The gong rang out, crashing through the cold evening air as if it were the metal hand of a god calling for its human sacrifice. Even though it stood a block away at the center of the town square, the sound struck Kaor Hund as if somebody had punched him in the gut, knocking the air out of his lungs. It reverberated through his head, down his back, and into his spine, causing his feet and other extremities to tingle with nervous energy.
He was hit with an even worse shock when he saw that his hands glowed.
Didn’t I let go of the light? Kaor asked himself, shaking his free hand as if to get rid of it, which, of course, didn’t do any good. I only called it for a moment. Surely, I let it go? I didn’t even call much. It shouldn’t have been noticeable. He tore through his memory, but it was already foggy, so focused he had been on Leah Canes.
How many kinds a fool am I?
Beside him, Leah had a similar reaction when the brassy note slammed through what had been a calm evening. She turned to Kaor, wide-eyed and mouth moving without words. The setting sun peeked out of the gray winter clouds, through the falling snow, and highlighted her dark hair as her hand crushed his.
Her eyes narrowed at the sight of his luminescent fingers interlocked with hers.
“What have you done?” Leah asked in a hoarse whisper, releasing his hand and pressing the flower back into his. “I told you not to mess with the flower. You’ve killed us both.” Her eyes grew wide and she took a step away from him, her hand going to her mouth in an exaggerated gesture.
Kaor recognized she was acting surprised for the benefit of anybody watching.
Multo’s mother. He would never hear the end of this.
No, that wasn’t true. They would never again have a private conversation.
He had to run. It was the only choice he had.
No! Kaor thought, refusing to just leave behind all he knew. He had too much invested in Leah to flee without trying to convince her to come with him.
“We don’t know this is about me,” Kaor whispered, “it could be for somebody else.”
“Nobody is going to miss your hands,” Leah hissed quietly, keeping her own hands to her face to cover her lips. She took another step back. Were those tears trickling down her cheeks? Or melting snow? She was a much better actor than he’d given her credit for if they were real. “Let go of the light, now! Run!”
Kaor licked his lips while glancing around, hoping nobody but Leah had noticed his mistake. The street had been empty moments before, but the gong always drew curious eyes.
Eyes that now looked at him.
Even though it was futile, Kaor thrust both hands into his jacket pockets, crushing the flower as he did, but that didn’t help. The light emanated from his hands and through the threadbare fabric.
Why can’t I let go? Kaor wondered. He couldn’t even feel the light. He knew he should have worn his winter coat.
A man cried out, drawing Kaor’s eyes ahead of them.
“He’s over there!” The man pointed a finger in Kaor’s direction. “Right there!” He pulled out a knife and held it out as if afraid Kaor would attack.
“No, this is wrong,” Kaor muttered. He pulled out his own much larger knife, his cursed hand still glowing. Try as he might, he could not release the light. It had a mind of its own.
The thick blade gave him cold comfort, but it was better than nothing. Tommer had made it for a customer who hadn’t been able to pay. Kaor had saved for a summer to buy the blade from the blacksmith. It was nearly a foot and a half long—hardly a sword—but the hefty weight was better than nothing, especially with the mob that was forming. “No, no, no! There has to be a way out of this.” He looked at the man, who he recognized now as a traveling merchant. “I don’t have control over this. This isn’t me.”
The man stepped back at the sight of Kaor’s knife but made no other move to retreat. Indeed, as more joined him on the street, the man had less to fear.
“Drop your knife. It will go better for you.”
East Ridge was Kaor’s home. He didn’t want to run. He wanted to fight. He wanted to stay. It was unfair he should be killed because he could wield the light like a mage.
Why was that a reason to kill him?
“I’m sorry,” Leah whispered. It was just audible, and her lips barely moved. “I am so sorry. You know what I have to do.”
“Come with me!” Kaor knew her answer but couldn’t help asking. “We’ll go together.”
“Not like this. No.” She took a step back.
He looked into her eyes, wondering what he’d do if the situation were reversed. He’d run with her, wouldn’t he?
Until Ruc stuck a spear in my back, he thought.
Leah screamed and pointed a finger at Kaor.