard, depicting a laurel-crowned harp over emerald treetops.

Without thinking, Pomella sprinted off the road for the cover of the trees. The little guiding stone remained where it was, hovering in place above the road, waiting for her to return. As Pomella crossed the tree line, she looked back at the soldiers. They marched forward, gritting their teeth through the rain. None of them called out or chased after her. Perhaps she’d hidden before they saw her.

Pomella spied a broad oak tree nearby, its leaves fully in bloom, tucked away from the road. Its thick branches reached out like arms offering embrace. She scrambled over and pressed her back to the trunk.

“Lookit this,” said one of the soldiers. “Jagged floating rock.”

“Aye, looks like the Myst to me,” said a second.

Pomella stifled a curse.

“She’s got to be around here. Spread out. Eban, you stay here.”

One of the soldier’s horses whinnied and another clomped its hoof. Heavy boots thumped onto the muddy road. Pomella’s breath came in heavy gasps. Her fathir had been right; they were going to kill her. She was going to be murdered and left to rot in the forest.

Footsteps padded behind her, getting closer. Pomella squeezed her eyes shut. He was going to find her. She prayed silently to Saint Brigid that he’d pass her by. She considered running, but the man was too close now. He’d see her for sure. She wished she didn’t feel so powerless.

She took a trembling step forward, ready to sprint.

“Hey! The rock just dropped!” called the soldier still on the road. Pomella stiffened back up against the tree again, her heart

storming in her chest. The soldier who had been approaching her turned around.

“She can’t be far,” said one of the others.

“Sure she can. She abandoned the spiking rock! She’s probably long gone. C’mon.”

Pomella stood like a statue for several minutes after the soldiers rode away and into the rain. Breathing a sigh of relief, she slipped to the ground and huddled into her cloak, teeth chattering. She drank from her waterskin and ate some vegetables and dried meat before slumping against the oak. She picked at the cloak, trying to think what to do. She didn’t dare go back to the road, even to see if she could find the guiding stone.

She took out Grandmhathir’s Book of Songs, hoping it would soothe her. Her Book of Songs now, she supposed. She opened it to the first page, looking for nothing in particular.

On the inside of the cover was a stylized sketch of a fox, partially concealed by tall grass. Its eyes were rendered so cleanly on the page that Pomella felt they were staring at her. When her gaze slipped away, she thought she glimpsed its tail swish.

Thunder shook the forest. The wind whipped the pages of the book. “Ah, buggerish!” she snapped, closing the book.

Glancing around, she became aware that it wasn’t just raining; it was storming like a shaken honeyhive. The oak tree had sheltered her well, but now the rain slanted in, soaking her.

Something splashed behind her.

Panic gripped her. She stood, spinning around so fast she lost her balance and collapsed. Her heart thundered as she scrambled to her feet again. Her dark hair whipped in front of her eyes, obscuring her vision. She brushed it away.

“Who’s there?” she called.

“Pomella? Relax. It’s me.”

The person in front of her blinked into view.

Sim? What are you doing here?”

“I followed you,” said the tall boy. “To make sure you were safe.” His soaking blond hair dripped onto a plain traveling cloak, the same one he’d had for years. He gripped an iron sword in his right hand.

Clearly you followed me! Sweet Brigid, you scared the buzzards out of me!” Her face warmed. “But as you can see, I’m perfectly safe.”

“Yah, I suppose you are,” he said, looking at her book. “What were you doing?”

“I was just… reading.”

“You shouldn’t be reading about—” He stopped when he saw Pomella’s eyes narrow. “Isn’t it a little… wet to read?” he said instead.

With a frustrated grunt, Pomella snatched The Book of Songs from the soggy grass and brushed it off before the pages could be ruined.

“All right, I’m sorry,” Sim said. “I know reading is important to you. I just don’t understand why you feel you need to read noble runes when you could get in trouble for it. But I’m willing to try.”

Pomella puffed out a strand of wet hair that had fallen across her face. Sim’s presence complicated matters. In a way, she was glad to have him here. She hadn’t expected the road to be so lonely. Or dangerous. And she had to admit there was something comforting about his scruffy face and hair dripping rain. But he was part of her old life. Needed to be. She wasn’t sure if she could begin her time as a Mystic with him around.

“I don’t think you should be here,” Pomella said. “There are soldiers on the road.”

“You left without saying good-bye,” he said, ignoring her warning. “We never got that chance to talk. I have a lot things to say, and—”

Lightning and thunder tore through the sky, right on top of each other. Pomella nearly jumped out of her dress, and even Sim seemed skivered.

Sim scratched his head. “Besides, it’s not right for anybody to travel alone.”

“Then why are you traveling alone?”

He grinned that winning smile of his. “I knew I’d catch up to you soon enough.”

Pomella bit her lip. “I’m not going home. You’ll become Unclaimed if you leave the barony, so don’t try to—”

“I’m not trying anything,” he said, stepping forward. “And I won’t leave the barony. I’ll only escort you to Sentry.”

“I had an escort. Can you put that sword away?” Pomella asked, uneasy with it pointing in her general direction. “Where’d you get it, anyway?”

“Fathir forged it for Bethilla. For the play last night. It’s supposed to be Dauntless, Saint Brigid’s sword. I think it was going to be a gift for the baron.”

Pomella raised an eyebrow. “But?”

“But I… borrowed it.”

“Do they know you ‘borrowed’ it?”

Sim replied, but Pomella didn’t hear it. Twenty feet away, just over Sim’s shoulder, a silver fox sat in the underbrush. It appeared semi-translucent, with fine silver dust smoking off of it. It swished its tail and yawned.

“Sim, look.”

“Look at what?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.

“I’m going to follow it.”

“Follow what?”

She brushed past him. The fox looked exactly like the one she’d seen on the inside cover of her book.

Seeing her, the animal quirked its head and stood, then scampered into the forest. She ran after it, not waiting for Sim to snatch up the rest of her gear and follow.

“What are we doing?” he asked when he caught up to her, out of breath.

“Don’t you see it? The silver fox?”

“I don’t see anything.”

The fox burst from a bush and darted away. Pomella ran after it.

“Wait, Pomella! Come back!” Sim cried, hurrying after her.

She raced through the trees. Sim followed somewhere behind her. “Is this a Mystic thing?” he called.

The fox scurried around a tree just as another silver animal jumped from a nearby bush. A rabbit tore across the water, leaving wispy smoking light in its path. The surface of the puddle didn’t ripple.

Sim caught up to her, panting. “What’s the matter with you?”

“I saw a silver rabbit! It was wispy and like vapor. It just… ugh!”

He looked at her like she was saying it rained cows. “Are these animals like the ones you used to see?”

“Yes. I mean, maybe. Shite! I don’t know. I lost the jagged fox and—”

The forest spun as a force of green and gold crashed into Pomella. She thought she heard Sim scream, but if he had, it was drowned out by the pounding in her ears. A heavy figure with sharp metal bits of armor pinned her to the ground.

“Get the other one!” the man on top of her screamed.

The baron’s soldiers.

Pomella flailed as panic took her. The man who’d knocked her down held her hard by the wrists. She snarled at him, and heaved her whole body, trying to throw him off. But the soldier just glared at her behind a long, red mustache.

“Pomella!” Sim called.

Pomella whipped her head in his direction and saw him staggering to his feet, sword in hand. Another soldier knelt beside Sim on the ground, screaming and clutching his face with two hands. Blood oozed out from between his fingers. By the Saints, had Sim stabbed the man?

“Jagged Eban!” the soldier holding Pomella said. Screaming, Sim threw a punch at the man with his free hand. The soldier lifted himself off Pomella and dove for Sim’s legs before the blow could land.

They landed in a tumbling pile of limbs. Pomella scrambled away from them and found her feet.

“Don’t hurt him!” Pomella screamed, but wasn’t sure which man she meant it for. Maybe both. Her mind raced. The soldier might be within his legal right to strike Sim down. But if Sim hurt the soldier—or, worse, killed him—his life would be forfeit as well.

The two men clawed for control of the sword. Pomella’s eyes spied a thick branch on the ground. She snatched it up and hoisted it above her head. Maybe she could get a clean shot at the soldier.

Lightning and thunder roared around them. Pomella jumped, dropping the stick. Jagged shite! She bent to pick it up, and a low growl froze Pomella’s heart. She tracked the sound to a spot behind her and felt her remaining sliver of courage drain.

Three wolves, each glowing with the same misty smoke as the fox and rabbit, stepped toward them, hackles raised and bodies tense. They stood as tall as her chest, covered with angry scars and missing tufts of fur. She could almost see through them, as if they were shadowy dreams made of silver light. The rain fell right through them, leaving their scarred bodies dry.

“Sim!” she called, forgetting for a moment that he was struggling for his life. “Tell me you see those!”

One of the wolves jumped forward and snarled, ripping the air with its teeth.

She must’ve diverted Sim’s attention, because she heard him cry out. She dared to dart her gaze at him. The soldier had Sim pinned to the ground, belly down, with his knees driven into his back. He held the sword up high, tip pointed down, aimed for Sim’s back.

Torn between the misty wolves and murderous soldier, Pomella screamed, “No, please! Don’t hurt him!”

“It’s you the baron wants, girl. This boy bloodied my friend.”

The panic in Pomella overwhelmed her. She screamed and threw the tree branch at the soldier.

In that same moment, the wolves charged.

Pomella ducked and covered her head. She felt a cold presence rush by her, and heard the soldier scream.

Ripping her gaze in that direction, she saw the wolves tearing at the man’s face. He screamed and swung his arms wildly, as the strange, translucent creatures somehow bore him to the ground.

Sim scrambled away, his eyes wide with surprise.

Pomella snatched up her Book of Songs, ran to Sim, and pulled him into a run.

Behind her, two of the wolves growled and gave chase. “Run, Sim!”

Pomella sprinted as fast as her panicked legs could carry her. She clutched The Book of Songs to her chest. She imagined the creatures tearing her apart, and prayed she didn’t trip.

The ground sloped upward. She heard the rush of water coming from beyond a ridgeline ahead. She looked back over her shoulder just as the wolves charged past Sim, staying wide of him, perhaps because of his sword. The creatures bore down on her. A river came into view, its water flooded nearly to the top of the bank.

With the lead wolf just breaths behind her, she closed her eyes and leaped. As she flew through the air, arms and legs flailing, she heard Sim scream her name.

The bone-cold water rushed around her, filling her nose and mouth. Her cloak pulled at her, tangling her feet as she kicked to the surface. Somehow she managed to fling The Book of Songs as far as she could onto the bank and watched it crash into a bush.

Her arms free, she balanced herself in the water and swam with the current. Sim ran after her, following her along the ridge. The wolves were nowhere to be seen.

She stroked her way as best she could toward the shore, actually grateful to her fathir for something. Living near the floodprone Creekwaters, he’d insisted that she and Gabor become strong swimmers.

Grabbing hold of a heavy tree branch dangling into the water, she held tight until Sim rushed up and pulled her to safety. He threw his arms around her.

“What in the name of the jagged Saints were you thinking? You nearly drowned!” He yanked her soaking cloak off and wiped her hair from her face.

Pomella looked around to be sure there weren’t any wolves nearby. Perhaps they’d given up when she leaped into the water.

“Did you see them?” she gasped. “The wolves?”

Sim’s eyes widened and he looked around, suddenly tense again.

Pomella’s heart sank. “There were three giant wolves jawing at us. One of them almost got me. Didn’t you see them attack the soldier?”

She could see them plainly in her memory, though they’d seemed only half-present, as if they were made from the light of a thousand lantern bugs. The rain had fallen right through them.…

Sim shook his head and sighed. “It all happened so fast,” he said, handing her the canvas sack containing her food and clothing. “I didn’t see them, but I believe you. What do you want to do now?”

“I-I don’t know,” she confessed. “I lost my book. We should go back to find it.”

Sim held up a hand. “No. If you said those things were real, and you want me to take it seriously, then I’m going to treat them that way. We’re not going back to where they were. Besides, those soldiers could still be looking for us.”

Somehow, Pomella doubted the soldiers would be looking for them anytime soon. “That book is important to me, Sim. I’m going to find it.”

“You can’t have it both ways, Pomella!” Sim said. “We’re in the middle of a jagged storm and standing beside a rapidly rising river. We need shelter. If those wolves really are a danger, I don’t know how we can defend ourselves.”

Pomella bit her lip and picked a fingernail.

He sighed again and scratched his hair. “I’m sorry. It’s just that you’re asking me to trust you. I’m trying. Now do this for me. Please? We can look for your book later.”

She twisted her fingers, not knowing what to do. Swallowing, she finally nodded and followed his lead, hardly noticing where they went. Fleeing from the silver wolves had obliterated all sense of direction for her, and storm clouds concealed the sun’s position. She distracted herself from the sadness of losing the book by shaking out her soaking cloak before draping it back on.

Darkness crept across the forest. They walked in silence through the woods, Sim leading the way. Pomella watched him, still not really believing that he’d followed her. It comforted her to have somebody else with her in case she ran into more trouble, but Sim brought a bundle of confusion with him. He cared about her, and tried so hard to show his affections.

Sim gestured. “There,” he said, pointing to a structure up ahead. They approached a small gazebo set on the high point of the ridge looking far down onto the river below. A decrepit curved roof sat atop crumbling walls made of stone. Sim drew his sword as they approached.

Overgrown ivy clawed its way through the ruined structure. Gaping holes yawned where the roof had tumbled away. A twisted oak pushed against the foundation, shoving it aside with the bulk of its many years. Pomella peered inside.

An old shrine rested against one of the inner gazebo walls. A moss-covered statue of Saint Brigid stood above offerings that had rotted long ago.

A damp emptiness filled the old shrine. The quiet patter of rain lulled Pomella’s senses. Sim slipped beside her and peered in. “Looks dry enough for our purposes,” he said. “Come on.”

Moving around to the entrance, he gestured for her to go first. She brushed past him, across the threshold.

With a thunderous rush of wings, a cluster of flapping birds startled her from above. Pomella ducked as she stepped farther into the shrine.

The rotten floor shattered. She cried out as she fell. Sim dove for her, but he tumbled down, too. She bounced once against a stone wall, then hit muddy ground, losing her wind. For a panicked moment, the world spun around her. Her ribs ached, and she prayed they weren’t cracked. Pushing herself to her knees, she found her breath and stood up. High above them, perhaps twenty feet, loomed a gaping hole. Three robins circled the inside of the roof before settling back into their nest. Soft feathers floated down.

Sim groaned and pushed himself up. His sword lay in the mud a short distance away. Pomella thanked the Saints neither of them had landed on it.

“Are you all right?” she asked. She fingered her filthy cloak, which had once been green and beautiful.

Sim nodded, and they wiped themselves off. They stood at the bottom of what appeared to be a ruined stairwell. Broken steps had once spiraled the outer walls, but most were cracked now and unusable.

“I’m going to try and climb out,” Sim said. “Here, hold this.” He scooped up his sword and shook the dirt off before handing it to her. He found a foothold and began climbing. He’d only managed to get maybe four or five feet up when he slipped and fell.

He cursed. “It’s too steep.”

Pomella pulled her cloak tighter. Gazing up, she looked for anything that could help. Only rain fell through the gaping hole in the roof.

As Sim tried to climb again, Pomella searched around the pit but found nothing other than mud, stones, and a muddy mouse hole. “It’s going to be dark soon. We should try and set some kind of camp for the night.”

They found a small area in the pit partially covered by the meager roof overhead. Their cloaks kept them from freezing, yet Pomella’s teeth began to chatter as night set in. The rain slowed, and increased again, cycling back and forth as the evening wore on. She adjusted her cloak, trying to prevent the rain from soaking her skin.

Sim leaned against the wall next to her.

Pomella rolled her head toward him and managed a grin. “Those soldiers were a bunch of buzzard bastards.”

Sim grinned and rubbed his chest. “That one rammed me pretty hard.” His eyes flicked to Pomella, then looked away. “I’m sorry for any trouble I caused by coming.”

“No, Sim, don’t. I would have been arrested if you—”

Sim held up a hand. “We helped each other. But even before that attack happened, you were right. Sometimes I push too hard. It’s just that… that I care for you. A lot. This whole invitation from the High Mystic just doesn’t make any sense. I feel like… like…” He wilted.

The heavy rain had stopped, replaced by a gentle misting. “Like what?” Pomella asked.

“Like I’ve only just begun to get to know you, and now you’re leaving.”

Pomella stared at the mud between her feet. “I don’t see why you like me. I just get into one disaster after another.”

“Don’t be so harsh on yourself,” Sim said. “You’re great at a lot of things.”

“I don’t feel like I am.”

“The High Mystic seems to think you are.”

Pomella kept her silence, not wanting to get into why she thought she was doomed to fail at the Trials. She stirred the mud with her fingers.

“Why do you want to do this?” Sim said.

“Do what?”

“Become a Mystic?”

A swarm of reasons buzzed into Pomella’s mind. She wanted to become a Mystic because she loved nature. Because her grandmhathir’s stories of the Myst resonated with her. Because she wanted to understand why she saw silver animals in her garden and in the forest. Because she didn’t want to let down all the people who’d tied their knots into her Common Cord. And because, sometimes, something called to her heart, challenging her to look at the world in a different way.

But mostly, she wanted to become a Mystic because if she didn’t, she’d be denying herself. Somehow, she just knew that was true.

“I just do,” she mumbled.

The rain eased up, and a few stars managed to poke their way through the thick clouds. Pomella pulled her cloak tighter and began to hum, glad to have some outlet for her emotions. She thought of the song she’d sung the previous night, one of the familiar ones she’d found in The Book of Songs. Lifting her voice, Pomella sang it, filling the cold pit with lingering words and feeling.

“Hope drowns
Amid no sound
Fear claims
What faith can’t reach
But I carry strength from you
Now gone
Don’t let me give in.…

“I will never leave you
We’ll share
The mountains and fate
Turn my heart to rain
And I will illuminate
I will illuminate
The sky”

As she sang, lantern bugs blossomed in front of her, little tiny pricks of golden light that faded in and out like soft breath. More and more appeared as if they danced to her song.

She sensed Sim watching her through the tiny lights as she began the final stanza.

“Parting will never leave us alone
Crush fate once set in stone
Turn my heart to rain
And I will illuminate
I will illuminate
Tonight”

When the song finally faded, she found her face floating near Sim’s. She hadn’t realized that she’d been leaning closer and closer to him. Her heart thundered, but her hands were surprisingly steady.

Pomella thought she could hear Sim’s heart beating, too. She had so much to say to him, so much feeling inside that needed to be let out. She wanted to tell him that she cared for him, too. That she was glad he was here with her. That, if she had to be chased by soldiers and silver wolves, and trapped in a mud pit, he’d be the one person whose company she wouldn’t mind.

Sim leaned in to cross the final inch between them, but she turned her head. How did she tell him? He was part of her old life. He was home. And right now, it was time to leave home. If she was going to commit to the possibility of becoming a Mystic, there would be no place for him.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” she whispered.

The lantern bugs vanished, the clouds obscured the stars, and the rain began anew. Sim’s hand found hers, and she gripped it back, hard.

Excerpted from Mystic © Jason Denzel, 2015

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